The Key Food Moments You May Have Missed in The Last of Us

Everyone picked up on the cookies and cake, right?

Updated on February 09, 2024

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Spoiler Alert: This article contains plot points from the first season of HBO’s The Last of Us.

Editor’s note: HBO and Food Network are both brands of parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us, in which hardened-by-loss survivor Joel (Pedro Pascal) and effervescent 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) embark on a dangerous journey so that Ellie can (possibly?) save the world, is a show about food, but you could surely make an argument for it. After all, the apocalyptic fungal infection that turns people into the “Infected” was originally likely spread through flour. The cordyceps outbreak is further spread when the infected bite non-infected people. In this show, based on the popular video game of the same name, humanity itself becomes food.

Of course, The Last of Us is also about survival and sacrifice — and the connection and love that makes us human and life worth living. Essential to all that, is food.

Here’s a look at all the moments food makes an appearance in the first season of The Last of Us, many of which prove pivotal.

Photo by: Photograph by Shane Harvey/HBO

Photograph by Shane Harvey/HBO

Episode 1 - “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”

The show begins with a snippet of a 1968 talk-show in which an epidemiologist explains that, while mankind has won over viral pandemics, its triumph is not at all assured over a different potential threat: fungus.

“Viruses can make us ill, but fungi can alter our very minds, the epidemiologist says. Such a fungus would tell its host where to go and what to do, according to the show. “And it gets worse,” the scientist warns. “Fungus needs food to live, so it begins to devour its host from within.” Keeping its host alive, the fungus drives it forward to spread the disease.

Cut to 2003: It’s Joel’s 36th birthday and his teenage daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), wants to make him pancakes for breakfast, but they’re out of pancake mix, so they enjoy eggs, juice, coffee and bacon instead. Tommy (Gabriel Luna) joins them in the kitchen, disappointed at the lack of pancakes; he eats leftovers from the fridge instead. On the radio, which plays as they eat, a news reader mentions Jakarta, Indonesia, but it’s unclear why. It’s going to be a long day of contracting work for Joel, but he promises Sarah he’ll bring back a cake.

As Joel, Sarah and Tommy leave for the day, their next-door neighbor offers them some biscuits, while feeding his catatonic older mother. Both Sarah and Joel decline. After school, Sarah helps the neighbor’s wife bake cookies — oatmeal raisin, to Sarah’s disappointment, instead of chocolate chip — so Sarah doesn’t eat them, though the neighbor does suggest she bring some back for Joel. When Joel gets home, it turns out he has forgotten the cake.

The fact that circumstances prevent Joel (who at one point jokes that he’s on the low-carb Atkins diet), Sarah and Tommy from eating pancakes, cookies, cake and the neighbor’s unappetizing-looking biscuits, all of which contain flour, proves fateful.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 2 - “Infected”

We learn that the cordyceps fungal infection got its start in a flour and grain factory outside Jakarta. Told of the outbreak over a cup of tea, a mycology expert calls it “a perfect substrate.”

Later in this episode, after Joel’s partner and fellow smuggler, Tess (Anna Torv), and Joel discuss what to do about Ellie, whom they have agreed to deliver into the hands of a rebel group called the Fireflies, Tess offers to share the jerky she and Joel have brought with them for nourishment. Ellie declines; Marlene (Merle Dandridge), a Firefly leader, has packed her a lunch. It’s a delicious looking sandwich. “Is it chicken?” Tess asks, somewhat incredulous. “Yeah,” Ellie confirms. “Marlene says they get it from smugglers. Guess not you guys.” That Marlene is feeding Ellie so well, presumably at a high cost, seems to unlock something in Tess. “Why are you so important to Marlene?” She demands, walking incautiously up to Ellie, whom she knows has been bitten. Despite having been told not to tell anyone, Ellie explains that she is immune to infection and her blood holds the key to a cure.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 3 - “Long, Long Time”

This exquisite episode, tracing the relationship between survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), is loaded with food’s power — the way it connects us, lets us show care, elevates our lives and how much better it tastes when enjoyed with someone we love.

