The Last of Us Episode 2: Tess’ Death and the Zombie Kiss, Explained

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This story contains spoilers for episode 2 of “The Last of Us” and the video game “The Last of Us”. You can read our summary of episode 2 here.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a TV show about infected fungal zombies would at some point indulge in body horror. I was still puzzled when it happened.

Towards the end of the second episode of “The Last of Us”, it is revealed that Tess, Joel’s partner in crime, has been infected. To make matters worse, a horde of zombies is heading to the trio’s location. As series leads Joel and Ellie make their getaway, Tess stays behind to slow down the zombies by tipping over some barrels of gasoline and shooting a cache of grenades left behind by a group of smugglers and freedom fighters. But before she can spring her trap, a still-looking zombie approaches her and kisses her on her mouth, jellyfish-like tendrils coming out of her mouth and writhing in hers.

My first reaction was disgust. My second: Why the hell did the creators of the show do that?

The sequence plays out differently in the show than it does in the game, where Tess is killed by agents of PHAEDRA, the authoritarian pseudo-government backed after the zombie apocalypse. Here’s how showrunner Craig Mazin explained the switch to Elise Favismy old colleague, who I recently interviewed him for The Washington Post.

So I would ask Neil [Druckmann, co-creator of “The Last of Us”] a thousand annoying questions, especially at first,” Mazin said. “And I remember one of the annoying questions I asked was, why are the Phaedra soldiers all the way here? If the open city is really dangerous, it looks like they’re really trying really hard to find Tess and Joel. They could say, ‘hey, they did something terrible, but they’re going to kill them out there.’ So what do we care? We’re certainly not going to let them back in. If we ever see their faces again, we’ll get them. Y [Druckmann] I was like, ‘Okay, that’s fair.’”

Instead, the creative team opted to use the episode as an opportunity to lay down some ground rules, both for Ellie and the viewers.

“One of the needs we had was to show how the infected take over a city,” Mazin said. “How do they work? How do they get it? How many of them are out there? What guys? [are there]? And that naturally led to what made sense for that ending, which was him being infected instead of Phaedra soldiers. But you will see the Phaedra soldiers again, but not in Boston.”

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That might explain why the zombies kill Tess instead of Phaedra, but beyond the showrunners’ usefulness, it’s worth considering what the updated scene does symbolically, and what the change means in the context of the story. What does a kiss mean? We can join for free here. Kisses can be romantic. They can symbolize love. They may not consent. There is the kiss of Judas, the kiss of death, “Kiss of a Rose.” Remember “Cat person?” Kisses can be tender, wet, mean, sloppy, boring. There is bisous, a playful French greeting consisting of light kisses on the cheeks. Throughout history, kisses have meant many things. So what does the zombie kiss mean here?

There are some interpretations that I think a person can reasonably arrive at in good faith. The showrunners of this horror drama tv show may have wanted a dramatic horrific scene of body horror. But scratching the surface a bit, both the kiss and the tendrils from her give the sense that Tess is being welcomed into a new “community” of the infected. There is also something reminiscent of the Judas kiss; could indicate that if Tess cannot detonate the explosives around her, she will eventually turn into a monster and infect other people, going from someone trying to save humanity by smuggling Ellie, to someone who will betray her.

Another possible meaning is relevant to Tess’s relationship with Joel. Before she dies, Tess tells Joel that she never asked him to feel the way she felt (ie, return her love). The zombie kiss is a grotesque inversion of what Tess seemed to want so much from Joel: intimacy, closeness, togetherness. But this closeness comes at a cost: a loss of both his identity and his humanity.

There is a final interpretation, one that is less charitable. The kiss is clearly non-consensual, a grim fictionalization of rape culture and the kind of brutal behavior so many people endure even in our current non-apocalypse. (You can read this as thoughtful criticism or thoughtless reproduction.) And maybe the showrunners, who are male, didn’t think it might be cruel or send a weird message to subject one of the most prominent female characters on the show (so far) to an even worse fate than the one she suffered in the game, and in a creepier way.

These different interpretations can, of course, overlap. The meaning is hazy, and you can choose to believe several of these at once. I would also caution that there probably isn’t a right interpretation, even if Mazin and Druckmann might have a preferred one. A good way to think of these readings is like stops on a subway line. You have your destiny, other people have theirs, and at any moment you can get back on the line and go somewhere else. And if, for example, later in the season, Mazin and Druckmann choose to kill off other female characters with abandon and in equally grotesque ways, you might find yourself slipping from one interpretation to another.

Trying to analyze the meaning of the kiss raises the question of how you watch television. In the case of “The Last of Us,” I think there are roughly two types of viewers. There are those who buy the fiction of the show and interpret the things that happen on the screen very clearly, as a story. Then there are those who look at the show and see it as the product of the labor of hundreds of people, and see the proceedings as a result of the creators’ choices. It’s the difference between saying “I can’t believe Joel did X” and “Why did Mazin and Druckmann create an episode where Joel did X?”

With The Last of Us franchise having been around for nearly 10 years, many people are instinctively in the latter camp, having seen Druckmann in particular elevated from random game director to minor celebrity within video game culture. And my first reaction (ick!) leaned that way too. Why, I wondered, did these two creators opt for what seemed to be just a more disgusting Televised death for Tess? Having spent more time with the scene while working on my recap of the episode, and trying to think of it on its own terms, I think the way the show portrays the scene is the second interpretation, the one that focuses on Joel and Tess. . relationship. The whole episode is about their dynamic and how Tess and Joel differ in their relationship with Ellie.

With that twist, the scene reads like something other than gross. And yet I can’t help but be disappointed. The search for deeper meaning was fun as far as spending a few hours goes, but the seemingly correct interpretation is not. that revealing or interesting, so at first glance it feels like just a grisly and vaguely sexualized death of a major female character.

We already knew that Tess wanted more from Joel than she got. We have already get the horrors of this apocalypse. But beyond that, for all its looks and harshness, the show is light on meaningful characterizations. That’s what makes deciding on an interpretation so difficult, and reading the scene as rudeness on its own so easy.

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