The timeline for HBO’s The Last of Us season 1 encompasses decades despite most of the action happening toward the tail-end of the story. The Last of Us is based on the Naughty Dog video game of the same name and tracks the events of a Cordyceps outbreak that begins in 2003 and wipes out most of the civilized world, turning people into brutal, violent infected. The length of time between the outbreak and Joel and Ellie’s story is a significant element of their tale. What happens at the beginning of the outbreak shapes Joel into who he is when he meets Ellie.
Ellie was born after the outbreak and only knows a world with infected. The viral outbreak happens mostly off-screen and society’s collapse occurs before Joel meets Ellie. HBO’s The Last of Us flips the game’s timeline, which begins in 2013 and then jumps to 2033 for the main story. The show moved the outbreak to 2003 so that the 20-year time jump would put the story right in the modern era, 2023. Events that happen between 2003 and the start of The Last of Us are only alluded to and occasionally shown in flashbacks. A definitive timeline of season 1 covers everything that happened from 2003 to the season finale.
In 2003, the Cordyceps virus outbreak happens explosively and rapidly. As the talk show flashback in 1968 with Dr. Newman and Dr. Schoenheist forecasts, there is almost no time between the first signs of the virus and the infection of the majority of people. In The Last of Us, the Cordyceps zombie virus outbreak reaches a critical mass all at once. The chaos of the first half of season 1, episode 1 “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” shows how quickly everything breaks down upon the first sign of infection. Episode 2, “Infected,” begins with a flashback to the earliest sign of the outbreak beginning.
- A woman working in a flour mill in Jakarta, Indonesia, is infected with the Cordyceps virus, she attacks four people, and 14 more people go missing.
- The Indonesian government brings in mycologist Ratna Pertiwi to examine the deceased infected individual. Pertiwi urges the government to bomb the capital city immediately.
- Joel Miller celebrates his 36th birthday. Tommy Miller goes to jail for a bar fight. Sarah Miller notices some of her neighbors behaving erratically.
- The Cordyceps virus outbreaks in Austin, Texas, and chaos ensues. The military quarantines the city and Joel watches Sarah’s death at the hands of a soldier. Tommy and Joel escape.
- Towns are evacuated and survivors are moved to FEDRA quarantine zones. Excess civilians are massacred. Bill hides from FEDRA forces and remains in the abandoned town of Lincoln, Massachusetts.
The time between 2003 when the series begins and 2023 when the Joel and Ellie story begins is only shown in flashbacks and mentioned by characters. The story of The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie finding something to believe in again after having everything taken away. It’s important for the show to skip the intervening years between the outbreak and an older Joel to drive home that he is not the same man he once was. Episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” and episode 9, “Look for the Light,” show, respectively, Frank and Bill getting together and Ellie’s biological mother giving birth to her during that time.
These years are not necessarily critical to understanding the story of The Last of Us, but they make an important thematic point about Joel. In episode 6 “Kin,” Tommy tells Joel, “Just because life stopped for you, doesn’t mean it has to stop for me.” He’s referring to the fact that Joel became a shell of a man after Sarah died in 2003. That so many important events happened between 2003 and 2023 mirrors Tommy’s words, as plenty of things have happened after the Cordyceps outbreak, even if it’s easier for Joel to pretend that nothing has mattered since then.
- 2007 – The Baltimore Quarantine Zone falls, and one of the survivors, Frank, meets Bill and the pair begin a lasting relationship.
- 2008 – Anna gives birth to Ellie moments after being bitten by an infected. Marlene mercy-kills Anna and promises to take care of Ellie.
- 2010 – Bill and Frank meet Joel and Tess, and the quartet begins a mutually beneficial partnership and blossoming friendship.
- 2013 – Raiders attack Bill and Frank’s fortified town but are all killed by Bill and his defenses. Bill is wounded by one of the raiders but recovers.
- 2016 – Survivors create a fortified community in Jackson, Wyoming.
- 2017 – The Pittsburgh Quarantine Zone falls and the survivors head west, ultimately settling in Silver Lake, Colorado, led by a former school teacher, David.
After the initial Cordyceps outbreak, The Last of Us picks up in the late summer of 2023 with a much older Joel in Boston smuggling and performing physical labor to scratch out a living. Episode 1, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” episode 2 “Infected,” and episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” when not in flashback, take place in the summer approaching the fall. This is when the wheels of The Last of Us’s plot begin to turn.
- Riley runs away from FEDRA and takes Ellie on one last date through an abandoned mall in Boston, Massachusetts. Both girls are bitten by an infected, Riley turns, and Ellie discovers she is immune before killing her best friend.
- Tess and Joel agree to smuggle Ellie out of the Boston Quarantine Zone to the Massachusetts State House for Marlene and the Fireflies.
