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‘The Last of Us’ Premiere Is a Masterclass in Character Introduction

Nico (Sarah Miller) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) share an intense moment in 'The Last of Us'

Meeting characters for the first time can be challenging. We often have awkward “wait, what did they say their name was?” moments or we have to go back and relearn information about them. It’s just the way it goes with television and movies. We’re trying to learn so much about a person’s life so quickly, and sometimes shows struggle to fill us in. Then came The Last of Us with a masterclass in how to introduce a character and quickly make your audience fall in love with them.

Spoilers ahead for the premiere episode of The Last of Us

It starts with the easy things, like Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and his family dynamic. Letting the audience see how he was before Outbreak Day really sets the tone for Joel’s future in the apocalypse. We feel his pain and care for him because we know what he lost. It works because it not only brought us into Joel’s life, but it also let us know why he went from being a happy father to a man burned by the world and ready to do whatever it takes to keep surviving. The Joel we saw in 2003 would have struggled to dispose of a body, but in 2023, after the show’s time jump, he throws a dead child into the flames with no problem. And that is where the show really shines. Every character we meet along the way is someone we either instantly know or the show sets us up for their emotional arc in an efficient and fantastic way.

I’m talking about introductions that are so memorable and succinct that you want to see more of the character, but you don’t need to in order to understand their entire deal. It’s not only Joel Miller (who many of us know from the game) or Ellie (Bella Ramsey), but also the Adlers, Joel and Sarah’s neighbors in Austin, and even Denise (who refuses to go into her house when Outbreak Day hits). Little characters are so well done that we understand why they are reacting to the Outbreak or to FEDRA in a certain way. We just instantly know who these characters are as soon as we meet them, and it really is fascinating to see how the show uses those brief moments to its advantage.

Sometimes, you don’t need forever to know someone

The pilot of The Last of Us navigates its character introductions by giving them iconic debuts—not necessarily in a splashy way, but just in the memorable ways they’re brought into the story. The game was masterful at emotionally destroying players with characters we only just met and the show is following suit. This character-driven heartbreak started with following Sarah throughout her day; she is our guide to Outbreak Day, which extends into brief meetings with other characters, like Marlene and Tess.

It is the strong entrances that really help cement who these characters are. Sarah wakes up and takes care of her father. Marlene walks into a room and is instantly commanding other Fireflies. Tommy is messing with his older brother, and Ellie is acting like a smart-ass toward those who have her locked up. The show really knows that these introductions are what people will remember.

We’ll also recall iconic lines and moments, but we really remember how these characters are introduced and how they’re introduced to each other. Will I ever stop thinking about Joel meeting Ellie for the first time and throwing her into a wall? Probably not, especially because I know that they’re two people who grow to love each other.

The Last of Us just exemplifies how to make an audience care, and quickly. It’s a staple of apocalypse stories to just throw us into the lives of characters, and these introductions really could have made or broken the series. Luckily, it works very well and there’s not a character I hated spending time with in that first episode.

(featured image: HBO)

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Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast.