There are a number of ways to establish that nobody is safe in a story, but the best one is killing off a main character from the get-go. Game of Thrones dispatched with Ned Stark, and from then on it was clear anyone could be killed at any point (never forget the Red Wedding). Star Wars killed off one of the original trilogy characters, cementing Kylo Ren as a heartless villain and freeing Harrison Ford for another Indiana Jones movie. Even Hitchcock’s Psycho murders its protagonist in the first act.
But this trick isn’t limited to film and TV. In fact, The Last of Us video game used a very similar tactic — a tactic that was finally given the time it deserves in the HBO series.
Warning! Major spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 1 ahead!
The Last of Us video game begins with a tutorial level where the player controls Sarah Miller, a young girl in 2013 who is looking for her dad Joel, not knowing that he’s out amid the start of a zombie apocalypse. The player watches as Sarah is thrown in the back of a truck with her dad and uncle, putting her in a passive position so the player could just focus on absorbing the action.
Eventually, Sarah and Joel are forced to abandon the truck and run through a field, putting them face to face with a government officer with some grim orders: kill any survivors. Sarah’s Uncle Tommy manages to kill the officer, but not before the officer fatally shoots Sarah.
Just like that, the character the player empathizes with most is suddenly gone. It establishes a heartbreaking precedent — nobody is safe. Usually in video games, characters the player controls don’t die, they just respawn to give you another chance at the level. This one scene proves that in the cutscenes, any character can be on the chopping block.
Of course, this scene had to make it into the HBO adaptation. But instead of doing the cinematic prologue exactly like it’s done in the game, the series uses the premiere’s comfy 80-minute runtime to give this section of the story the room it deserves. It not only establishes the 2003 setting (a decade adjustment from the original story) but it also gives Sarah more time to develop — making the viewer more invested and the loss all the more painful.
Instead of the prologue lasting 15 minutes, we get a full half hour of Sarah’s story. The game opens with her waking up on the couch where she was watching a movie with Joel, but the series shows Sarah from that morning, making her dad a birthday breakfast and venturing out downtown where she learns just what is happening across the globe.
This one scene is a microcosm of what makes The Last of Us so genius: it has the video game at its heart, but expands the scope to make every story beat hit all that much more.
The Last of Us Episode 1 is now streaming on HBO Max.