Many video games, comics, TV shows, and movies have done the whole “post-apocalyptic zombie” thing but few, if any, have done it better than Naughty Dog’s 2013 game The Last of Us. As we await the forthcoming HBO TV series adaptation, now is the perfect time to revisit and explain the game’s plot in detail, from the intense prologue to the startling and thought-provoking conclusion. As we’ll see, one of the most unique qualities of The Last of Us is its ability to tell both an intimate story and an epic story in a way that feels consistently organic and compelling. It’ll be interesting to see how showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann (who also spearheaded the game) adapt this story for episodic television, especially considering there will be some new characters added to the mix. Although adapting a video game into a TV series has historically been a challenge for some writers, there’s no doubt that in this case, the showrunners have some brilliant source material to work with.
The Last of Us opens in dramatic fashion as a young girl named Sarah Miller desperately searches for her father Joel while all hell breaks loose outside her home in Texas. Via a TV news report, we are told that a viral outbreak is ravaging the country, transforming normal humans into hyper-aggressive, violent, demented creatures dubbed simply “the infected.” When Sarah is reunited with her father Joel and her uncle Tommy, they jump into a Jeep and attempt to flee their home as people die, fires burn, and the Army mobilizes. In the chaos, they get into a car crash and Joel carries Sarah as they attempt to escape on foot. They come across a soldier who receives orders to shoot them. The soldier fires a few shots, but before he can finish off Joel, Tommy puts a bullet in his head. Joel emerges from the confrontation without any serious damage, but Sarah has been shot in the stomach. As Joel attempts to save her, Sarah dies tragically in his arms.
Joel Must Take Ellie to the Fireflies
As the opening credits roll, a series of news broadcast audio snippets convey what’s happened to the country since the outbreak. Attempts to manufacture a vaccine have failed and the Army has declared martial law in major American cities, provoking the formation of a violent revolutionary group called the Fireflies, who demand that democracy be restored.
20 years after Sarah’s death, we find Joel living in a militarized zone in Boston, eking out a living as a smuggler. Tess, his partner in crime, bangs on his door one morning and tells him a man named Robert sent a couple of goons to attack her. Joel and Tess track down Robert and discover that he’s sold a bunch of their guns to the Fireflies. After Robert is killed, a Firefly named Marlene offers Joel and Tess a deal: smuggle a young girl out of Boston, and they’ll get their weapons back. The young girl in question is named Ellie and as Joel and Tess soon discover, she is immune to the virus that has devastated civilization. As Joel and Tess make their way out of the militarized zone, Joel starts to take a liking to Ellie, who reminds him of his daughter Sarah. But 20 years of mercilessly killing any and all people in his path, infected or not, has hardened Joel’s heart and made him reluctant to become emotionally invested in anyone.
When the trio attempts to meet up with a group of Fireflies to hand off Ellie, they discover that the Fireflies are all dead. As they battle the infected, Tess is bitten. Believing in the importance of saving Ellie’s life in the hope that her immunity could be used to develop a vaccine, Tess heroically sacrifices herself as Joel and Ellie escape.
Joel and Ellie are now left alone, with no plan in place or Fireflies to help them out. Joel figures that their best bet is to find his now estranged brother Tommy, a former member of the Fireflies, in the hopes that Tommy can help them find other Fireflies. The problem is that Tommy lives out west and Joel and Ellie are on foot. So Joel decides they should seek out the help of an old friend of his, a grizzled old kook named Bill who lives alone in the suburbs outside Boston. Although Ellie is eager to be armed and help Joel fight the infected and other enemies, Joel is reluctant to trust her. Eventually, they find Bill, whose partner abandoned him and committed suicide. Bill, obviously nihilistic and hiding the pain he feels from being alone, advises Joel against helping Ellie. Nonetheless, owing a debt to Joel, Bill helps Joel and Ellie get a car. Joel and Ellie then hit the road, driving west in search of Tommy.
Joel and Ellie Must Fight Their Way Across the Country
When they reach Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie are ambushed by a group of bandits. Their car is totaled, and they are again forced to travel on foot. In an intense fight with one of the bandits, Joel is nearly drowned. As he reaches desperately for his submerged gun, a hand grabs it and shoots the bandit, saving Joel’s life. It’s Ellie. Although he’s upset that Ellie violated his rule of not getting involved in any acts of violence, Joel reluctantly admits to himself and Ellie that he’s thankful she rescued him.
