This episode begins with a flashback to a September day in 2003 when the top professor of mycology is whisked away by the Indonesian government to check out the first collected specimen of an infected person. After her examination, she confirms it to be cordyceps, the dangerous fungus that could not previously survive in humans. The Indonesian military member begs the professor for a cure or a vaccine, but she tells him that the only way for the world to survive is to bomb everyone in the city. Later we see this advice was taken. Although it’s not a direct 1-to-1 comparison, I can imagine that the first people dealing with the coronavirus must have felt a similar weight and anxiety about how it would change the world. Our global experience with COVID-19 heightens the nervousness I feel watching The Last of Us.
When Ellie wakes up from sleeping, Joel and Tess interrogate her on how she’s still alive even though she’s been bitten. Joel doesn’t want to risk her still becoming an Infected and wants to turn back to QZ, but Tess ends up being the positive one in the situation. She’s putting on a front when she tells Ellie that she and Joel aren’t good people. She’s trying to maintain her composure. Ellie’s retorts to their concerns are honestly hilarious. She’s sarcastic and impulsive, but it’s never off-putting. She becomes more charming with each comment she makes. When Tess compliments her guts, she seems genuinely touched. In Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s first scene alone together, they are snippy, and it’s funny to watch them try to connect despite both being avoidant people. They find a solid in-between topic when Ellie asks about guilt after carrying out violence. Even asking the question shows a distinct difference between herself and Sarah, who would’ve assumed guilt was an automatic response.
When we finally see the Infected, we’re given all the information we need about them. When travelers seek shelter, they run into Infected in the buildings, which has multiplied their numbers to the point of being out in the daylight. The fungus grows underground with long tendrils that connect Infected across vast distances and communicates with them where to go. While zombies feel like dead humans, the Infected feel like wholly new living organisms. The clicking induces dread and feels much more animalistic than anything zombies can do, and the way and speed at which they move are horrifying. The makeup work on the actors playing the Infected is perfect. Most people don’t like looking at a regular human brain, so seeing the fungus look like a large swollen brain makes it that much worse. The spores going in and coming out of the mouths are revolting, too.
Tess has a bigger role in this episode, which makes the ending that much more powerful and heartbreaking. She is often walking in front, in the foreground of the screen, and subtly being defensive of Ellie to Joel. She is the one who explains how the Infected work, not Joel, and specifically points this out because she’s trying to keep Ellie alive. She tells her that if anything goes wayside to get behind them. Joel is taken aback by Tess’s frustration at his negativity.
When they finally reach the new Firefly headquarters to find them all killed by Infected, Tess is manic. She’s looking for supplies and information, but Joel wants to head home. They learn that she’s been bitten, but she still has her wits as of right now. She begs Joel to carry on the mission because, for the first time with Ellie, there is hope of a cure, which he refuses at first. In one line of dialogue, everything about their relationship becomes clear. She was in love with him, but he wasn’t in love with her. Joel and Tess’s goodbye was so painfully restrained, with only one last phrase uttered by Tess: “Save who you can save.” And she does. Ellie and Joel run, and Tess kills herself and the Infected that chased them down with fire and bombs.
The way that each of the potential paths across the city are blocked feels slightly video-gamey, but not to the point where it feels false. Their decisions are still logical based on the situation. In fact, I like that I can tell what medium we’re adapting from. I’m still obsessed with the look of this post-apocalyptic hellscape. Having video game creator Neil Druckmann’s enthusiastic approval of the changes made to how the fungus would spread is wonderful. In the video game, it would spread through biting, saliva, and spores in the air, but Craig Mazin was inspired by fungi’s ability to communicate over large distances and chose to use mycelium as the way for Infected to find them, which is much more cinematic. Druckmann’s dedication to storytelling, no matter the medium, is so wonderful because he’s not treating his previous work as if it were sacred. He’s happy to improve upon it, which gives me hope going forward, we are on the right path.