Outbreak Day in The Last of Us PlayStation game was a day Joel called a "God-awful mess," but that is, of course, an understatement.
The events of that day were when the cordyceps infection, which had been increasing for days, spread so far, fast, and wide a national emergency was declared and the military moved in. It was also the day Joel lost his daughter Sarah.
The action sequence featuring Joel and Sarah trying to flee their hometown and Joel's emotional breakdown as Sarah lies dying are not only quintessential story setup moments for what is to come for Joel, but they are also iconic moments from the game. Recreating them for television in HBO's adaptation, series star Pedro Pascal says, was "incredibly intimidating but also very exciting."
"It's not the most fun thing to play, but there was also a practical challenge and then there was the pressure. It wasn't a good combination," he explains.
From game writer and creative director Neil Druckmann and acclaimed writer-producer Craig Mazin, HBO's The Last of Us wasted no time depicting Outbreak Day in its own version of the story. The series premiere followed Sarah, played by Nico Parker, through her seemingly normal life attending school, running errands, and preparing to celebrated her father's birthday. And her first glimpse that something was wrong came when she was running those errands, namely trying to pawn a watch. The shop owners were taking no chances, closing up early and kicking her out of the store.
Things went from weird to much, much worse from there, and she witnessed the infected up close when going into her neighbors' house to return their dog. She, her father, and her uncle Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna) then had to flee.
As Tommy drove them out of town, some of the camerawork was designed to be in Sarah's point of view, making the viewer feel like they were in the truck (as in the game), but much of it also focused on her reactions as she asked her father questions about was going on and expressed concerns that they could get infected too.
They drove by a neighbor's home that was fully engulfed in flames, saw people trying to wave them down in the street (but kept going), and almost got stopped by gridlock as everyone else was fleeing. But they cut across a field, which is where they ran into the military, which was blocking the path to the highway. Joel and Tommy pivoted the plan to head to Mexico instead, as Sarah rightfully posited, "Maybe it's everywhere. Maybe there's nowhere to go."
But, of course, it wasn't just the virus that they had to worry about. People were fighting in the streets, and planes were flying too low, eventually crashing in front of their truck, which flipped their truck. Sarah was already hurt, with a gash on her head and pain in her ankle, and Tommy told them to head to the river while he would meet them there after a police truck crashing into their overturned vehicle left a flaming barrier between the family members.
"Pre-cordyceps, pre-outbreak, he already has lived a very full life: has been a soldier, a warrior, has experienced the atrocities of war and has seen some horrible things and already has emerged from that once. And he has to revert back to who he was in war times as a result of what's happened in the world," Luna says of where Tommy goes from here. "He's basically having to add a whole other layer of post-traumatic stress to that that he's already experienced, and then once again emerge from that. And it's this cycle that he goes through and you really have to feel for him in that he already hung up his gun belt once and then he kinda has to do it again, but that just shows the resilience of who he is."
After Joel had to carry Sarah as they followed Tommy's instructions, and they immediately got chased by one of the infected. Luck was on their side momentarily as the infected was shot, but a soldier immediately stopped Joel and Ellie. And therefore, like in the game, Sarah's fate was sealed by a member of the military who has been instructed to kill everyone on sight. Although Joel pleaded for them to be spared, it wasn't enough. The soldier shot, Joel tried to dodge the bullets, and the father-daughter ended up tumbling down a hill. Sarah had been shot in the stomach and was bleeding out as the soldier stood over Joel, preparing to execute him. Once again, luck was on his side momentarily, as Tommy snuck up and shot the soldier instead. But it was too late for Sarah.
The show followed Joel has he ran over to his daughter, who was gasping for air and had her hand over her stomach. He wanted to move her so they could get help, all as she peppered guttural cries into the gasping. But soon enough she fell silent, as Joel rocked her in his now bloody arms and turned his pleas to her instead.
"We rehearsed it once just for physicality ... and then I remember Craig came over to us as a last prompt, and he turned to me and he goes, 'This is the most pain that you've ever been in in your entire life. This is the most excruciatingly painful thing that's ever happened to you.' And then he said the same thing to Pedro," Parker says.
"And for me, there's more of a physical aspect to it, but for Pedro there's more of an emotional pain," she continues. "I was carrying that with me with every take that we did. I think, also, the way we wanted to portray it is just how much they care for one another. I think the bond between them is so strong and so important, and you see Joel carry it throughout his story and his character arc, and I think it was something we all wanted to treat respectfully. The game does it so quickly and so beautifully and we had more time and more space, and I think we all just wanted to achieve that same level of importance that Sarah has to Joel."
Luna, who wasn't in the whole scene with Pascal and Parker, was still on set while they were shooting Sarah's last moments. He recalls sitting behind the monitor for a sneak peek at how it would play out for the at-home audience.
"I'm like, 'Wow' because we're even kind of framing it in the same way. He's cradling her in the same way," Luna says. "I remember being struck by the similarities in the way they were framing it. And then also just to play that moment, to have to live through it, to see my brother in pain, losing the one thing that matters the most to him. She matters a great deal to me — we're a small family unit — and I think that it was rough. It was a rough, rough night."
The Last of Us airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO and also streams on HBO Max.
Chris Hayner contributed to this story.