The Last of Us episode 1 recap: The rules of infection have changed

Pedro Pascal as Joel in HBO's The Last of Us
(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

So, there you have it, The Last of Us episode 1 — a fantastic 81-minute adventure — has debuted. So, for those trying to unpack what just happened, well, we've been monitoring the infected of Boston (we've even seen the next three episodes for our The Last of Us review) for weeks. 

But of course, you shouldn't scroll down before you watch The Last of Us online with HBO Max. This is one of the best HBO shows in a while, and deserves to be devoured directly.

Once you're done here, now that this (and future episodes) have aired, read our The Last of Us episode 4 recap and review to see what we thought of the next leg of the journey.

The below contains a detailed recap of The Last of Us episode 1, so there are spoilers for that. Below this recap, you'll also find notes based on The Last of Us video games that the episode refers to.

An image indicating spoilers are ahead.

The Last of Us introduces Sarah (and the world) in a much better way

The Last of Us goes full HBO from the start by beginning the timeline in 1968, where a talkshow host (Josh Brener of HBO's Silicon Valley) interviews scientists about potential plagues. While one doctor isn't here to spread concern, the other is. He mentions that if the planet gets hotter (yep), humanity will be prone to a fungal virus that creates mutations that puppeteer insects and devour them from within. One word he mentions is cordyceps, a word we'll be all too familiar with. The host asks what will become of us if that happens. To which the scientist replies, "We lose."

Then, we get the opening credits, which place Gustavo Santolala's guitar strings over a Game of Thrones-style animation that represents a virus spreading. It's as if someone at HBO is telling you, "we're not on PlayStation anymore, Toto." 

Nico Parker as Sarah in The Last of Us season 1 episode 1

(Image credit: Shane Harvey/HBO)

Cut to 2003, where we spend around 20 minutes watching the "before times." Joel (Pedro Pascal) is sort of a walking disaster of a single father, whose caring daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) is doing a lot of the heavy lifting parents would normally do. 

The two have an excellent mess-vs-prepared banter. He's trying to play the role of dad, asking about school work, but he's clearly a very clueless 36-year-old. Tommy (Gabriel Luna), Joel's brother, enters and the two talk about their construction work. Joel's resistant to spending more money on the gig, but does promise Sarah he'll bring a cake home for the celebration. Before he leaves, they hear word on the radio that there's disturbances in Jakarta, though neither Joel nor Tommy can put it on a map. Sarah knows it's in Indonesia — and she also tells her dad his shirt is on inside-out. Behind his back, she pilfers a watch from his room and some cash too.

Leaving the house, Joel and Sarah run into their elderly neighbors, the Adlers, and learn that she spends time hanging out with them. After banter about Atkins (this really is 2003!), everyone's off for the day. After school, Sarah makes use of the money to repair dear old dad's timepiece. But while the repairman is taking his time, one of his family members runs in panicked, demanding Sarah leave immediately. 

Nico Parker as Sarah in The Last of Us season 1 episode 1

(Image credit: Shane Harvey/HBO)

When Sarah's not being wholesome with her neighbors (one of whom says "People need to get right with Jesus. Three nails plus one cross equals four-given"), we see that the eldest — a wheelchair-bound woman — seizes up. Clearly she's infected. The family dog can tell. But after borrowing a DVD for dad (a callback to posters Ellie sees in the games), she goes home. 

Since Joel takes longer to get home than he should (and doesn't have that cake), he apologizes before Sarah gives him the fixed watch (and cops to using his money on it). She also hands him the Curtis and the Viper 2 DVD, which he excitedly refers to as the one "with deleted scenes." She falls asleep while he watches, and he carries her up to her bedroom. Tommy calls: he's in jail for being involved with a fight that sounds like it involved someone in the early stages of being infected. Joel goes to bail him out of prison, as Tommy says it's a "mad house" and that if he doesn't come today, he'll be there all weekend.

We see small tendrils coming out of the elder Adler's mouth as she gnaws on her relative. This is a new means of infection, as the spores of the game are gone.

Cut to Sarah waking up due to hearing weird noises outside, as lights flood in through the window. Downstairs, she sees the neighbor's canine pawing at the door plaintively. Sarah goes to help the pup, and then to check next door — and the dog refuses to follow her in. Upon entry, Sarah hears plenty of creepy noises, then is horrified to see the husband, dying while bleeding heavily. The elder, infected Adler is feasting on the woman Sarah was just baking oatmeal raising cookies with. 

