Cityscapes, cordyceps, and cinders
The second episode of The Last of Us television series is here, and regardless of what any given viewer thinks of the show, no one can deny that the creators are taking risks. While the premiere episode laid out a solid introduction to the series, it still left a lot of fans wondering what direction the story might take in the coming weeks. But this week’s episode, “Infected,” set a whole new tone, for better or for worse. Whether or not you liked it, there’s no denying that this second chapter laid it all out there and made some bold choices. It’s up to us to discuss and decide if the changes were worth it. Let’s break down the episode, and get into it.
Episode Two: “Infected” — run time 52 mins
The episode opens in Indonesia two days before the outbreak is in full swing, where government officials take custody of a professor of mycology (the study of fungi) from the University of Indonesia. At a lab, the professor goes into a laboratory to take a look at a woman who was bitten by what appears to be another person. The professor flees in horror when she sees that fungi are growing inside of the dead Infected woman, especially after pulling still-wriggling fungal tendrils from out of the dead woman’s mouth. The terrified professor makes it clear that there is no medicine or cure for this ailment, and she encourages the government official to bomb the entire city with everyone inside. Roll opening credits.
Ellie wakes up in an abandoned building to Joel and Tess watching her like a hawk. Joel is still skeptical of Ellie’s supposed immunity, and he encourages Tess to stop giving Ellie hope of living because of her bite. After some more back-and-forth about whether or not they should take Ellie back, she reveals to them that the Fireflies were taking her west to a base where they would try to find a cure. Joel is annoyed and says he’s heard it all before, but Tess convinces him to move forward because they’ll get what they want from the Fireflies regardless after dropping Ellie off. Ellie asks for a gun and both Tess and Joel say no.
Out in the open
They step out into the open city and we get a shot of the iconic leaning skyscraper from the game, which served as the first big set piece. We get some backstory and character quips as they walk through the ruined downtown area of Boston, and while going through a flooded hotel lobby, Ellie divulges she doesn’t swim. She also does the bit where she acts out being both a snobby hotel guest and receptionist, which for those who don’t know is a beloved (and somewhat hidden) character moment from the game. One of the hallways on their usual route is caved in, so Tess has to go around, leaving Joel and Ellie are left alone to have a stilted conversation where she tries to get to know him a little bit better.
Upon coming across a scene of dozens of Infected writhing around on the ground in a huge pile, Tess explains to Ellie that they’re all connected in a sort of hive mind through a network of fungal way lines that grow under the ground. She says that stepping on a patch of the cordyceps fungus in one area can alert “a dozen Infected from somewhere else.”
They decide to cut through a museum (another iconic location from the game) where they find a freshly-mauled man — Ellie says it didn’t look anything like that when she encountered the Infected that bit her. After a tense walk up the stairs, the trio encounters two Clickers: monsters in an advanced stage of infection who are blinded by fungus growing out of their heads, and the series’ most classic enemies. They make it out, and seem shaken but relatively unscathed. After taking a moment to catch their collective breath, we get the exchange from the game where Joel and Ellie comment on the view from the roof of the museum.
End of the line
When they reach the Capital Building, which was supposed to be the meetup spot with the Fireflies, they find that some of them became infected, and while the non-infected Fireflies tried to defend themselves, everyone ended up dead. When Tess frantically starts searching for clues of where to go next, Ellie figures out that Tess was actually bitten back at the museum and is now infected. Tess asks Joel to take Ellie to Bill and Frank’s so that she might go on to the Fireflies to help make a cure, and in turn help “right the wrongs” that Tess and Joel have enacted.
Joel shoots an Infected, which alerts a horde of more Infected via the fungal way lines. Tess starts pouring gasoline, grenades, and other ammunition onto the ground and demands that Joel and Ellie flee, and the former of which reluctantly does so (Ellie doesn’t have a say, as Joel grabs her by the arm and drags her kicking and screaming out of the room). As the Infect start barreling in, Tess is having trouble getting her lighter going.
One of the Infected slowly walks up to a horrified-looking Tess, and then gives her a fully open mouth kiss so that his fungus tendrils go into her mouth. She manages to ignite the lighter, and we see the building explode with Joel and Ellie safely outside. We end on a shot of Ellie staring breathlessly into the distance as the Capital Building smolders behind her.
This second episode was a doozy, so I’ll try to start with the less controversial stuff. Overall, this was a slow 52 minutes. It felt like we lost a lot of time repeating the same points in conversations, taking too long to get to the point, or taking too many little pauses between actions that left everything feeling like it was lurching along to me. I also didn’t get a great sense of flow with this episode. One of my friends that I was watching with described it as a collage, and I honestly think this image conveys the structure of this second chapter in the story well. It felt like the creators (so I guess Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, in this case) plucked moments out of the game and stitched them together simply because they wanted to include them, rather than considering why those moments worked so well in the game.