While still in Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie come across another duo, two brothers named Henry and Sam. Joel is, per usual, reluctant to trust or team up with them but Ellie bonds with the younger brother Sam. Joel and Henry hatch a plan for all of them to escape Pittsburgh and it works, but in the process Sam is bitten by an infected. Despondent, he hides his infection from the group. When he “turns” (that is, transforms into an infected), he attacks Ellie. Henry, seeing no alternative, shoots and kills his little brother before turning the gun on himself.
A few months later, we find Joel and Ellie outside of Jackson, Wyoming, where Tommy is living with a community of self-sufficient survivors. We find out that Joel and Tommy had a falling out due to their disagreement over the Fireflies. Tommy believed in the cause, but Joel didn’t. But when Tommy sees Joel in Jackson, he warmly embraces him and invites him and Ellie to join the community.
Joel explains to Tommy that Ellie is immune and that Tommy should deliver her to the Fireflies so that they can develop a vaccine. Tommy offers to lend Joel some gear for the journey but refuses to take Ellie off Joel’s hands. When Ellie finds out that Joel tried to pawn her off on Tommy, she lashes out at him, hurt that a man she’s come to see as a father figure is eager to abandon her. They have an intense argument in which Ellie brings up Joel’s deceased daughter Sarah. Joel angrily tells Ellie that she’s not his daughter, and that they must go their separate ways. He soon changes his mind, however, and he and Ellie set off on horseback to Colorado, where Tommy believes some Fireflies are stationed.
Joel and Ellie Are Ambushed by Cannibals
In Colorado, Joel and Ellie find the Firefly station abandoned but discover that the Fireflies have relocated to Salt Lake City. Joel and Ellie are again attacked by bandits and Joel is severely wounded. Ellie holes up for the winter in the mountains, hunting deer on her own while trying to care for Joel, who is likely on the brink of death. While out hunting one day, Ellie runs into a man named David who offers her some penicillin in exchange for deer meat. After they fight off some infected, David reveals that the bandits that attacked Ellie and Joel were his men. Nonetheless, he still gives Ellie the penicillin, which she administers to Joel at their hideout in the mountains.
The next day, David’s men track Ellie to her hideout and kidnap her. Locked in a prison cell, she realizes that David is the leader of a group of cannibals. David decides not to kill Ellie and instead wants her to join his group. She refuses, then manages to spring from her cell. Meanwhile, Joel has recovered enough to get up. Realizing Ellie is gone, he sets out to find her, torturing some of David’s men to reveal her location. After escaping, Ellie has a final confrontation with David inside a burning building, where she kills him with a machete. Traumatized by this brutal act of violence, she is discovered by Joel, who escorts her out of the burning building.
Joel and Ellie Meet the Fireflies
In Salt Lake City, Joel and Ellie search for the Fireflies and have tender heart-to-heart moments in which they apologize for hurting each other in the past. Ellie presents Joel with a photo she got from Tommy of Joel and Sarah before the outbreak. Joel gratefully accepts the photo, admitting that he’s never really forgotten about his daughter. Finally, after a couple of close calls battling infected and traveling through Salt Lake City, Joel and Ellie meet up with the remaining members of the Fireflies. In a hospital, Joel talks with the Firefly Marlene, who reveals that Ellie is being prepped for surgery. The surgery will allow the Fireflies to develop a vaccine that will save humanity, but there’s one catch: Ellie will not survive the procedure.
After angrily confronting Marlene about the decision to sacrifice Ellie, Joel escapes from Firefly custody and rushes into the operating room. The surgeon tells Joel to think of all the lives they will save by developing a vaccine but Joel shoots and kills the surgeon. Joel grabs the unconscious Ellie off the operating table and carries her out of the hospital. As he escapes, Marlene stands in his way, telling Joel that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if given the choice. Marlene lays down her weapon, begging Joel to do the right thing. Joel shoots and kills Marlene. As Joel drives Ellie out of Salt Lake City, Ellie wakes up from her anesthesia. Joel lies to Ellie, telling her the Fireflies have discovered many immune people and that they’ve given up trying to develop a vaccine. Ellie is quiet, and we sense that she is skeptical about Joel’s explanation.
Back in Jackson, Joel and Ellie hike through a scenic forest while Joel tells Ellie stories about Sarah, saying the two of them would’ve been good friends if they had known each other. Ellie tells Joel to swear to her that everything he told her about her immunity and the Fireflies is true. Joel swears it’s true and Ellie says “Okay” as the screen cuts to black and the game ends.