- Frank’s degenerative neuromuscular disorder becomes unbearable, and he decides he wants to commit euthanasia. Bill assists and joins Frank in the decision, both of them dying in bed after consuming a lethal amount of sleeping tablets. Bill leaves Joel a vehicle and weapons.
- Tess and Joel discover the State House is compromised. Tess blows herself and the infected up after being bitten but first, she makes Joel promise to deliver Ellie to Frank and Bill and protect her.
- Joel decides to bring Ellie to Jackson, Wyoming, to find his brother and see if Tommy can help them find the Fireflies out west.
Joel and Ellie travel across the United States and through Kansas City, Missouri. Episode 4 and episode 5 of The Last of Us take place in the fall and the events of the Kansas City Quarantine Zone happen only a few weeks before Joel and Ellie’s arrival.
- A resistance group rises up against FEDRA in Kansas City, an infamously brutal regime. They overthrow the government and exact revenge killings on FEDRA officials and citizens who collaborated.
- Resistance leader Kathleen Coghlan searches for Henry Burrell, a collaborator who gave up Kathleen’s brother.
- Joel and Ellie encounter a roadblock on the highway and take a detour through Kansas City to save time.
- Joel and Ellie are ambushed by bandits in Kansas City and their vehicle is disabled. Joel and Ellie kill three of the bandits and escape into hiding.
- The Kansas City resistance group led by Kathleen in The Last of Us begins a search for Joel and Ellie to avenge the bandits.
- Kathleen’s second-in-command, Perry, shows Kathleen a basement room that is buckling with something moving underneath. Kathleen orders Perry to focus on finding Henry and Joel rather than worry about the ground.
- Henry and his deaf younger brother, Sam, find Joel and Ellie and agree to work together to escape Kansas City.
- Henry, Sam, Joel, and Ellie escape Kansas City only to run into a guard who alerts Kathleen and the resistance members.
- Kathleen and her militia trap Henry, Sam, and Ellie, but the ground erupts and an army of infected comes out, killing Kathleen, Perry, and the entire militia. The swarm then heads back toward Kansas City.
- Sam is revealed to be bitten and becomes an infected overnight. Henry kills him to save Ellie then kills himself in despair, capping off the many deaths in episode 5.
After the events of Kansas City, there is a three-month time jump that brings The Last of Us into the wintertime. Episode 6, “Kin,” parts of episode 7, “Left Behind,” and episode 8, “When We Are in Need,” take place in snowy Wyoming and Colorado. When Joel and Ellie arrive in Jackson, a Christmas tree in the town square and children singing Christmas carols is a clear indicator of what time of year it is. The winter weather comes into effect in a big way during these episodes. A lack of food and shelter is a major reason David and his group eventually run into Joel and Ellie.
- Joel and Ellie reach Wyoming and are brought to Jackson, Wyoming, by Tommy and his wife, Maria.
- Joel nearly leaves Ellie’s side in Jackson, tasking Tommy to escort her, but he changes his mind at the last minute, and together they travel to a Firefly stronghold at the University of Eastern Colorado.
- Joel and Ellie discover the Fireflies have fled to St. Mary’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. They are ambushed by raiders. Joel kills one but receives a knife wound in the process.
- Ellie tends to Joel and his wound in an abandoned neighborhood, and they wait for him to heal.
- Ellie runs into David and James while hunting a deer. She trades the deer for penicillin and returns to heal Joel.
- David and his cannibal group follow Ellie’s trail back to the town. James and David bring Ellie back to their community, and the others stay and search for Joel.
- David promises to keep Ellie alive if she joins him. He and James prepare to butcher her for food when she refuses.
- Joel tortures and kills the cannibals searching for him and finds where the community is.
- Ellie kills James and David and reunites with a recovered Joel.
The season 1 finale of The Last of Us, episode 9, “Look for the Light,” takes the story out of the winter and, like the title notes, into the light of spring 2024. Joel and Ellie are at the final point of their journey in this episode and all the horrors of the past few months are presumably over now that they’ve reached the Fireflies in Salt Lake City. The climactic fight between Joel and the Fireflies over Ellie and the lie Joel tells Ellie ends season 1 The Last of Us, setting up season 2.
- Joel and Ellie arrive in Salt Lake City and see a herd of wild giraffes grazing.
- The Fireflies ambush the pair and bring Joel and Ellie to the hospital.
- Unbeknownst to Ellie, Marlene tells Joel they will need to kill her in order to study her immunity.
- Joel kills all the Fireflies in the hospital, including Marlene, and rescues Ellie.
- Ellie wakes up from her anesthesia and asks what happened. Joel lies to Ellie and tells her the Fireflies had already unsuccessfully experimented on other immune survivors, and he rescued Ellie when Raiders attacked the hospital.
- Ellie and Joel head back to Jackson with Ellie still unsure of exactly what happened in Salt Lake City.