I have to be brutally honest: I found episode 1 of “The Last of Us” a bit boring. I chalked it up to it being a pilot telling a story that I basically already knew, but in a five-star rating system, I’d probably give it a three. Good news though: Episode 2 is much better!
We open in Jakarta on September 24, 2003. A woman, Ibu Ratna, a professor of mycology at the University of Indonesia, is arrested by a serious-looking military officer and taken to what appears to be a hospital. There, Ella Ratna inspects a corpse, which has a nasty bite to the leg and a mouth full of mycelium that is still moving.
Compared to the intro of the first episode, the talk show part, I thought this was much stronger. The first introduction had the unenviable job of having to explain the idea of a doomsday fungal infection to an audience that may have been prepared for another zombie TV show. Here, we know what’s going on, and the opening sequence builds on that, delivering dread and melancholy throughout. When the professor realizes the scope of the problem—at that time, there are only about 15 infected people left—she tells the soldier: “Bomb. Start bombing. Bomb this city and everyone in it.” Clear-eyed about the problem, Ratna asks to go home and spend what time she has left with her family.
(This is a craig mazin specialty, by the way. If you liked this “scientist deals with overwhelming, inhumane disaster vs. bureaucrat” pitch, well, I’ve got good news for you about Mazin’s previous show, “Chernobyl”).
We cut to Ellie, who wakes up to find Joel and Tess standing guard over her. They interrogate her and discover that her destination is a Firefly military base, where her miraculous survival could help fabricate a cure. Joel says that he’s heard it all before and doesn’t want any of it.
There is a beautiful staging in this scene. Ellie sits in a shaft of light, clumps of grass and flowers springing up around her. Joel, on the other hand, is in the dark. And Tess, as the scene progresses, walks out of the darkness with Joel and ends up right between the two of them. All the while, Joel’s hands are shaking (a small fracture; he removes it). Meanwhile, Tess’s faith in everything she thought she knew about the infection is also shaken. Tess finds the middle ground and the adventure continues. Ellie may not be who the fireflies think she is, but by giving her up, the adults will get what they need: a car battery.
Outside, the group comes across a crater. “Is this where they bombed?” Ellie asks. It is, says Tess. We learn that most big cities were hit like this. But it’s not self-evident that it worked in all those other places, or what “it worked” means, for that matter. A little while later, when Ellie refers to zombies using echolocation, Tess and Joel exchange worried looks.
Back to back, we have two one-on-one conversations between Ellie and either Tess or Joel. (This is known as juxtaposition.) Tess comments that Ellie is a weird kid, but she’s obviously growing fond of her. They talk about how Ellie was bitten in the first place (she gives one of those answers that feels like she’s leaving something out, like we’re revisiting this in a later episode, maybe), and you can feel there’s a flicker of recognition when Ellie talks about breaking into a prohibited area in the quarantine zone. That’s Tess and Joel’s bread and butter; they are smugglers, after all.
Joel and Ellie have a harder time finding common ground, or rather, their dynamic shapes up differently than Tess and Ellie’s. As a fatherly protective guardian figure, Joel steps in to save Ellie from a falling skeleton as the group heads towards State House. That’s a point in Joel’s column. But Ellie isn’t really ready to strike up a conversation with a guy who knows he’s definitely thought about killing her. She jokes around, and the only candid exchange the two have is about killing infected. Does Joel feel bad killing them knowing they were once people? Ellie asks. Sometimes, Joel says.
Taken together, these two conversations form an interesting impression of the trio. They almost look like… a family? I hope nothing bad happens!
There is an obstacle on the way to Government House: a mass of infected, seen from the roof of the hotel. We learn a bit more about the rules of the world here. As a patch of light passes over the zombies, we see them squirm in a wavelike motion, in unison. Tess explains that they are connected. If she steps on a cordyceps patch in one place, an underground fungal connection alerts the cordyceps in another place, like a tripwire.
Since that route is closed, the group chooses to go through a museum. There is a passage on the roof that will bring you closer. The museum’s facade is covered in fungus growth, but Joel tests it with the butt of his rifle and declares it completely dry. Perhaps, he reasons, the infected inside are dead. But when they go inside, Ellie stumbles across a body that looks like Very recently dead. And he looks worse than other victims; Joel and Tess are visibly frightened by the state of this corpse. But for the trio’s purposes, the only way out is through, so they proceed in silence.