Early on, Joel explains to Ellie the origin of the infection — that it probably got into the food supply through a “basic ingredient, like flour or sugar.” “There were certain brands of food that were sold everywhere…,” he says, “Bread, cereal, pancake mix.” Emphasis on pancake mix. One thing led to another, and “then they started bitin’.” It may have started on a Thursday or Friday, “and by Monday, everything was gone,” he says.

Images of a killing field segue into a scene in a small town, where Bill evades mandatory evacuation — and likely death — in his guns-and-ammo-stocked bunker. When he emerges, Bill stocks up on everything from gas to home goods to boxes of wine from the charming local liquor store. Bill grows his own vegetables (we see him reverently pull a carrot from the earth), raises animals, and soon we see him cooking a beautiful piece of meat and expertly deglazing the pan. As he enjoys a sumptuous, perfectly plated meal, alone, with a glass of fine wine close at hand, he hears a buzz, then watches an infected man get killed in one of his traps on a security camera video feed.

“Mmph,” he marvels, taking another bite of meat. “It doesn’t get old.”

Four years later, another security buzz brings Bill face to face with Frank, an uninfected, unarmed man who has fallen into his trap, the last of 10 people who were trying to make it from Baltimore to Boston.

For some reason, Bill decides to spare Frank, and Frank boldly asks for food, saying he hasn’t eaten in two days. Overcoming reservations, Bill offers Frank a hot shower, clean clothes and a lovingly prepared meal. Fancy china on a gold charger, fine crystal, good wine and all. Frank’s face when presented with this meal is everything.

“What the … !” He exclaims.

“Everything tastes good when you’re starving,” Bill responds.

“Yeah, but not like this.” And Frank marvels that Bill is “a man who knows to pair rabbit with a Beaujolais.” To which, Bill says, “I know I don’t seem like the type.”

“No, you do,” Frank says.

Over a carefully prepared and presented meal, their love story begins.

Some time later, Frank surprises Bill with a garden of fresh strawberries, which he has grown from seeds (he traded Tess and Joel one of Bill’s guns for them, turning potential violence into sweetness). Frank lovingly picks two fresh, ripe berries. They bite into them — eyes closed — and giggle with glee, savoring the sun-ripened flavor in unison, and the moment ends in a sweet embrace. The experience of biting into a fresh strawberry becomes a symbol of an intangible worth living for – much like the love Frank and Bill hold for each other.

Of course, despite Bill’s impressive survivalist skills, the two cannot escape their natural mortality. At a final meal, an echo of their first, the two choose to end their lives, together.

From start to finish, food is interwoven into Bill and Frank’s loving relationship: bringing and keeping them together, allowing them to express and share love, civilizing their world and elevating their lives. In a brutal and dangerous world, they live in a beautiful, safe bubble of delectable plenty.

Remember how we all baked bread and gathered to enjoy it with the loved ones with whom we had holed up to ride out the pandemic? This episode evoked that feeling in a deeply resonant way.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 4 - “Please Hold To My Hand”

Joel and Ellie pull off the road and enjoy a meal cooked on Bill’s camp stove. “What am I even eating?” Ellie asks. “That is 20-year-old Chef Boyardee ravioli,” Joel responds. “That guy is good!” says Ellie. “I actually agree,” Joel says, stone-faced. Though, it’s one of many moments when Joel begins to form a bond with Ellie.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 5 - “Endure and Survive”

In this episode, the need for food propels the plot and forges connection. We see Henry (Lamar Johnson) unpack a bag of food in the hideout he’s sharing with his brother, Sam (Keivonn Woodard), who is deaf, and FEDRA collaborator Dr. Edelstein (John Getz). There is access to water. But food? “Whatever you brought,” the doctor answers. “Twenty cans and six pounds of jerky” — in a homey looking Tupperware, no less — “for the three of us,” he announces. “We stick to the minimum, I think we can make it 11 days.”

Hunger eventually drives the doctor out, looking for food. He does not come back. Henry breaks the news to his brother. “We don’t have any more food,” he says in sign language. “We need to leave.”

