It’s day one in America. September 26, 2003, and a girl named Sarah wakes in her suburban Austin home to the searchlights of military choppers. Her dad, Joel, is gone; the TV is blaring a national emergency warning. The neighbor’s dog starts scratching on the window. Sarah goes to the house across the street and steps in a trail of smeared blood in the kitchen. Following its line, she finds the elderly mother of her neighbor Connie hunched on all fours, Connie’s throat between her teeth. Sarah races outside and the mother chases her, jerked along as if on puppet strings. Just in time, Joel screeches up in a truck with her uncle Tommy and beats the mother’s head in with a wrench. As Sarah, Joel, and Tommy escape in their pickup, a house burns on the horizon. “Everybody had the same fucking idea,” Tommy says as cars cram the highways.
As Joel and Sarah soon learn, billions of individuals have become infected by a parasitic fungus that turns them into vicious zombie-like husks who bite their prey to multiply. By the time the father and daughter pull into downtown Austin, the “infected” swarm the streets. A plane falls out of the sky; their car flips in the explosion. Sarah’s ankle is broken. Joel carries her through a diner while the infected give chase. The pair finally reach a soldier, who asks if they are sick. Then, following orders, he opens fire on them, killing Sarah.
This is the riveting opening to HBO’s new show, The Last of Us. But to the numerous fans of the PlayStation game of the same name released by Naughty Dog in 2013, the sequence is already iconic. More than that, it’s personal. They’ve padded around that quiet suburban home. They’ve watched that neighbor’s house burn. As Joel, they’ve pulled Sarah from the wreck and carried her down alleys and streets as hordes of infected lurched closer. And they’ve watched her die. The game goes on to follow Joel and Ellie, a young girl he’s tasked with protecting years later. She is the one human immune to infection and therefore the key to ending the pandemic. The game has sold more than 17 million copies; a sequel sold 4 million in its first week, a triumph for a title released at the height of Covid-19.
The opening of the game is a technical miracle. Naughty Dog filmed motion-capture performances from real actors to put tangible veneration in Joel’s and Sarah’s eyes, and it gave the characters movie-worthy dialog. The game’s world was designed to create players feel like they’d walked into a movie about the first day of the apocalypse: They can explore every angle of a scene and find nothing artificial.
The TV adaptation—cocreated by Neil Druckmann, who made the game, and Craig Mazin, the mind behind Chernobyl—translates the famous opening faithfully, maintaining the tension and horror of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Sarah (Nico Parker)’s attempted escape. Their terror is note-perfect. The sequence is heightened by scenes that wouldn’t work in a game but show us what Joel and Sarah’s lives were like before the world started to fall apart.