Welcome back to week two of The Last of Us. In terms of the distance traveled this episode, the party goes about a half mile. In terms of character development, they’ve gone leaps and bounds. Let’s get right into it.
We open with another flashback to 2003, and the early days of the infection. In Jakarta, the military comes and plucks Ibu Ratna away from her lunch table and hustles her off to a lab, dropping her in front of a microscope. The mycology professor quickly identifies the sample as cordyceps but asks why the slide was treated with chlorazol. The general replies that it’s the protocol for slides from human specimens. Dr. Ratna is puzzled since everyone knows that cordyceps can’t survive in humans. (I mean, we all watched that 1968 talk show last week, right?)
The general takes her to an autopsy room, after putting her in a full hazmat suit. On the table is the body of a woman, who suddenly started attacking her co-workers at the flour factory and then got shot after attacking the police. She slices open the bite mark on her leg, and instead of blood and muscle, there are strands of fungus. She looks in her mouth and pulls out more fungal threads from her throat. And the tendrils are moving on their own. They try to reach for the doctor while she holds them with forceps. That’s enough for her, and she smartly gets out of the room.
The general brings her a cup of tea in the debrief room, which Dr. Ratna sips with a shaky hand. The general tells her that the dead woman bit five others, all of whom were held for observation and then had to be executed after they started to turn violent. He tells her they need a vaccine or a cure. The doctor shakes her head. She’s studied this her entire life. There is no vaccine. There is no medicine. The general asks what can be done. She has a one-word response. “Bomb.” Bomb the city, bomb everything, the only way to kill it is to burn it. Now, she says as she wipes away a tear, please take her home. She’d like to be with her family.
If the framework of the show is going to include a flashback to the before times at the start of each week, I’m all for it. Christine Hakim plays the professor and does a great job as her bewilderment turns to curiosity, then terror, and then utter dread at the finality and seriousness of the situation.
Back in present-day Boston, Ellie wakes up from her night of stabbing guards to find Tess and Joel watching over her. Joel is ready to cut her loose, not believing that her infection is contained, but Tess seems more ready to believe her. Ellie says that the fact she hasn’t turned into a monster yet should be enough proof. She also tells them that Marlene was going to send her out west to the firefly base, where there are doctors working on a cure. Joel rolls his eyes. It’s a myth, one that he’s heard a hundred times. He’s ready to head back into the Quarantined Zone, but Tess convinces him that their best bet is still to get her to the statehouse and trade her for the car from the Fireflies. (Besides, there’s that whole killing a guard thing.) Joel reluctantly agrees, and they set off through downtown Boston.
Normally, it’d be an easy ten-minute walk through Boston Commons to get to the statehouse, but the route is blocked by ruined buildings, covered with impressive-looking mushrooms, and rubble. Plus, you know, all the zombies. They need to get to a nearby hotel to scout out a safe path.
On the way, Ellie and Tess get very chatty. Ellie says she got bit while exploring an old mall in the QZ. Tess scolds her. Oh, the one that’s barricaded off because it’s not safe? Yeah, that’s the one. She says she went in by herself but that seems like a lie to me, based on how she looks down when answering. Ellie has a lot of questions. She thought that the streets of Boston would be crawling with packs of the infected. Nah, Joel says, it’s not that bad. There aren’t superinfected ones that explode spores on you? Nah, just stories. How about the ones with split open heads that see in the dark like bats? They pointedly don’t answer that one, saying that they should get a move on.
Some quick kudos to Bella Ramsey. She’s giving a great performance where her toughness and sarcasm cover up her fear, but it still leaves room for some innocent kid moments. She stares at the bomb craters in the streets of Boston (Apparently they tried firebombing the fungus like the doctor suggested to contain the spread. It worked in Boston, but not everywhere) She admires the views from the top of the hotel and she gets to have some playful scenes where she dings the concierge bell at the check-in desk and breaks out some really bad accents. (At least until the concierge skeleton flops out from behind the desk.)
The view from the hotel isn’t promising. The path they were going to take was choked with the infected. Previously they were deep in the buildings, but now their numbers have grown. They’ll have to take the other route, through the top floor of the museum and over the roofs.
