I have to be brutally honest: I found episode 1 of “The Last of Us” to be a bit boring. I gave it credit for the storytelling in a pilot I already knew the basics of, but in a five star rating system, I’d probably give it a three. Good news, though: Episode 2 is even better!
We open in Jakarta on September 24, 2003. A woman, Ibu Ratna, professor of mycology at the University of Indonesia, is detained by a grave-looking military officer and taken to what looks like a hospital. There, Ratna inspects a corpse, with a nasty bite mark on its leg and a mouth still full of moving mycelium.
Measured against the first episode’s intro – the talk show bit – I thought it was pretty strong. The first intro had the unenviable task of explaining the idea of an apocalyptic fungal infection to an audience that might have been primed for yet another zombie TV show. Here, we know what’s going on, and the opening sequence dominates it, delivering dread and sadness all the way through. When the professor realizes the scope of the problem – at that time, only about 15 infected people are unaccounted for – she tells the military man: “Bomb. Begin the bombing. Bomb this town and all its people.” Clearly aware of the problem, Ratna asks to go home and spend the rest of her time with her family.
(By the way, it features Craig Mazin. If you liked a taste of “scientists grappling with an overwhelming, inhumane disaster in front of a bureaucrat,” do I have good news for you about Mazin’s previous show, “Chernobyl?”) Is. “)
We cut to Ellie, who wakes up to find Joel and Tess standing guard over her. They interrogate him and learn that his destination is a Firefly military base, where his miraculous existence may help create a cure. Joel says he’s heard it all before, and he wants no part of it.
There is some beautiful staging in this scene. Ellie sits under a beam of light, tufts of grass and flowers grow around her. Joel on the other hand is in the dark. and Tess, as the scene progresses, walks out of the darkness with Joel, ending up in the middle of the two. The whole time, Joel’s hands tremble (a hairline fracture; he brushes it off). Meanwhile, Tess’s faith – everything she thought she knew about the infection – is also shaken. Tess finds a middle ground, and the adventure continues. Ellie may not be who the fireflies think she is, but her delivery will still net the adults what they need: a car battery.
Outside, the group comes upon a crater. “Is this the place they bombed?” Ellie asks. It is, says Tess. We have come to know that most of the big cities were affected in this way. But it’s not clear whether it works in all those places, or what “works” means for that matter. A short while later, when Ellie makes reference to zombies that use echolocation, Tess and Joel look on in concern.
Back to back, we get two face-to-face conversations between Ellie and Tess or Joel. (This is known as juxtaposition.) Tess remarks that Ellie is a strange child, but she clearly warms to her. They talk about how Ellie got bitten in the first place (she gives one of those answers that feels like it’s leaving something out, like we’ll be seeing it again in a later episode). , and you can sense there’s a flicker of identity when Ellie talks about venturing into an off-limits area in the quarantine zone. That’s Tess and Joel’s bread and butter; After all they are smugglers.
Joel and Ellie have a hard time finding common ground – or rather, their dynamic is taking a different shape than Tess and Ellie’s. As the paternal guardian protector type of person, Joel proceeds to rescue Ellie from the skeleton-fallen jumpcares as the group heads toward the State House. This is a point in Joel’s column. But Ellie isn’t really ready to have a conversation with a guy she knows has definitely thought of killing her. She talks intelligently, and the only hearty one between the two is about to kill the infected. Does Joel feel bad knowing they were once human, Ellie asks? Sometimes, says Joel.
Taken together, these two conversations make for an interesting impression of the trio. They almost… look like a family? I hope nothing bad happens!
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There is an obstacle on the way to the State House: hordes of infected, visible from the hotel terrace. We learn a little more about the rules of the world here. As a beam of light passes over the corpse, we see them writing in unison, in a wave-like motion. Tess reveals that they are engaged. If you step on a patch of Cordyceps in one location, an underground fungal connection alerts Cordyceps elsewhere like a trip wire.
Seeing that the route is closed, the group chooses to go through a museum. There is a passage on the roof that will bring them closer. The museum’s façade is covered with fungal 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 enter, Ellie stumbles upon a body that looks very recently dead. And it looks worse than other victims; Joel and Tess are clearly horrified by the state of this corpse. But for the purposes of all three, there is only one way out, so they quietly leave.