We see small tendrils coming out of the elder Adler's mouth as she gnaws on her relative. This is a new means of infection, as the spores of the game are gone (It's not too far from the game, as bites from infecteds could transfer the Cordyceps). The infected woman utters a hollow shriek, and Sarah runs out of the house, right as Joel (who pulls up with Tommy) yells "Get in the truck right now!"

(R to L) Pedro Pascal as Joel holds the face of Nico Parker as Sarah surrounded by entrails of a dead Infected in The Last of Us season 1 episode 1

(Image credit: Shane Harvey/HBO)

The older Adler pounces out of the front door, chasing Sarah like a dog (and slamming her shoulder into the door in the process). Joel smashes the elder Adler with a big wrench before they all get in the truck. Driving away, Tommy runs over the other Adlers who are now infected and giving chase. 

From the back seat, Sarah's heavily concerned about what's going on, and if they're not already infected themselves. The trio talk about how the news has said the infections are coming from the cities, and the Adlers had been taking their eldest there. That said, Sarah was just in the city getting the watch repaired, and is quietly worried she's got it. Joel stops Tommy from pulling over to help another family with a child — as they've got to protect their own. Once they get to the highway, we see everyone else is there already, forcing them to go off road. Sarah wonders aloud, "maybe it's everywhere."

Gabriel Luna as Tommy in The Last of Us

(Image credit: Shane Harvey/HBO)

From Sarah's vantage point in the backseat, we see how Joel can't find a break when driving around looking for an exit. Infecteds are devouring people in the street, throngs are running and a plane crashes in the middle of the road. A flying part hurls through the car, and we cut to black. Sarah is woken up by Joel trying to free her trapped leg. Tommy says he's OK. People are mutating outside. 

We almost think Tommy's been run over. He was not, but they're now separated by the flaming car (which does feel like a plot device to separate characters in a video game). Sarah can't run, and so Joel picks her up and carries her into a sea of gnawing infected. One pops up, almost like Michael Myers. Then there's a chase through a diner, but Joel and Sarah are (temporarily) saved by an army soldier shooting down the infected. But as Joel says "My daughter's hurt, her ankle," that soldier's voice turns cold while getting orders over the radio. 

Joel pleads that they're not sick, and he and Sarah tumble away after gunfire erupts. Tommy returns to shoot the soldier, and we see Joel's been shot. We then see Sarah, who's hyperventilating. She's been shot, too. Joel says "come on baby girl" over and over again until Sarah's bled out and dies.

This first act of The Last of Us is a real upgrade on the game, because the game didn't give us a lot of time with the two of them. It shows how important Sarah was to Joel, how much he needed her.

The Last of Us episode 1 recap: Twenty years later

In 2023, a child slowly walks into a militarized zone in Boston. Soldiers, seemingly nice, ask questions, notice a cut on the kid's leg, run a test (which turns red) and act like everything is going to be OK. One injection later, and we cut to the town square where civilians are using bonfires to dispose of bodies in the street. A woman opens a new truck of bodies, and tells Joel she can't "can't, it's a kid." Judging by the clothes, it's easy to see that this corpse belongs to the child we just met. And Joel almost lifelessly, throws the body in the fire. You can see a sort of dead-ness in Pascal's eyes, he's numb. And to survive, Joel is selling drugs. 

We meet Tess (Anna Torv), when she's restrained and dealing with Robert, who ripped her off on the sale of a car battery. She claims she'll let it go. Robert's worried about her man. Tess says "he answers to me," before a booming explosion from outside ends that conversation, throwing rubble everywhere and a body on top of Tess. 

(L to R) Pedro Pascal as Joel and Anna Torv as Tess in HBO's The Last of Us

(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Then, we meet Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who's calling herself Veronica, and is a chained up smartass. The people who are holding her are demanding she count to ten and say her own name, testing her memory and abilities. She demands to be let go because people from FEDRA will be coming for her.

