‘The Last Of Us’ Episode 1: Recap And Ending, Explained – How Did Joel And Ellie’s World Collide? Is She Infected?


Ever since HBO first announced that a TV series based on Naughty Dog’s acclaimed 2013 video game “The Last of Us” was in the works, a lot of people have been waiting with bated breath. HBO’s “The Last of Us” has finally arrived, and that too with great aplomb and promise. While the video game series definitely provides one of the best experiences in the genre, the new TV show is brilliantly detailed and a remarkable creation of its own. The first episode takes its time to establish the world, the characters, and the personal ties that are going to bind the series together in future episodes. It was indeed the emotional and interpersonal relationships that made the video game such an immense critical success, and if it continues as it has started, HBO’s “The Last of Us” is going to be no different.

Spoilers Ahead

What Happens In ‘The Last of Us’ Episode 1?

In 1968, a television chat show was being shot inside a packed studio, with the topic of debate being the nature of diseases in the future. The interviewer-talk-show host takes a turn speaking to two scientists with opposing opinions about the topic. One of them claims that humankind faces the greatest risk from a contagious virus that could be easily transmitted globally through international air travel, resulting in a pandemic. The other scientist, though, claims that what could be deadlier than viruses is fungi, for fungi have a controlling effect on their host bodies. If the world were to get hotter, the scientist warns, it could possibly result in a plague where fungi burrow into human bodies and take control of their minds, turning them into mindless zombie-like creatures with a single agenda: to infect the whole world.

Around thirty-five years later, in 2003, this foreboding seemed to be coming true. In Austin, Texas, Sarah Miller is a young girl in her teenage years. Despite her comparatively young age, Sarah is used to taking on the responsibilities of the house. With only her single father, Joel, as her companion, Sarah somehow runs the house and keeps things in place. Sarah was quite excited as it was the 26th of September, i.e., Joel’s birthday. The young girl wants to celebrate it with a birthday cake, but Joel soon informs her that he and his brother Tommy will have to work double shifts to complete the construction work they are involved in at the time. After school, Sarah takes a bus to the main city, which is some distance from their neighborhood, and visits a watch store to get a present for her dad. She had noticed that Joel’s watch had stopped working, so she got this watch fixed as a birthday gift for him. She then also visits their elderly neighbors, the Adlers, with whom Sarah seems to have spent a lot of time growing up when her father was not home. But something seemed off about the whole day—there were more police cars than usual, the Adlers’ dog was extremely scared about something, and in the evening, the TV news showed that there had been more counts of violence in the city than usual.

When Joel returns home, it is already ten at night, and he has also forgotten to bring any cake. Any plans for celebrations have to be put away, and Sarah instead just gives Joel his repaired watch and also one of his favorite film DVDs. Later that night, Joel receives a call from Tommy to help him bail out of prison, where he has landed for a small bar fight. Joel leaves the house after putting Sarah to bed. Sarah wakes up after some time, disturbed by the loud noises of flares and sirens. She turns on the TV to find a national emergency alert being broadcasted and is then startled by her neighbor’s dog, which seems to ask for help. With no idea about what is going on, Sarah tries taking the dog back into the Adler house, but the animal instead flees out of fright. It is only when Sarah enters the place that she realizes what the dog was scared of—the elderly couple who lived in the house were both gravely injured and dying, while the paralyzed grandma was now seemingly biting into her daughter-in-law’s neck. Sarah immediately runs out of the house but alerts the infected woman, who now gives her a chase with ominous fungal tendrils sticking out of her mouth. Just around this time, Joel rushes in with his car, and Tommy is also beside him with a rifle in his hands. The two men now reveal that some sort of infection was turning humans into aggressive zombie-like creatures, and it was mostly the city people who were getting infected.