Silence is the key word here. Remember Ellie mentioning the zombies that use echolocation? They are here! When the group makes it to the second floor, the ceiling collapses behind them, obstructing their path. The commotion also attracts two zombies; Joel informs Ellie that the infected cannot see, and turn around based on sound. (These appear to be clickers, a type of zombie from the game.) An exit from Ellie sets off one, and Joel fights it off while the other chases Tess and Ellie. At a certain point, Ellie and Tess separate, and the focus shifts back to Joel, who reunites with Ellie. The camera work here really turns up the tension: By my estimation, the infected are more in this sequence than onscreen, with the tight zoom taking them off our radar. The fight ends with Joel getting axed into one zombie and Tess into another.
Ellie is bitten again, but she brushes it off: “If it were to happen to any one of us,” she says, trailing off.
“You are Ok?” Joel asks Tess. Twisted ankles, she replies.
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Joel goes to bandage Tess’ leg, but is rebuffed when she asks if he thinks the second bite could actually infect Ellie. She wants him to look on the bright side. Maybe for once, she says, they can actually win. He looks up at the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House, and in the sunlight, something like a smile appears on his face.
As the group approaches the State House, they see a truck. It is empty, and not far from it is a corpse. A trail of blood leads inside the house. Tess quickly goes inside the house, only to find more corpses. One is bitten, and the healthy ones fight the sick ones, Joel determines. For him, it means the adventure is over, and it’s time to go home. But Tess is adamant: Joel needs to get Ellie to her destination now. Ellie figures it out before Joel does: Tess is infected.
Her hands shake and her voice shaky as she asks Joel to commit to taking Ellie to Bill and Frank, who he says will get her off his hands. (For the record, we don’t know who Bill and Frank are; yet, people who’ve played “The Last of Us” might have some idea of what the story is about.) A few winks and You’ll-miss-it characterization here too: While pleading with Joel, Tess tells him she never asked him to feel the way she felt. Tess and Joel are very close. But the takeaway here is that Tess found something like normalcy in the aftermath of the apocalypse: love. It doesn’t look like Joel ever did that. At least he never admitted it.
As the scene unfolds, Joel stands rooted to the spot, nodding or shaking his head silently. Suddenly, one of the corpses comes to life, and it is a world Joel is comfortable in again. He lunges forward with a right and shoots the zombie in the head. Then, we see the corpse hovering between its fingers. The underground fungus wiring Tess was talking about earlier has been activated, and a horde of zombies nearby wakes up. Whatever time Tess thought she had left with Joel is surely short.
Save who you can, Tess tells Joel. So he grabs Ellie and drags her out of the building, leaving Tess behind.
Tess begins overturning barrels of gasoline and scattering grenades around, intending to blow up the oncoming zombies. But she struggles to flick her lighter, attracting the attention of a zombie that’s a bit more human than the clickers we’ve seen before (he has recognizable facial features, including one eye). In what has to be my least favorite sequence on this show so far, the zombie lays a tendril-full smackaroo on Tess; It is a cursed mirror image of the recognition and intimacy that Tess wanted from Joel. (I go into that view a little longer in a separate article). As the mycelia works its way into his mouth, we see the lighter produce a flame at the end.
From Ellie and Joel’s vantage point, we watch an explosion erupt from the State House, with a handful of the infected burning as they exit the building. Ellie looks shocked. Meanwhile, Joel’s facial expressions call into question Tess’s earlier claim about his feelings for her. His gaze is fixed, his eyes water—then he remembers Ellie, turns away from the State House, and keeps walking.
Questions and Observations
- This episode is about Tess. She can imagine the future. She wants to know things about other people. Episode 2 is about her personality being different from Ellie and Joel’s, and what is revealed about the main characters in that light.
- I’ve seen several YouTube videos that theorize that the source of fungal infections is contaminated flour. Sarah, Joel, and Tommy explicitly avoid any food with flour in episode 1, and in this episode, there is an outbreak at a flour and cereal factory in Indonesia. If you’re into that sort of thing (though I’m not) then this is an interesting easter egg.
- There is a snippet in the intro sequence where we see the face of an abstract person. The fungus then continues to grow out of the forehead – just like cordyceps actually do for their insect hosts.
- There was an uproar over the show not containing fungal spores, as did the game. Well, in case you care, Ellie says the word “spore” around the 20-minute mark. eat your heart out. That has been this week’s edition of Spore Watch. I wouldn’t count on this being a recurring segment.
- In this episode a frog plays the piano. The piano sounds surprisingly good for being submerged in water and possibly not being tuned for some twenty years. Every piano tuner I’ve ever talked to says you need to tune them at least once a year, or the pins get messed up. Maybe I’m being duped.
Episode 1: ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness’