The Last of Us episode 1 recap: Joel and Ellie get off to a rough start

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

NOTE: this article contains spoilers for The Last of Us episode 1, "When You're Lost in The Darkness". If you haven't seen it, we've got a guide on how to watch the first episode of The Last of Us here.

The Last of Us is finally here, with the anticipated HBO show now available to watch on HBO Max and Sky TV. The adaptation of the popular video game show kicks off with a jam-packed feature-length first episode. This recap can help make sure you didn't miss anything. We also have a The Last of Us episode 1 explainer for any lingering questions you may have.

The show starts with a brief excerpt from a television interview taking place in the 1960s, in which a mycologist (John Hannah) talks about his belief that a fungal-based pandemic is more dangerous than a viral or bacterial one. He details cordyceps, which takes over an insect's brain, but says it's not any risk to humans... not unless the global temperature rises enough to force cordyceps to evolve. Wonder if that is going to be prescient at all...

The prologue

Jump forward to 2003. We meet a young girl called Sarah Miller (Nico Parker) and her father Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), whose birthday it is. Joel has a construction job and he's whisked off early in the morning by his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) to work.

Sarah goes to school then to a jewelry store to get a her dad's watch fixed as a birthday present. Afterward, she goes to her neighbor's home to do homework and make cookies. While she's there, the neighbor's elderly mother acts bizarrely, but Sarah doesn't notice it.

Much later, Joel returns home to Sarah — she gives him the repaired watch and a DVD she borrowed for them to watch. However Joel has to go and bail Tommy out of jail, leaving Sarah to fall asleep all alone. Sarah eventually wakes up as explosions are going off in the distance.

Sarah (Nico Parker) reaching out to touch rain in The Last Of Us

Nico Parker in The Last of Us (Image credit: Shane Harvey/HBO)

When her neighbor's dog runs over to her house, Sarah tries to take the dog back, but it slips its collar and runs away. Sarah they spots a trail of blood leading into the house, which she follows and finds the elderly lady chewing on the neck of her family (what is this creature? Check out our guide to clickers in The Last of Us). Sarah runs away, with Joel and Tommy showing up in a truck, saving Sarah in the nick of time.

The trio drive away from the city, but find everyone else has done the same, with the army blocking many routes. They find themselves stuck in a town as hordes of the infected chase them. They end up splitting up with Tommy.

Joel and Sarah escape town, but they're confronted by a soldier, who shoots at them. Tommy shows back up, saving the duo from the trigger-happy infantryman, but not before Sarah is hit — she dies in Joel's arms.

20 years later

We jump forward 20 years, and follow a young child wandering the outskirts of Boston. After collapsing in front of a walled off part of the city run by a military faction called FEDRA. They realize the child is infected, but try to keep everything calm, promising medicine and their favorite food.

We cut to Joel, as he ekes out an existence earning food stamps by doing miserable manual jobs, including moving dead bodies onto a bonfire, one of which is the child we saw earlier. Joel also works as an illicit items dealer on the side. We find out he's been trying to source a car battery because his partner, Tess (Anna Torv), gets beaten up by another smuggler who was meant to be sourcing this battery for them, until he sold it to another person. Joel has been trying to get a car battery because Tommy hasn't been returning his messages for three weeks. 

Life in the Boston Quarantine Zone (known as a QZ in the show) isn't safe, as the military group in charge called FEDRA is waging a war against rebel faction The Fireflies. The leader of The Fireflies in Boston is Marlene (Merle Dandridge), who when we meet her has a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) chained up in a room. We learn that Marlene actually is the person that put Ellie into FEDRA's military academy as an orphaned child, capturing her now after Ellie ran away and keeping her for an important, secret reason.

Marlene (Merle Dandridge) in The Last Of Us

Merle Dandridge in The Last of Us (Image credit: HBO/Sky)

Joel and Tess hunt down the person the smuggler sold the car battery to — and find it's Marlene, as the Fireflies needed it to escape. Unfortunately the battery doesn't work, and a firefight caused the smugglers (and many of the Fireflies to be killed).

Injured, Marlene tasks Joel and Tess with smuggling Ellie to a building in downtown Boston — outside of the QZ — in return for a car and supplies so Joel can search for Tommy. Not thrilled with their options, Joel and Tess reluctantly agree.

Escaping the QZ

The trio waits until nightfall, escaping the QZ under the cover of night. However, while sneaking out, Joel, Ellie and Tess bump into a soldier who Joel was selling pills to earlier — he's not happy to see them, and at gunpoint tests them for cordyceps. Before he can read Ellie's test she attacks him, with Joel then jumping in and killing him.

Tess notices that the test for Ellie was positive — she's infected. However she shows the duo the bite on her arm, which is scarred but healed, saying it happened weeks ago; usually infected only last a couple of hours. Though Joel and Tess are concerned, they need to escape FEDRA and so the trio proceeds into Boston.

New episodes of The Last of Us premiere every Sunday on HBO/HBO Max in the US; Mondays on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK.

Tom Bedford
Streaming and Ecommerce Writer

Tom is the streaming and ecommerce writer at What to Watch, covering streaming services in the US and UK. His goal is to help you navigate the busy and confusing online video market, to help you find the TV, movies and sports that you're looking for without having to spend too much money.