Silence is the key word here. Remember those zombies Ellie mentioned that use echolocation? Are here! As the group reaches the second floor, the ceiling collapses behind them, blocking their exit. The commotion also attracts two zombies; Joel points out to Ellie that these infected cannot see and move based on sound. (These appear to be clickers, a type of zombie in the game.) An exhalation from Ellie activates one, and Joel fights it off while the second one chases after Tess and Ellie. At a certain point, Ellie and Tess part ways and the focus returns to Joel, who regroups with Ellie. The camera work here really builds the tension: by my estimation, the infected are more off screen than on in this sequence, with tight zooms taking them off our radar. The fight ends with Joel shooting one zombie and Tess hammering an ax into another.
Ellie is bitten again, but shrugs it off: “If it were to happen to one of us,” she says, trailing off.
“You are well?” Joel asks Tess. Twisted ankle, she replies.
Joel goes to bandage Tess’s foot, but is rebuked when he asks if he thinks the second bite could infect Ellie. She wants him to look on the bright side. Maybe for once, she says, they really can win. She looks up at the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House and, in the sun, something like a smile crosses her face.
As the group approaches the State House, they see a truck. It is empty and there is a dead body not far from it. A trail of blood leads inside. Tess rushes inside, only to find more dead bodies. One was bitten, and the healthy fought the sick, Joel determines. For him, this means the adventure is over and it’s time to go home. But Tess is adamant: Joel now needs to get Ellie to her destination. Ellie realizes before Joel: Tess is infected.
His hands shake and his voice shakes as he asks Joel to commit to taking Ellie to Bill and Frank, who he says will take her off his hands. (For the record, we don’t know who Bill and Frank are yet, though people who have played “The Last of Us” may have an idea of what the story is.) -Characterization of the strange here too: pleading with Joel, Tess tells him that she never asked him to feel the way she felt. Tess and Joel are close enough. But the bottom line here is that Tess found something semblance of normalcy in the post-apocalypse: love. It doesn’t look like Joel ever did it. She at least she never admitted it.
As this scene played out, Joel froze in place, silently nodding or shaking his head. Suddenly, one of the corpses shudders, and this is a world Joel feels comfortable in again. He approaches with authority and shoots the zombie in the head. Then, we see tendrils flutter between the corpse’s fingers. The underground fungal wiring that Tess was talking about earlier has been activated and a nearby horde of zombies is awakened. Whatever time Tess thought she had with Joel was definitely cut short.
Save who you can save, Tess tells Joel. So he grabs Ellie and leads her out of the building, leaving Tess behind her.
Tess begins tipping barrels of gasoline and scattering grenades, intending to blow up the zombies that have arrived. But she struggles to light her own lighter, attracting the attention of a zombie who’s a bit more human than the clickers we’ve seen before (he has recognizable facial features, including one eye). In what has perhaps been my least favorite sequence on this show so far, the zombie plants a tendril-filled smackeroo on Tess; it’s a damn mirror image of the recognition and intimacy that Tess wanted from Joel. (I go a little more on that scene in a separate article). As the mycelia work their way into his mouth, we see the lighter finally produce a flame.
From Ellie and Joel’s point of view outside, we see an explosion from Government House, with a handful of infected burning as they exit the building. Ellie looks surprised. Meanwhile, Joel’s facial expression questions Tess’s earlier statement about her feelings for her. Her gaze lingers, her eyes tear up, then she remembers Ellie, walks away from the House of Representatives and continues walking.
Questions and observations
- This episode is about Tess. She can imagine a future. She wants to know things about other people. Episode 2 is about her personality being refracted into Ellie and Joel, and what is revealed about the main characters in that light.
- I have seen several YouTube videos that theorize that the source of the fungal infection is contaminated flour. Sarah, Joel, and Tommy deliberately avoid any food that contains flour in episode 1, and in this episode, the outbreak comes from a flour and grain factory in Indonesia. It’s an interesting easter egg if you’re into that sort of thing (although I’m not).
- There is a fragment in the introduction sequence where we see the face of an abstracted person. Fungal growth then continues off the forehead, much like cordyceps Really to their insect hosts.
- There was quite a fuss over the fact that the show didn’t have fungus spores like the game did. Well, if that matters to you, Ellie says the word “spores” around the 20-minute mark. Eat your heart. This has been the edition of this week of Spore Watch. I wouldn’t count on this being a recurring segment.
- A frog plays the piano in this episode. The piano sounds surprisingly good for being submerged in water and presumably out of tune for about twenty years. Every piano tuner I’ve talked to says you have to tune your piano at least once a year, or the pegs will go bad. Maybe they have been scamming me.
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