From the moment Ratna (Christine Hakim) sees the fungal tendrils twist after she removes them from a corpse’s mouth, she knows how much trouble humanity is in. A fungi expert working in Jakarta in 2003, Ratna is enjoying a nice lunch when she’s whisked away by some grim-looking soldiers and taken to a lab where she can’t believe what she’s being shown. She knows cordyceps can’t survive in a human body, so why does the evidence under the microscope suggest otherwise? Examining the corpse of an infected woman confirms that her worst nightmare is coming true. In her view, the only solution is to bomb the place and kill everyone within it for the greater good.
Ratna is the first to recognize the scale of the cordyceps threat and understand the cruel calculus needed to (maybe) contain it. In Boston, two decades later, Joel, Ellie, and Tess pass by evidence of that calculus’s aftermath, a crater left by a bomb targeting Boston, just as other bombs targeted other major cities in an attempt to control the spread. It’s awful, but who can argue with it? It’s what has to be done, right?
The tension at the heart of The Last of Us is between the grim measures needed to survive and the desire not to snuff out what makes us human in the process. The Boston Quarantine Zone is a success but only in the strictest definition. It might be a functional society, but who would want to live there? In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, characters adapt a motto borrowed from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.” It’s a sentiment that echoes through The Last of Us, too. (And if you haven’t seen HBO’s recent adaptation of the novel, check it out. It’s excellent and a fine companion piece to The Last of Us.)
Survival, however, is also necessary, and after the Jakarta prologue, the episode narrows its focus to Joel, Ellie, and Tess’s attempt to survive a crosstown journey from the QZ to the Massachusetts State House. It won’t be easy.
Ellie wakes up to a reminder that her very existence makes others suspicious. She begins her first full day with Joel and Tess with a gun trained on her and questions she’s unsure how to answer. How come she hasn’t turned? She doesn’t know. Why didn’t Marlene kill her? She doesn’t know that either. And as she steps out to use the bathroom, Joel isn’t so sure all this is worth it. Tess feels like it’s both honorable and smart to do to see the job through, but Joel’s less concerned that Ellie might be killed if she returns to the QZ. Better her than them, right?
Still, Tess wins out, and though Ellie jokes about possibly turning into one of the Infected, she takes their guidance seriously. She might be disrespectful, but she doesn’t want to die.
She’s also seeing things she’s never seen before, including a Boston that’s grown green years after collapsing in on itself. “It’s like a fucked-up moon,” Ellie observes upon seeing the crater. But it’s stranger than that. There’s an eerie beauty to The Last of Us’s post-apocalyptic future. Sure, it’s been shaped by bombs and the Infected, but much of it is simply what the world would look like if nature reclaimed it in humanity’s absence, a place where vines wrap around cars and plants grow inside water glasses at a restaurant that will never seat another customer. (It’s reminiscent, at times, of the old History Channel series Life After People.)
As they attempt to find a path to safety, Tess continues to interrogate Ellie, who tells her she was bitten in the old abandoned mall, a place she was exploring by herself, though there’s a little pause before she says “yeah” after Tess asks if she was alone. She also makes an odd look when Tess asks if she has a boyfriend. She doesn’t want to tell them everything, and they don’t want to tell her everything, either. Tess and Joel exchange glances when Ellie asks about the Infected, whose heads split open and can see in the dark. They seem to know something she’s better off not knowing.
Not that they have a lot of time to explain things to her anyway. In the distance, they hear the ominous sound of something that’s not quite human stirring. From the vantage of an upper floor of a hotel whose lobby has become a thriving pond — even finding room for an odd skeleton or two — they spy hundreds of writhing, underfed Infected. But before they can reach that vantage point, Tess has to investigate the best way forward, leaving Joel and Ellie behind to make awkward conversation. He admires her knife. She asks where he and Tess are from (Texas and Detroit) and whether they’re together. But Joel shuts down that line of questioning and her follow-up questions about how he got from Texas to Boston. He doesn’t feel like sharing that.
Joel’s not that invested in Ellie’s future. He sees her as a package to deliver and to be done with. Tess isn’t so removed, telling Ellie what she knows about how the cordyceps work, including the underground fibers that can connect them for miles and send them running to attack prey from a distance. Unfortunately for Tess, it won’t take much time for this bit of foreshadowing to bear fruit.
But first, the trio has to make its way through a museum covered in cordyceps outgrowths. They’re “bone dry,” which means this might be a safe place. But it’s not. A fresh corpse provides the first indication that they’re not alone in the museum. Then the clicking begins, a sound that Joel and Tess know means they’re among the Infected. As in the game, this is where the episode starts to get really scary.
On the second floor, Joel, Ellie, and Tess encounter humans (if that’s the right word) in an advanced state of cordyceps infection. Their heads look like giant mushrooms; though they can’t see, they can hear, and they use this sense to track their prey. The party does its best to stealth-mode its way through the exhibits, but they end up fighting the Infected and then making a hasty exit after a string of close calls that are maybe more than close calls. Ellie’s bitten again and resists infection again as well.
As they make their way across the rooftops, Tess criticizes Joel for his undying commitment to pessimism, barking, “Take the good news. Can you do that?” She’s come to believe in the mission and not just the payday at its end. Ellie is the real thing and the best hope for, well, everybody. And that makes Tess’s choice to sacrifice herself even more of a no-brainer than it might have been. Ellie isn’t the only one to be bitten at the museum, and when they discover the Statehouse contains only the corpses of the Fireflies who’ve killed each other after some were infected, Tess makes herself a central part of a booby trap that will keep the rampaging Infected from claiming Joel and Ellie. It works, despite a lighter that fails to light until the last possible moment. As flames engulf the Statehouse, Joel and Ellie begin the next phase of their journey.
• It looked like Tess would be around for the whole journey, didn’t it? She’s a memorable character, and Torv is terrific in the part (and it doesn’t look like Mindhunter is coming back any time soon, so it was great to see her). Alas, this is the end of the line for the character. There’s a reason the opening credits end on an image of just Ellie and Joel in silhouette, after all.
• Speaking of, this episode features the first scene of Ellie and Joel alone together. They don’t really know what to say to one another at this point, and why should they? Not only are they separated by a generation, but the generation gap between them is also a chasm. Joel watched the world he knew fall apart. Ellie knows no other world than the post-cordyceps wasteland. What do they have to talk about?
• That said, Ellie does know the world of before, if mostly from books. Her antics in the hotel lobby serve as a reminder that she’s still a kid at heart but also that this is her first time being in a hotel at all. Much of the pre-Infected world is made up of places and things she’s never experienced firsthand. In a way, this museum to Statehouse trek is like a high-school field trip from hell.
• Christine Hakim, who plays Ratna, will likely be unfamiliar to most viewers outside of Indonesia. She’s been a big star there since the 1970s, however.
• “Infected” was written by Craig Mazin and directed by the HBO series’ co-creator (and The Last of Us game writer) Neil Druckmann. These early episodes are understandably keeping the core creative staff at the wheel of the ship.
• If you haven’t seen Station Eleven, do check it out. There are no rampaging zombie-like creatures, but it shares a lot of themes with The Last of Us. (The book’s great, too.) And it looks like all of Life After People is available on the History Channel’s YouTube page for the show. It’s filled with its era’s cheesy editing techniques but still pretty hypnotic. (And an episode featuring the ruins of an amusement park I grew up going to chilled me to the bone.)
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Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the name of Christine Hakim’s character.
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