The cellular immune response to HIV-1 has now been studied in extraordinary detail. A very large body of data provides the most likely reasons that the HIV-specific cellular immune response succeeds in a small number of people but fails in most. Understanding the success and failure of the HIV-specific cellular immune response has implications that extend not only to immunotherapies and vaccines for HIV-1 but also to the cellular immune response in other disease states. This Review focuses on the mechanisms that are most likely responsible for durable and potent immunologic control of HIV-1. Although we now have a detailed picture of the cellular immune responses to HIV-1, important questions remain regarding the nature of these responses and how they arise.