This is our first look at the infected, and even from a distance, they look quite frightening. They are a mass of bodies, lying on the ground, twitching and writhing. Tess helpfully explains that they’re connected by the cordyceps fungus. The fungus has tendrils that can run through the earth for a mile, acting like a tripwire. So stepping on a root can alert the infected blocks away and send them racing towards you. The infected can last anywhere from a few days to up to twenty years, so best not to wake them.
The museum door is covered with fungal blossoms, which gives our party pause. Joel notes that they’re all dried out, which means that any infected inside should be dead. Should be… They take out their flashlights and carefully head inside. Ellie finds a freshly dead body, which means that maybe the infected aren’t all gone. Tess tries to reassure herself by saying that maybe he was attacked outside and came in to die. Sure, let’s go with that.
The museum sequence is a great exercise in tension, with every creak magnified. The building is literally falling apart after decades of neglect, and the ceiling collapses behind them just as they get to the top floor. And then they start to hear some clicks…
The clicks mean the infected are up there with them. Joel hides them behind a display case, quietly whispering to Ellie that the infected can’t see, but they can hear. Which… I’m not sure if that’s how fungi work, but ok. I’m not going to question the logic right now. The infected shambles past them until it whirls around and screams at them, giving us our first up-close look at the monsters. And they look amazing. Sharp teeth, and heads covered in mushroom-like spores, they are truly frightening and very difficult to kill.
There are two up there with them and Joel fires round upon round into them and they still keep coming. Apparently, only direct headshots can stop them, and even then it’s best to double or triple-tap. It is a very tense and exciting action sequence, with two of these monsters proving to be more than a match for our trio who barely manage to kill them. Ellie has gotten bit, again, which she shrugs off. If it had to happen to anyone, right? Tess has twisted her ankle but is ok to keep going.
They finally reach the statehouse, but instead of a welcome wagon of fireflies, they find that everyone is dead. One of the bodies lies in a pool of cordyceps shoots, leading Joel to guess that one of them got infected and then started to attack the others, who then fought back until everyone was dead. Tess desperately searches for a radio or a map or anything that might help her find out where the base is out west. Joel tells her to knock it off. They should head home. Tess screams at him. That’s not her home, and she isn’t going back. She’s staying here.
Ellie figures it out first. Tess got bit in the fight. She shows off the nasty bite mark she has on her neck, one that’s already spreading out. (Guess that’s why the posters for this show only have Joel and Ellie on them.) Ellie unwraps her arm, and her injury is almost healed. Maybe Ellie is right after all, maybe she is the key to a cure. Tess begs Joel to keep going and take Ellie to their contacts, Bill and Frank. They’ll help.
There are screams in the distance as that horde of infected that was lying in the street is alerted to their presence by the tendrils and starts running for them. Tess starts dumping fuel cans over. She’ll keep them from following. Joel drags a screaming Ellie out of the building. As the infected charge in, Tess struggles with her lighter until it finally catches. she drops it into the fuel, blowing up the state house and letting the others escape. Goodbye, Anna Torv. You were great as Tess, taking a character that could’ve simply been a hard bitter woman with a heart of gold and made her fully developed and three-dimensional. You will be missed. Hopefully, there is a flashback scene for you in a future episode.
Craig Mazin really knows how to ratchet up the tension and how to make the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces work. I do have a couple of questions about the mechanics of how the cordyceps is spread. Is it strictly through bites? Is it through the spores? Joel was fighting off a mushroom man in the museum, and it was right on top of him screaming into his throat. Wouldn’t that spread the infection? Especially since at the end, one of the infected kisses Tess with his throat-tendril-spores and they seemed quite eager to get inside her. Maybe this is clearer if you’re familiar with the game, which I am not.
Still, that’s a minor thing to be addressed. I’m sure Pedro Pascal’s plot armor will keep him safe for a few episodes.
Overall a very tense, and very solid episode. Next week promises us Nick Offerman, who looks to be playing a survivalist in the Ron Swanson mode. This seems a bit on the nose, but I am here for it.
Line of the Week:
Ellie: Can I have a gun?
Tess & Joel: Absolutely not.
Ellie: Fine. I’ll just throw my fucking sandwich at them.