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This ‘The Last of Us’ Timeline Change Makes So Much Sense, Actually

10 years might not seem like a lot, and yet.

Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us HBO series

The Last of Us debuted this month with a double episode that masterfully introduced us to the main characters of the story and the world they live in. While that world is deeply familiar to those who have played The Last of Us games, it needed to be presented anew for those who had never heard of Joel Miller, Ellie Williams, or Outbreak Day before.

Spoilers ahead for The Last of Us

And now that we have all our cards on the table—Joel and the massive baggage from his daughter Sarah’s fate, Ellie and her immunity, Tess’ hardened resolve, the Fireflies and FEDRA and their respective goals—we can start the story proper, following our protagonist trio as they set off on their trek across the infected and deadly United States.

Still, it’s somewhat hard to shake such a carefully and beautifully crafted pilot filled with details from and callbacks to the original game—from sequences that follow the gameplay shot-for-shot to nods to relevant objects and plot points, not just for The Last of Us, but for the other games in the series as well. 

When does The Last of Us take place? Of course, some changes had to be made. You really can’t avoid it when adapting a story from one media format to another. Luckily, the changes that creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann implemented make perfect sense—like the relatively small but incredibly significant shift in the story’s timeline.

What year does The Last of Us take place in, exactly?

Both the game and show versions of The Last of Us open on what will later be known as Outbreak Day—the day the cordyceps brain infection starts to spread across the United States and the rest of the world. Joel, his daughter Sarah, and his brother Tommy try to leave Austin, Texas and get to safety, but not all of them make it. Both stories then jump 20 years into the future, and we meet a hardened Joel doing his best to survive as a smuggler in the Boston quarantine zone.

In the game, Outbreak Day occurs on September 26, 2013, meaning that the adventures of Joel and Ellie take place in 2033. In the show, however, Outbreak Day was pushed back 10 years to September 26, 2003, so the real story begins in a very much present-feeling 2023.

It’s a decision that works—as Mazin and Druckmann themselves explained to Inverse. “I have this thing about jumping into the future. I feel like, if I’m watching a show and the year is 2023, and the show takes place in 2043, it’s just a little less real. Even if I’m watching a show in 2023 and it takes place in 2016, it’s a little less real,” Mazin said. “I thought it might be interesting to just say, ‘Hey, look, in this parallel universe, this is happening right now. This is happening this year.'”

The timeline shift is punctuated with visual cues and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lines, like Sarah asking, “Is it terrorists?” as the family gets in the car to get out of Austin, something that makes a lot of sense just a couple of years after 9/11. It grounds the story in realism, especially for an audience experiencing it for the first time. (You know, as if the whole opening with the ’60s TV interview about whether it’ll be fungi or viruses that eventually take out humanity wasn’t chilling enough.)

Still, The Last of Us isn’t a story about COVID-19. The creators, who began developing the series before 2020, are quite sure of it and want everyone else to be aware of it as well. “We really didn’t want to make a show about COVID-19,” Druckmann explained in the same Inverse interview. “We wanted to make something that’s more universal than that. Spanish flu was a big influence as far as how it affected people, how people died, how they became very segregated, how they became xenophobic.”

All and all, the subtle but significant timeline change is yet another detail that shows the care that went into one of HBO’s most anticipated productions—a production that I can’t wait to get more of because clearly, a good chunk of my fandom life is waiting for the weekly release of HBO shows. That’s my lot, might as well accept it.

(image: HBO)

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Benedetta (she/her) lives in Italy and has considered being in fandom a defining character trait since she was in middle school and wasn't old enough to read the fanfiction she was definitely still reading. She loves dragons, complex magic systems, stories about the intrinsic goodness of humanity, queer representation, women who could crush her and Mr Darcy type men. Her blood runs purple.