‘The Last of Us’ Episodes 1 & 2 Review: HBO’s Next Big Hit

Review: “The Last of Us” is worth the hype it’s getting. HBO’s newest Sunday night drama offers so much world building and emotional wrenches that makes it one to put on your watchlist – if you haven’t checked it out already.
The Last of Us HBO Review TV Series Pedro Pascal Joel
“The Last of Us”

I wanted to give HBO’s “The Last of Us” multiple episodes before I shared my longform, written thoughts on the newest groundbreaking TV series of 2023. Series of this magnitude rarely faulter after just one installment. They set up a massive world and an array of characters within that world, while also pulling off a shocking final minute that serves as the series’ “hook.” With HBO shows at this point, I know not to get sucked in after just one lengthy introduction to the world of post-apocalyptic Boston.

Yet I struggled not to do just that – give my thoughts on what I thought was a rather impressive and encompassing first episode. Zombie content can feel so bloated in our post-“The Walking Dead” era of television. Every network needs to have their own flesh-eating drama that speaks the same messages of stranger danger. I went in expecting “The Last of Us” to riff on many of these same tropes that we’ve become familiar with after years of undead movies and TV series.

But clearly “The Last of Us” is aiming to do much more. The first episode (and the second episode to a point) is rather light on zombies at all. The show begins with the rapid decay of society following a fungal outbreak that tears apart the cities across the globe. Pedro Pascal leads a stellar cast as the weathered Joel – a man that’s clearly seen his fair share of hardships and tragedies in his life. Joel celebrates his birthday with his young daughter Sarah (the wise beyond her years Nico Parker giving an emotional bating performance).

When the night turns deadly and the raging infected begin to sweep through the streets of suburban Texas. As Joel, Sarah, and brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna, I assume we’ll be seeing much more of him in future episodes) attempt to flee a rambunctious crowd of rioters and undead, tragedy strikes…. And cut to 20 years later in quarantined Boston. The set up for “The Last of Us” may feel brisk to some viewers. I could feel myself being emotionally manipulated by the climax of episode one. At the same time, it’s effective. I’m not sure how anyone could avoid feeling devastated by the gut punch that the end of the Austin segment delivers.

But we have to quickly put that in our back pocket as we transition to a world of scheming and deal-making amongst the backdrop of authoritarian government in a run-down Boston quarantine zone. Joel now works crummy jobs and hustles to make ends meet. He’s understandably become increasing closed-off since the incidents that led to the destruction of society, and the only family he has left is Tommy. The only problem is that Tommy hasn’t been heard from in weeks from his outpost in Wyoming.

And that’s about as much information as you need to understand the meat and potatoes of “The Last of Us.” Sure, there’s unrest and rebellion growing across various military zones (codenamed “Fireflies”). There’s also a hefty amount of fungal mumbo jumbo that relates to how the infection spreads and consumes its subjects. Did I mention a young girl that seems to be immune to the disease altogether? Because Bella Ramsey (previously Lady Mormont from a little show called “Game of Thrones”) costars at 14-year-old Ellie, who may just be the cure to this fungal disease.

“The Last of Us” is setting up quite a bit that it’’ surely dive into in the upcoming episodes. But that’s exactly what I like about it so far. There seems to be a leading and driving narrative to what writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann are cooking up. It isn’t getting lost in useless characters or side plots that feel empty compared to the main mission. Every detail feels methodically placed and expertly crafted to make “The Last of Us” feel wholly original compared to other zombie content on the air.

The main comparable television show for me, and I’m sure many other viewers, has to be “The Walking Dead.” Not because it handles the subject matter in the same way or that its characters or episode structure are even the same – it’s that “The Walking Dead” is the most successful zombie show ever made and “The Last of Us” is trying to unseat it. And through two episodes, the shows are linked with how much world-building they accomplish and how inviting they are to the central characters.

There’s still so much “The Last of Us” is going to do in seven more episodes. Journeymen Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett are set to appear in episode three, and given their previous acting credits, I can’t say that I’m concerned at all. It’s been a minute since a Sunday night television series got me excited to fire up the home theatre, but here we are.