[Warning: this story contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 1, "When You're Lost in the Darkness."] In 2021, The Last of Us series co-creator and showrunner Craig Mazin revealed HBO's adaptation of the PlayStation video game would consist of 10 episodes, the same as most seasons of Game of Thrones and spinoff House of the Dragon. But Sunday's lengthy series premiere, titled "When You're Lost in the Darkness," was the first in a nine-episode season. That's because the feature-length series premiere clocking in at 85 minutes — longer than premieres of HBO's House of the Dragon (66 minutes), Euphoria (53 minutes), and The White Lotus (51 minutes) — was two episodes combined into one.
On the official series podcast, Mazin and series co-creator and showrunner Neil Druckmann revealed Episode 1 originally ended on a 20-year time jump to present-day 2023. In post-apocalyptic Boston, hardened survivor Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) works burning bodies in a FEDRA-controlled Quarantine Zone, disposing a child's Cordyceps-infected corpse.
"Episode 1 used to be Episode 1 and Episode 2. It used to just end on the '20 Years Later' and seeing the kid and seeing Joel throw the kid in the fire, and that was it," Druckmann said. "That was Episode 1."
Mazin went on to explain that HBO executives — including Casey Bloys, Chairman and CEO, HBO and HBO Max Content — suggested that two child deaths in a single episode were "not necessarily going to make [audiences] want to come back." Instead, the episode continues and introduces 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a bitten-but-immune survivor who could be the key to saving the world.
"The whole story of The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie," Mazin explained. "If we only get a little glimpse of her at the end of Episode 1 — we don't bring them together, and we don't understand their journey — and it just ends with a kid dying and then another kid dying, and then credits, people may just not want to come back. It was important for [HBO] because they loved the show, and they were like, 'It would hurt all of us in our hearts if they don't want to come back.'"
After Fireflies resistance leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) hires smugglers Joel and Tess (Anna Torv) to get Ellie to the old State House, the episode ends with the trio escaping the QZ before wading into a Biological Contamination Area.
"In hindsight, the feedback makes complete sense," Druckmann said, adding another version of the episode ended more mysteriously: on a shot of Ellie looking out a window.
"But we haven't established why we should care about this kid. We care about this kid because we know where this journey is going and how important this kid is," Druckmann explained. "I remember when I worked on the game, this was always a test for people. I'd be like, 'What's the inciting incident?' [They would say], 'When [Joel's daughter] Sarah dies, obviously.' I'd be like, 'Nope. It's when Joel runs into Ellie. That's the thing that changes his life.'"
When the initial episode ended without Joel and Ellie meeting, Druckmann realized, "'We have to get to that moment, that's the start of this journey.' In hindsight, that feedback makes complete sense, and the episode is so much better for it."
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sundays on HBO and HBO Max. Follow for more The Last of Us on ComicBook.