Henry and Sam eventually find their way to Joel and Ellie, who share their stash of food with them, establishing friendship and trust. Joel even gives some of his own portion to the little boy, showing the generosity and humanity that still exists beneath his gruff exterior. Yet he cannot fully go there. “Look, you ate, we didn’t kill each other. Let’s call this a win-win and move on,” Joel tells the brothers. Eventually, all four move on together, and after enduring extreme obstacles, the friendship grows, again over a shared meal. They plan to continue on together, sharing food and intel, offering mutual connection and protection. But by the episode’s end, the Infected world has other plans.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 6 - “Kin”

After Joel and Ellie take an older woman (Elaine Miles) hostage, the woman’s partner (Graham Greene) comes home to their cozy cabin — swinging rabbits, one of which Ellie later steals for her and Joel to eat — to find her sitting in a rocking chair. As Joel points a gun at him, the man asks why the woman didn’t shoot Joel. Then he notices two empty bowls on the table. “You made him soup?” he asks, incredulous. “Yeah, I did,” she answers calmly. “It’s cold out.” Food acts as warmth and welcome, even in — especially in — dire circumstances.

Later in the episode, Joel and Ellie are welcomed into the settlement where Tommy lives with a warm meal in a gorgeous food hall with wood beams and glimmering string lights. As they wolf down their food, pretty plated pieces of pie awaiting them, Tommy’s wife, Maria (Rutina Wesley), lets them know that they can have seconds, if they’d like. “Thank you, ma’am,” Joel says. “It’s been a while since we had a proper meal.” Ellie responds: “Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had a proper meal. This is … amazing.” After Joel chides her to mind her manners, Tommy offers a wistful smile. Is he remembering Sarah? Seeing the father in Joel, as he readies himself for the same role?

Still later, Joel and Tommy catch up and hash out brewing resentment over a drink (booze over a gorgeous hunk of ice in just-right rocks glasses) in a bar, looking for all the world like two hipsters kicking back. The alcohol loosens their inhibitions, and they quarrel like, well, brothers with the weight of the world on their shoulders. After leaving the bar in a huff, Joel appears to have a small heart event and sees a young woman who clearly reminds him of Sarah.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 7 - “Left Behind”

In a flashback to her time in military school, Captain Kwong (Terry Chen) tells Ellie, who has been misbehaving since her best friend Riley (Storm Reid) left, that she has “two paths” to choose from: If Ellie misbehaves, she can look forward to the difficult life of a grunt, which includes bad food; if, however, she swallows her pride and follows the rules, she can become an officer, eat better food and live in relative comfort. So we know there’s something at stake for Ellie when she agrees to sneak out of her dorm room for a night of adventuring with Riley, who has returned to see her. As they adventure in an allegedly sealed up mall, the two take a few swigs from a pre-apocalypse bottle of booze they find near a dead guy.

Later, Riley, who has joined the Fireflies, cites FEDRA’s mistreatment of its people – by starving them – as one of her motives for switching sides.

Riley has been bunking in a nacho kitchen in the mall’s food court. It’s called “Macho Nacho” (an apparent reference to another video game). When Riley brings Ellie to the counter, for a moment, Ellie excitedly asks her whether the gift she’s promised her is tacos. After Riley shoots her a look, Ellie mutters, disappointedly, “OK, not tacos.”

No, not tacos.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 8 - “When We Are in Need”

In this episode, in which Ellie and Joel encounter members of a cult-like community, led by paternalistic predator David, hunger (for power, as well as for survival) drives people to a truly dire, unappetizing edge. Suffice it to say that venison, rabbit, elk and a rapidly diminishing supply of canned goods are not all these folks are eating. Yeah, let’s leave it at that.

Photo by: Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

Episode 9 - “Look for the Light”

Aside from a can of Chef Boyardee (call back to episode four!) discovered alongside a Boggle game — as well as a brief mid-hospital-shootout glimpse of a Bunn coffee maker in the background — the first-season finale of The Last of Us did not involve much food. But at the end of the episode — right before Joel, having saved Ellie at the cost of humanity, betrayed her trust by looking right into her eyes and lying to her — he gave her, and us, this morsel to chew on.

“Look, some things don’t work out the way we hope,” he said. “You can feel like you’ve come to an end and you don’t know what to do next. But if you just keep going, you find something new to fight for …”

We’re sure these two will have a lot more to fight for in season two. And the amazing first season of The Last of Us, whether or not everything worked out the way we hoped, has definitely left us hungry for more.

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