With no clue as to whether any of them were infected, Joel and Tommy try to come up with an escape plan that involves driving away from the city and possibly the state too. But army roadblocks and stalled traffic make them take multiple diversion routes, and ultimately, they have to make their way through the main city streets. It is here that disaster strikes even worse, as a plane crash gets them all injured, and their car damaged beyond repair. Joel now desperately carries an injured Sarah in his arms while Tommy tries to fend off any danger but soon gets separated from the two. An infected man now tries to attack Joel and Sarah, only to be killed off by army personnel, who then stop Joel in his tracks. In this time of emergency, the army has no way of understanding who is infected and who isn’t, and it does not want to take any chances at all. The soldier is ordered to kill any humans found, and he starts to shoot at the protagonists right when Joel starts to run. Tommy arrives on the scene at this exact moment and kills the soldier, but the damage has already been done. Although Joel is not terribly injured, Sarah has been shot fatally. As the father desperately tries to help his daughter out in any way he can, Sarah succumbs to her injuries.

Twenty years have passed since then—the year 2023—and the world has become a very different place. Nature and wilderness had claimed most parts of the civilized spaces, and the remaining humans now lived inside heavily guarded quarantine zones. The number of infected has drastically risen, and they continue to mindlessly swarm toward humans to keep increasing their numbers and spreading the fungus that controls them all. A military unit named the Federal Disaster Response Agency, or FEDRA, has now taken over the governance of the quarantine zones, conducting regular curfews and following strict protocols to monitor any new infection. By now, a device has been invented that easily checks and tells whether a human has been infected by the fungus, for it takes some time for visible signs of the infection to appear, ranging from fifteen minutes to twenty-four hours. If any human is found infected but not yet turned into a zombie, they are immediately killed, and their bodies disposed of, for no cure for this fungal infection has yet been found.

Amidst such a scenario, in the quarantine zone of Boston, Joel Miller is still alive, having somehow survived the incidents of the tragic night back in 2003. He is a hardened man now, ready to do anything to survive, and he partakes in the FEDRA-appointed maintenance jobs to earn cards, which are equivalent to money. He also has a connection with a soldier on the side, and Joel also peddles drugs when they are available to earn some more. It is gradually revealed that the man has had a greater plan in the works for some time now. His brother, Tommy, had also survived the apocalypse night and had moved toward the west of the continent. However, there has been no response or report from Tommy in the last three weeks, which is highly unusual, and Joel suspects that his brother is in danger. For this, he intends to drive a truck to Wyoming, the last known location of Tommy. Resources are as hard to find in this new world as a cure for sickness, and Joel is in dire need of a battery that would make his truck functional again. For this, he and his close associate and partner Tess make a deal with a black-market seller. However, this deal goes wrong as the seller tries to cheat them, and Joel and Tess decide to rob him back. At the shelter of this seller, though, the two find the man and his group already killed. The killers are none other than the rebellious faction, who call themselves the Fireflies. Posed right against the FEDRA, the Fireflies do not believe in military control and are constantly engaged in armed conflict with them.

While Joel had been trying to find his way out of Boston, a young girl named Ellie was kept hostage by the Fireflies at their base. Why Ellie is a prisoner is not yet known, but she seems to be someone very important. As the leader of the faction, Marlene, tells her closest aide, this secret is one worth keeping, and Ellie is one to be kept safe at all costs. Now at the black-market seller’s shelter, Marlene comes across Joel and Tess, and the two sides are already well acquainted with each other due to their prior run-ins. It is now that Marlene asks Joel to help her with a crucially important task—the Fireflies would give him and Tess all resources and vehicles to drive out of Boston towards Wyoming, but in return, he would have to take Ellie along to their next safehouse where other members of the rebellion group would be waiting for them. Marlene explains that she and her team in Boston were preparing to take Ellie away, but the constant threat from FEDRA made their escape very risky. On the other hand, Joel was not a prime target for the FEDRA, and he finally agreed to the deal. That night, Joel, Tess, and Ellie sneak out of the quarantine zone only to be caught by a soldier. Although this is the same soldier who had earlier made a tie with Joel, he does not want to cut them any slack and tests all of them for the infection. Ellie stabs the soldier with her knife, which she always keeps close, and in the fight that follows, Joel beats him to death. However, right at this moment, it is revealed by the scanner that Ellie is indeed infected by the infection. The young girl protests that she had been bitten two weeks ago and still has not turned into a zombie, suggesting there was something wrong with the scanner. Out of time and out of chances, Joel and Tess take Ellie along for the time being, only to ensure that the Fireflies would help them in their pursuit of Tommy.