The best example of this, I thought, was the bit where Ellie pretended to have a conversation with herself at the flooded hotel’s reception desk. The hotel is a pretty famous (or infamous, I guess) level in the game that comes much later than where it was here, but I’ll let that lie — changes like that are usually pretty harmless. What I didn’t like about how this moment was implemented, though, was that Ellie went out of her way from a clear objective to partake in this moment, seemingly for no other reason than for the show to grind to a halt and go “Hey, remember when this happened in the game?”
When that moment happens in the game, Joel and Ellie are already exploring the area at a leisurely pace, so it makes perfect sense that she would slack off for a moment to have a little fun in an otherwise bleak day-to-day. It’s also just a lot later in the story, too, when Ellie is much more at ease with Joel and feels freer to be herself.
Okay, I know I’m already getting into the weeds a bit here. I get that they want viewers who have never played the game to be able to experience its most iconic moments, but plucking them out of context takes away from their overall impact, in my opinion. If they wanted to include those moments, I think they should have been a bit more careful when weaving them into the flow of the episode. It’s a cute moment, but a cute moment without the support from the appropriate context from the character’s arc or the overall story leaves it feeling hollow and devoid of any substance. I see this as a recurring pattern over the past two episodes, with the hotel lobby being the obvious moment this time around.
Taking a chance
Remember those risks I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it’s time to talk about those. We knew going in that they were going to change the way the Infected “work,” so to speak, namely by removing the detail that the fungal virus is spread by spores in the air. Ignoring the fact that that’s actually how fungus spreads in real life, they opted instead to have Tess explain to Ellie (or rather, info dump) how the Infected are actually all connected through those fungal way lines that grow between them through the ground. Digging deeper into the zombie lore stuff is their prerogative with the show; I was the one who asked them to do something to set it apart from the game, right? But to me, spending all this time setting up new rules about how the zombies work is a waste of precious screen time on something that never really mattered to the series in the first place.
The Last of Us is zombie fiction — the thing about The Last of Us, though, with its intense focus on character-driven storytelling, is that the zombies don’t really matter. The fungus thing is a nice twist, but they could be shark zombies or straight-up aliens for all I care. What makes The Last of Us different than anything else in the already over-saturated zombie media market is its characters, and what it does with them. What makes the Infected the most interesting, in my opinion, is the high-stakes, pressure cooker context they provide that builds the framework for some robust, satisfying, and ultimately really moving character work.
When it comes to the Clicker scene… it wasn’t my favorite. It was chaotic, but not in like an I’m-on-the-edge-of-my-seat kind of way. It was more of an I-can’t-tell-what-the-hell-is-going-on kind of thing. Between the extreme shaky cam and incomprehensible cuts, it’s near-impossible to follow, even upon repeat viewings. It was cool to see Clickers, though, because they are a fun monster. I just didn’t think the scene was shot or edited in a particularly compelling way, from a horror standpoint.
We gotta talk about the kiss
I’ll end on the same note that the episode does: Tess’ kiss. Anna Torv does a phenomenal job as Tess and brings something new to the role (something I’m still holding my breath to see from Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal), but they really lost me with the kiss. I’ve heard all kinds of explanations for why it’s there, including the one from Mazin himself, but it just… doesn’t work for me. It’s certainly gross. It’s certainly shocking. But I don’t like gross and shocking for the sake of it.
Look, I was an English major. There are any number of “viable” reasons as to why it might be in there, from nature’s ultimate triumph over man to the liminal bliss of the moment between life and death to some sort of twisted sexual commentary I don’t care to describe even in a hypothetical situation. My point here is that The Last of Us has always been violent and brutal, but gross-out/body horror has never been in its wheelhouse. It feels too tonally dissonant to work for me, but I guess that’s something we can hash out in the comments.
Overall, I think what the show is missing the most for me so far is a clear sense of focus. It feels all over the place, especially in this second episode. Like a collage. We still have a whole lot of show left, so there’s a good chance it could surprise me along the way, or even bring me back around by the end. I know I’m extra harsh as a big fan of the game, so I’ll be interested to hear what non-gamers think of the whole ordeal.
So far I certainly don’t think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but I certainly don’t think it’s great, either. As for now, I’m looking forward to seeing where it all goes in the coming weeks. At least while there are still episodes out ahead of us, I can still have some hope that I’ll come out on the other side with a mostly positive view.