With Sarah, we bask in the calm before the storm: witnessing a typical day in the Miller household, we quickly get a sense of their family dynamic. It’s loving, but not nuclear family typical. It’s just Joel (Pedro Pascal), Sarah, and sometimes, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), her trouble-prone uncle. Joel is the protector, working hard at a job he feels little passion for because all that matters is bringing home to cash to take care of his own.
Though she’s still the child, Sarah has to do plenty of stepping up. We see it in their daily routine: she wakes him up in the morning, cooks breakfast, and has to remind him to buy pancake mix, pick up a cake and celebrate his own birthday, for Christ’s sake. When he asks if she’s done her homework, it’s played off like an inside joke: why would he even need to ask? She’s a responsible kid. When they have their mini birthday celebration — sans the cake Joel forgot to pick up — it’s because Sarah pulls it together. She gets her dad’s favorite movie and fixes his watch as a present (knowing he would never do it for himself). Their life isn’t picture-perfect, but it’s loving. Together, they make it work. Seeing that unit in action makes the loss of her that much more harrowing.
As for the viewer’s relationship to Sarah, she becomes our eyes ad ears in this world. Her gaze becomes our own. Her slow realization that the world is falling apart happens in tandem with ours, from the constant sirens to occasional twitching to the full-fledged eerie nighttime scene, straight out of a horror movie. It’s Sarah’s story until, tragically, it isn’t.