Monday, January 16, 2023

REVIEW: 'The Last of Us' - The Apocalypse Breaks Joel But He Still Has a Mission He Must Do in 'When You're Lost in the Darkness'

HBO's The Last of Us - Episode 1.01 "When You're Lost in the Darkness"

Twenty years after a fungal outbreak ravages the planet, survivors Joel and Tess are tasked with a mission that could change everything.

"When You're Lost in the Darkness" was written by Craig Mazin & Neil Druckmann and directed by Craig Mazin

Post-apocalyptic stories hit differently now. Everyone watching knows precisely what it's like to lock down and take extra precautions to avoid a disease with unpredictable consequences. That's what makes the opening sequence seem so pointed. During a 1968 television interview, one epidemiologist talks about how easily viruses can spread across the world. That's precisely what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is still dealing with the lingering consequences of the world shutting down. However, hope was still present because science had the knowledge and resources to develop vaccines to prevent this vicious disease from killing those who get infected. The other epidemiologist notes how a fungal-based disease has no known cure. It may not be capable of evolving to infect humans. That might happen one day - especially with the rising temperatures associated with climate change. That's exactly what plays out in this particular story. It cuts to an average day in September 2003. Sarah is caring for her father on his birthday. The opening third of the episode is told from her perspective. It's a regular day. And yet, there is an eerie sensation across every single action. Everything is heightened because there is a looming sense of dread. This is all going to turn at some point. It doesn't matter how Sarah does in school or makes the day special for her father. It doesn't matter that he has problems at work and forgets to pick up a cake for himself. They have such a relaxed, lived-in dynamic as a family. It makes it believable when they rush to be together when the apocalypse strikes. It's still isolating for Sarah as she's a kid witnessing the downfall of society. That makes it even more vulnerable. Of course, this sequence has been played out in a number of projects that deal with post-apocalyptic settings. The collapse is never the most interesting part. It's certainly the most dramatic because it depicts all these normal aspects of life falling apart so quickly. It's not long before a plane comes crashing down. Life-changing decisions have to be made. Joel has to decide if he is willing to kill to protect his family. Sarah fears they all might be infected. No one has any answers. In a moment of panic, an officer shoots at them. Sarah dies. Joel survives. That's the tragic backstory that sets up his character for the next twenty years. That's where the narrative shifts to next. Everything is informed by what happened during that first day. Joel lost his family. Sarah was so sweet and considerate. She very easily could have been a character the audience followed as this apocalypse got worse and worse. Instead, she is killed early on to set the stakes of what to expect from this show.

This also means it takes awhile before the show gets to the setting where the majority of its story will take place. It's set in the present-day, which means Joel and the other survives have been facing this apocalypse for the past twenty years. Little pockets of tyrannical government have formed. It's not much of a life. However, it spares people from the horrors of facing this disease. Everyone knows the grim reality of what must be done when someone tests positive. It's a way of life now. It's the only thing that truly matters. People still aspire for more. The rebels known as the Fireflies want democracy to flourish again. However, they aren't organized enough to inspire more to their ranks. Instead, it's all just a means for survival. Joel isn't thrilled by the life he's living. He's simply content with what he must continue to do. It's life one day at a time. It offers no more excitement than that. He and his girlfriend Tess have created a smuggling operation mostly to gain a few more tools for themselves. It's not about manipulating this situation to consolidate more power. It's simply necessary to make this existence a little more tolerable. Joel doesn't subscribe to the ideology being preached by the Fireflies. His brother, Tommy, was convinced. He left for a life far away in Wyoming. Joel has no contact with him. He doesn't know what happened. He doesn't believe there is any reason to be hopeful. No one can possibly provide him with clarity. One form of communication was good enough for awhile. It doesn't foster connections meant to last longterm. It's all about the immediate reality of dealing with one's current surroundings. This all changes with the introduction of Ellie. She presents as the possible salvation who can change everything. She was infected but never turned into a fungal zombie. She maintains her own agency. Apparently, she was special to Marlene before this moment. However, Ellie now serves a completely new purpose. She too was simply meant to survive during her childhood. Now, her genetic material may hold the key to unlocking a more prosperous future. It still requires Joel and Tess to transport her to other Fireflies in Boston. Marlene is injured and must hand over that responsibility. It's all incredibly convenient. It puts Joel in a spot where he once again is charged with protecting a young girl. It had so much personal significance when it was Sarah. He failed to keep her safe. She died. Ellie has the potential of dying as well. It's not from what everyone expects though. That awakens something new. It's not something anyone can question or even understand. They have to keep moving to potentially pull this off. They are at least determined to do so even though they carry plenty of their emotional baggage along the way too. Joel hasn't processed anything for two decades. And now, the responsibility of restoring the world rests on his shoulders. It's all because he is trustworthy and skilled enough to possibly handle the job. That's not entirely reassuring. It's what everyone has to believe in. No other alternative exists. Of course, the threats from the disease aren't the only ones Joel and company have to worry about. Their fellow humans are just as dangerous and willing to exploit anything to prosper once more. Nevertheless, they must continue forward.