'The Last of Us' Episode 1 recap: The beginning of the apocalypse

In the premiere episode titled "When You're Lost in the Darkness," we get a glimpse into the life of Pedro Pascal's character as the apocalypse was just starting

The Last of Us premiere episode wastes no time getting into the grim, the heartbreaking and the gruesome for the new HBO series, based on the popular PlayStation video game.

Starring Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Merle Dandridge and Anna Torv, the first episode gives us a glimpse into the world before the apocalypse, caused by Cordyceps fungus infecting humans, and sets the groundwork for what leads smuggler Joel (Pascal) on a journey to get 14-year-old orphan Ellie (Ramsey) out of the post-apocalyptic quarantine zone.

Here's everything you need to know from Episode 1 of HBO's The Last of Us (spoilers ahead):

The season starts off in 1968, with two epidemiologists discussing concerns around a possible “global pandemic,” with one referencing air travel as a way a virus, similar to influenza, could spread across the world (a very close-to-home discussion in 2023).

"A new virus in Madagascar, say, could be in Chicago within a matter of weeks and we end up with a global pandemic," one doctor says.

But the other epidemiologist, Dr. Neuman, is less concerned about a viral pandemic.

"Mankind has been at war with a virus from the start," he says. "Sometimes millions of people die, as in an actual war, but in the end we always win."

Neuman is more concerned about fungus, specifically one that can get into human brains where the goal is to infect all humankind.

“Billions of puppets with poisoned minds,” he describes. “Permanently fixed on one unifying goal, to spread the infection to every last human alive, by any means necessary.”

“And there are no treatments for this,…it’s not even possible to make them... We lose."

Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us (Shane Harvey/HBO)
Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us (Shane Harvey/HBO)

Fast forward to 2003, where we meet Joel (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) and Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna).

It’s Joel’s birthday, so his daughter decides to get an old watch fixed for him as a gift. While she goes out to do that, there is a lot of police around and for some reason, the watch repair shop tries to rush her out quickly. The first sign that something suspicious is happening.

That night, Joel gets a call that he needs to bail his brother out of jail. Sarah wakes up in the middle of night, alone, to helicopter sounds, cars screeching and a bright green light coming through her window. She turns on the TV and sees an advisory for everyone to stay inside.

Not exactly following that advice, Sarah goes outside when she sees the neighbour's dog Mercy at the window. Sarah tries to take the dog home but Mercy runs away. Entering her neighbour’s house, Sarah hears what sounds like pots banging and sees a trail of blood, which leads to her elderly neighbour Mrs. Adler. The old woman has turned into a zombie-like creature and has killed her family members.

Sarah runs outside, followed by her now monster-like neighbour, just as Joel and Tommy pull up. Joel kills the elderly woman and the three of them drive away. Joel and Tommy say it's not just the Adler family this has happened to, there is some kind of parasite that’s infected mostly people in the city, or people who went to the city more frequently.

Now we're in a full-blown disaster zone. Humans who have turned into monsters are on the loose, attacking the uninfected and multiplying. Entire streets are on fire and everything, from stores to cars, are being destroyed.

As officials try to kill off any infected people, Sarah becomes a casualty.

Joel pleads to an officer that he and his daughter aren't infected. Tommy shoots the man, who had his gun pointed at Joel, but Sarah gets hit by a bullet, which kills her and she dies in her father's arms. This is just the first of many heartbreaking moments you can expect in The Last of Us series.

Anna Torv and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)
Anna Torv and Pedro Pascal in HBO's The Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Introduction of the post-apocalyptic world

The timeline then moves 20 years later, now in the post-apocalyptic Boston.

Everything is worn, destroyed and there are signs posted everywhere warning about Cordyceps infection. Depending on symptoms, a mark on a leg or arm, or migrating to the face and neck, a human can transform into a monster in anywhere from five minutes to 24 hours.

Bodies are being burned, there is a curfew between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., "to fight infection and insurrection," and ration cards are being used to buy things like shoe laces.

Anyone found leaving the quarantine zone unauthorized, or unauthorized entry into the zone, is executed.

Here we see Joel again, now a smuggler who is making deals and trading drugs with a Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA) officer for ration cards and supplies, and trying to get access to a vehicle to escape the quarantine zone. Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) want to go to Wyoming to search for his brother Tommy, after losing communication with him for weeks.

Merle Dandridge and Natasha Mumba in HBO's The Last of Us (HBO)
Merle Dandridge and Natasha Mumba in HBO's The Last of Us (HBO)

Alongside Joel’s quest, Marlene (Merle Dandridge) is the leader of the resistance, called the Fireflies. She is secretly hiding a 14-year-old orphan, who is initially referred to as Veronica. Her name is actually Ellie (Bella Ramsey).

Ellie is sarcastic and has a quick wit far beyond what you would expect of a 14-year-old. She's only known a world that is Cordyceps-infected.

A student at the FEDRA military school since she was young, Ellie finds out that Marlene was the one who put her there, to keep her safe.

"You have a greater purpose than any of us could have imagined," Marlene tells Ellie.

Marlene has a plan to get Ellie out of the quarantine zone that night.

Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv in HBO's The Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)
Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv in HBO's The Last of Us (Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Joel and Tess end up in the building holding Marlene’s operation while tracing a car battery that they paid for, but it was given to Marlene instead. There's some bad blood between Joel and Marlene, with Joel saying that she turned his own brother against him. When Joel and Tess come face-to-face with Marlene, she has a proposition for them.

In exchange for Joel and Tess getting Ellie to the team of Fireflies waiting for her, Marlene will make sure the pair get a truck and any supplies they want.

Reluctantly agreeing to the terms, the episode ends with nail-biting scene as Joel, Tess and Ellie try to escape, almost being shot by the FEDRA officer Joel had been making deals with. As the officer points a gun at them, Joel gets a flashback to his daughter's murder, and attacks the officer.

In the chaos, Tess and Joel see that Ellie has a mark on her arm, proving that she's been bitten by one of the infected monsters. But they don't have time to ask questions and all three of them continue to run.

To close out the episode, the 1987 Depeche Mode track "Never Let Me Down Again" plays through Joel's radio in the refuge apartment that Joel, Tess and Ellie were in before they made their escape. When 1980s music is played through that device, that means two other smugglers, Bill and Frank, have encountered trouble, which means danger is ahead.

That’s where The Last of Us journey really begins, as we wait to see why Ellie is so important to Marlene's operation, and if Joel and Tess have just walked into more danger with an infected teen.