'The Last of Us' Series Premiere's Most Shocking Moments

The actual cordyceps infection is just the start of what makes this dystopian tale terrifying.
by Amber Dowling — 

Anna Torv, the cordyceps infection taking over the world, and Pedro Pascal in 'The Last of Us'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of The Last of Us, streaming now on HBO Max. Read at your own risk!

The series premiere of HBO's The Last Of Us has been a long time coming. After failed movie attempts and a long development period, the nine-episode first season adaptation of the popular video game franchise finally debuted with a 90-minute premiere on Jan. 15, titled "When You're Lost in the Darkness." So the fact that this story feels so relevant years later is a twist. 

That isn't the only twist about this high-concept drama, however. Over the course of the premiere, the show sets the tone for a dark and fast-paced series in which a large chunk of the population is instantly infected with cordyceps (fungus) and others are devoured alive. 

Most of that action centers around a man named Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), and his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who find themselves in the center of the chaos when a neighbor is infected. Soon they learn it isn't just those in Austin, Texas (their hometown) who are infected, though, but the entire world. Their journey is short-lived because of military orders, which has a lone soldier shooting at Joel and Sarah. Although Tommy save his brother from being killed, Sarah is struck by a bullet. The show then flashes forward 20 years, presenting a world that has been much changed by this pandemic. 

One thing is clear by the final moments of Episode 1: This is going to be a gripping and intense series with plenty of big special effects. In anticipation of what's to come in the weekly releases ahead, read on for the premiere's most shocking moments. And click here to learn how the show handled Outbreak Day and Sarah's death, compared to the video game, with insights from the actors.

Everything changed in an instant

Joel and Sarah don't have a perfect relationship, but it's full of love. The show opens on his birthday, and we see glimpse of his military past as she goes about her day. She goes to school, tries to get her father's watch fixed for his present, and visits with the neighbors after school because they're lonely. 

There are glimpses that something's afoot, of course. Cop cars race down the streets. The shop where Sarah is getting her father's watch fixed closes up early and the owners usher her out. There are planes overhead and first responders everywhere. But for now, Sarah and her father are content hanging out on the couch and watching a birthday movie to end the day, comforted by each other's company. 

Then, Joel receives a call from Tommy, who has been arrested. Joel leaves to bail his brother out, and in the course of three hours, everything changes for good for this family. Sarah wakes up and realizes she's in danger. Joel races home with Tommy and the three of them hit the road, only to come across hordes of flesh-eating zombies who have been affected by this pandemic. 

Eventually Joel and Sarah are separated from Tommy and confronted by a man in military uniform. Sarah is hurt and Joel is carrying her, and the man receives orders to execute them. He fires, but Tommy resurfaces just in time to shoot the man. Unfortunately, while the bullet grazes Joel, it hits Sarah and she is killed. In a moment it becomes super clear just how deadly this new world is, and how much things have changed for everyone. 

The special effects are intense

The biggest special effect of the episode comes with a plane crash that injures Sarah and blows up the family's truck. (Immediately they're put in a perilous position and forced to travel on-foot, which results in Sarah's death.) Special effects like these work throughout the entire episode to create a terrifying and robust world. 

In the present day storyline, those effects include a look at the new setting of Boston, Mass., in a fictional quarantine zone where survivors get by with what they can. Buildings have collapsed and stand dangerously askew, there is wild growth everywhere, and military-like officials are monitoring every move. No one is allowed in or out, and things appear quite dire. 

One of the greatest special effects, however, are the infected themselves. As viewers learn, people call it the cordyceps infection, a fungal virus that spreads among humans and infects the brain. The subsequent transformation is something to behold, with worm-like protrusions, wild eyes, and plenty of gory images. 

The infection isn't the most terrifying thing about this world

The cordyceps infection is first introduced as a concept in the episode's opening moments, in a flashback to the late 1960s when two leading scientists give a sit-down TV interview. One scientist explains the concept, and hints at such real-world causes as natural disasters and global warming as catalysts for the cordyceps infection thriving. 

Fast forward to the actual apocalypse, and infection is still a terrifying potential for the survivors. But it isn't the only scary thing about this new world. The Last of Us is just as much a social commentary about human nature and power as it is about a terrifying pandemic. Viewers see officials help and console a lost little girl before injecting her with an unknown substance and burning her. Anyone who tries to leave the safe zone is hanged in front of everyone as a warning. 

There is no freedom, just survival. And survival at this point seems arbitrary and unfair. 

An unlikely trio lead viewers to the first big adventure

As the episode unfolds in the present-day timeline, viewers learn what Joel has been up to since his daughter's death. He has been taking tough work throwing bodies into fire or cleaning up feces in order to save up. He is smuggling drugs. And he is in a relationship with another bad ass character, Tess (Anna Torv). Together they're working on a way to get out of the camp, but every move they make is dangerous. 

Just as things appear to reach a climax in the camp with security and those trying to escape comes news that Joel's brother Tommy may be in trouble. There has been some sort of a rift between the two and now Joel wants to save him, but he needs a car battery in order to leave. 

After being screwed over by some shady fellow smugglers, Tess and Joel break into a building where they believe a battery to be. Instead they come across the rebel group the Fireflies and their leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge), who have just come under attack. Marlene is bleeding out so she negotiates with Joel and Tess: In exchange for bringing valuable cargo to a base camp, they will secure a working vehicle.  

That cargo winds up being a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), whose importance is only hinted at in the series for now (though gamers know she is believed to be the key to a cure). As the trio escape the base, viewers learn her temperature is above average, however she isn't infected — and appears unable to be.

Joel and Tess have no choice but to continue their mission with her after they're caught by a guard and Joel kills him with his fists in a fit of blind, PTSD rage. 

Codes and new cargo

In the show's closing moments, the radio in Joel and Tess's apartment clicks on to a 1980s tune, which is code that signifies danger for them. Whether that means that officials are onto the couple or something else entirely remains to be seen, but at this point it's clear the trio have a dangerous journey ahead. 

Will they drop off their cargo and return to Boston? Will Joel reunite with Tommy? Did Marlene survive her wound, and what does this mean for the Fireflies? The debut episode sets up several questions and potential storylines. With eight episodes to go over the next eight weeks, you can expect answers, but also a lot more heartbreak and close-up looks at the infection to come.

The Last of Us airs Sundays on HBO and streams the same day on HBO Max