Meanwhile, Joel goes into an office, cutting the line to talk to a guy working a communications radio who tells him they're still looking for Tommy, but no word. Tommy's been been missing three weeks, and Joel's antsy to look for him. The guy at the station warns there are raiders and slavers out there. Joel doesn't care. Back home, Joel's analyzing the map as he plans to find Tommy, all the while popping pills and drinking what appears to be booze. Naturally, he passes out. Tess comes home, and they share the bed. She tells Joel about how they were screwed over about the battery, and tells him to beat Robert up. 

The Last of Us episode 1 recap: A new hope and quest

Cut back to the building that Ellie's stuck in, where Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who voiced this character in the game) is trying to lead when the other Fireflies (that's who's got Marlene) are confused about Ellie's presence. Marlene explains that the mission is to take Ellie west, before showing her a piece of paper that we do not see. The expression on the woman's face changes; she asks if what she's reading is real and Marlene is confident it is. The mood lifts, and hope almost feels possible.

(L to R) Merle Dandridge as Marlene and Natasha Mumba as Kim in The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

Cut to Joel and Tess on the streets trying to find the battery. This sends them on a winding route through the slums of Boston, including a scary moment where Tess is terrified by what's left of an infected.

Meanwhile, Ellie gets a knife from Marlene. She's not grateful. Marlene says she's the reason why the girl's alive, before Ellie calls them terrorists. Marlene asks if Riley was a terrorist, which shuts Ellie up and will have fans screaming. Marlene then shares a secret with Ellie (one we don't hear), that must be kept secret to keep Ellie alive.

(L to R) Anna Torv as Tess and Pedro Pascal as Joel surrounded by entrails of a dead Infected in The Last of Us season 1 episode 1

(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Joel and Tess come across Marlene and Ellie in the aftermath of a deal (that went bad) for the (useless) battery. Ellie tries to stab Joel, who easily stops her and the little bits between them are hilarious on their own. Joel reveals that Tommy's departure is tied to Marlene and the Fireflies, saying they turned him against Joel.

Marlene, now injured from the fight with Robert, asks for Joel and Tess will protect Ellie, bringing her west. There's an offer of supplies, and a car from the Fireflies  which Joel and Tess need to find Tommy (especially since that car battery is useless).

(L to R) Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Anna Torv as Tess in The Last of Us

(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

At Joel's place, Ellie looks through a book about music that's sitting next to the radio. Once he's back, Ellie explains that she's cracking Joel's code. 60's music means nothing is happening, 70's music means new stock and 80's music? Well ... after Ellie talks about how she's never been outside of Boston, Joel asks about her importance, which she's vague about. 

Then, Ellie says that the radio was playing music when he was asleep. He asks about the lyrics, and she says "... wake me up before you go-go?" And his concerned reaction leads Ellie to say "gotcha." Now she knows 80's music means trouble. She also knows his watch is broken, and that he mumbles in his sleep.

Yellow painted words on the side of a building read "When you're lost in the darkness look for the light" in The Last of Us

(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

On the road, a soldier that Joel sold pills to earlier finds them, and is able to scan Ellie for an infection before she stabs him. The soldier turns hostile on them, but Joel flashes back to the moments before Sarah was killed. Then, he jumps on top of the soldier, and violently beats him with his bare hands. Ellie watches on. 

Tess sees the positive results scan on the soldier's testing device, discovering that Ellie has a mark of being infected, and freaks out. Ellie explains that she's been like this for a while. That this is why she's important: her body isn't succumbing to the infection. 

Then, our trio has to move, and runs into the distance, towards abandoned high-rises.

The Last of Us episode 1 ending song

To end the finale, we get our first needle-drop, Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again," which you can listen to below. The song repeats the words "Never let me down" at one point, which connects to how Joel doesn't want to allow another young child he's supposed to protect die on his watch again.

The Last of Us episode 1 spoilers from the video games

Before you go-go, want to know what Marlene's secret is? Or who Riley is? Scroll past the spoiler warning below to learn what the video games tell us. 

An image indicating spoilers are ahead.

  • Marlene's secret, which was on the scrap of paper, and what she probaby told Ellie, is that she's the key to the cure for the pandemic.
  • Speaking of Marlene, remember when she asked about Riley? Riley Abel was a friend of Ellie's we met in The Last of Us's downloadable content expansion 'Left Behind'. The two kissed, but Riley became infected when bitten by an infected.
Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.