Mazin (who also directed the episode) and Druckmann spend a lot more time than one might expect with these three characters in Austin, given that their story’s primary action is set 20 years later and hundreds of miles away — and especially given that Sarah does not survive the day. Most of the Texas scenes are from Sarah’s point of view, too, although there are sly hints throughout that something bigger is happening. In one scene we hear radio reports about “disturbances in Jakarta.” In another, the next door neighbors’ grandmother twitches in the background, her mouth gaping unnervingly wide.
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The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
The Austin sequence matters, though, and not only because it grabs the viewer with some thrillingly chaotic spectacle. By the time we leave 2003 — with Sarah laying dead from a soldier’s bullet and Joel emotionally wrecked — we have learned some plot-relevant details. We know that humans all over the world are becoming infected with something that turns them into ferociously violent savages. We see during the escape that Joel is willing to ignore other people’s suffering, or even to inflict harm wantonly, in order to protect himself and his family. And we discover that the government’s response to this crisis can be as destructive as the crisis itself.
A short scene before the opening credits is just as important. Set in 1968, the prologue features a TV interview with a scientist who explains that his greatest fear isn’t a “global pandemic” (a term that, in a moment of dark humor from Mazin and Druckmann, is defined by another guest for the blissfully ignorant ’60s audience) but rather a mind-controlling fungus that could one day thrive on a warming planet, turning humans into fiends. This, put concisely, is what the characters in “The Last of Us” are going to be dealing with: “Billions of puppets with poisoned minds.”
But as Romero showed over and over again with his zombie pictures, it isn’t always the infected alone who turn monstrous. The second half of this first episode takes us to the overgrown ruins of Boston in 2023, where in a “quarantine zone” Joel is taking odd jobs — some legal, some not. He does general cleanup work for the same kind of gun-toting authoritarians who killed his kid. (In 2023, they are called “FEDRA,” for the Federal Disaster Response Agency.) And he smuggles drugs with his business and romantic partner, Tess (played by the magnificent Anna Torv, beloved of science-fiction/fantasy/horror fans from her days on “Fringe”). They are trying to scrape together enough money to buy a battery and a truck so they can reunite with the still-alive and possibly endangered Tommy in the wilds of America, where the danger of the fungus creatures is rivaled by the viciousness of roving noninfected gangs. Nowhere, it seems, is safe.
If the last half of the pilot is less exciting than the first, it also has to do the hard work of setting up the rest of the series. Beyond establishing the miserable conditions of 2023, Mazin and Druckmann must introduce the show’s other leading character: Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a feisty 14-year-old who is the only known person to survive an infection — and, hence, could be the key to saving humanity. When Joel and Tess’s truck battery plan goes awry, they take an assignment from the anti-FEDRA resistance fighter Marlene (Merle Dandridge) to shepherd Ellie to one of the safe houses of her organization, the Fireflies. So the real story begins.