What Makes The First Episode Stand Out?

Be it the acting performances or the gruesome prosthetic details on the infected, “The Last of Us” has had a truly impressive beginning. Those acquainted with Naughty Dog’s video game version of it would perhaps argue that the best parts of it were in the small, little details that made the storytelling quite compelling. It is safe to say that this effect seems to be intact in “The Last of Us” series as well, maybe due to Neil Druckmann’s (the creative director of the video game franchise’s) active role in its writing. On the 2003 day that is presented with Sarah as the center of the narrative, there are numerous things that keep pointing toward the impending doom. Quite a few of them happen behind Sarah’s back, meaning that she is not noticing them, while some are noticed by her. Like the moment when the grandma at Adler’s house is infected by the fungus, and her face distorts in an inhuman fashion. This, of course, becomes the most telling sign of what’s to come, but perhaps nothing could have prepared one for the death of Sarah. While she seemed like the protagonist for the first half of the episode, we realize towards the end that perhaps Ellie will instead take her place.

Ellie is a largely enjoyable character so far, played efficiently by Bella Ramsey. She is goofy at most times and then severely intense when she wants to be. Just like a teenage child of her age, in most aspects, she is also quite crafty and intelligent, probably owing to her life as a lonely orphan growing up in the FEDRA military school. It is after sneaking out from this school that she is captured by the Fireflies, and Marlene later tells her that it was she who had gotten Ellie admitted to the school so that she could have a better life than being on the streets. Marlene also mentions the name Riley when Ellie calls the Fireflies a terrorist organization. Ellie is clever enough to fish out information from Joel about the radio signal codes and their meanings. She takes notice of the fact that Joel’s watch is broken—the same watch that Sarah had repaired for him as a birthday gift. Perhaps this itself ties Ellie in as a replacement for Sarah, both of whom we see at a similar age. The idea of community and connectivity still remains very important in this world, even though it is post-apocalyptic. People line up in front of an office to communicate with their loved ones living in other quarantine zones via a radio that is operated by a particular family. Along with resources and materials that are very rare at this time, messages and communication also feel like important items of trade, so to speak. These aspects make this world extremely convincing, despite the freakish scenario that is being presented. The world is not a battleground for heavy action, at least not at all times, but is also an uncomfortable home to humans who have lived through a deadly outbreak of disease and are yet driven by a natural urge to stay alive.

What Should We Expect Next From ‘The Last of Us’ Episode 2?

The revelation at the end of “The Last of Us” Episode 1 suggests that she is somehow immune to the effects of the fungus infection. It is the reason why she is such an important person to be sent from one side of the country to another by the Fireflies, as she might play a key role in developing a cure for the infection. The Fireflies so far seem to be a rebellious faction solely wanting revenge against the FEDRA, but their leader Marlene seems to have bigger, and perhaps nobler, plans. What exactly is revealed of Riley and of her relationship with Ellie is also something not known yet. What has happened to Tommy is also a question on the minds of both Joel and the viewers, and a reunion between the two brothers would also be something to look forward to. Tommy is the only living member of Joel’s family, and saving his life means the world to Joel, as in his absence, he might end up losing his mind completely. “The Last of Us” Episode 1 also gives a glimpse of a sticker on the rear of Joel’s car that suggests that he is a war veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. This looks like an addition to Joel’s character from the game, and whether more about it is revealed later on is to be seen.

What the second episode of “The Last of Us” will bring to the screen is still in question considering the makers have made subtle changes to the storyline and the characters, and so far, they are up to par. The song playing out from Joel’s radio at the end is from the 80s decade, which, according to the code Ellie cracked earlier, means that there is danger waiting for our characters in the near future. Without a doubt, screen adaptations of video games are rarely well done, but HBO’s “The Last of Us” begins exactly on the right foot, promising to be a noteworthy addition to the post-apocalyptic genre.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

Must Read

DMT Guide

More Like This