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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On The Last Of Us, it’s a slow, deadly road through Boston

Clickers and crumbling architecture challenge our weary zombie dodgers

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv
Bella Ramsey and Anna Torv
Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Apart from the hero’s journey-cum-quest narrative that doubtless will occupy much of The Last Of Us this season, creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann are bound to keep doling out back story as to how this fungal apocalypse began. And thus the second episode cold open takes us to Jakarta, Indonesia in 2003, a short time before the outbreak went global.

A middle-aged woman’s afternoon lunch (beef satay!) is interrupted by a pair of cops who escort her to a car. The dignified lady is assured she has not committed a crime. They confirm she is Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim) professor of mycology at University of Indonesia. Ah yes, the unwitting scientist dragged in by government officials because some Weird Shit Is Going Down, a beloved and necessary trope for end-of-the-world narratives.

Dr Ratna is taken to a lab, squints at a sample of the fungus Ophiocordyceps through the microscope and is told it was taken from a human. She knows (and we know from the last episode’s cold open) the fungus can’t live in the heat of the human body. She then examines the corpse it was taken from, and extracts white, writhing tendrils from deep in the throat. The female subject, shot through the head by police, had been bitten on the ankle and subsequently bit a few coworkers. Who are all now executed. Where did they all work? A flour and grain processing factory. Dr. Ratna puts it all together in a tense debrief with a military official (Yayu A.W. Unru). Clearly a fast-spreading mycotic (fungus-to-human) event has occurred. The good doctor’s terse advice: Bomb the city and everyone in it.

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Let’s pause a moment and consider, in a fit of wildly premature speculation, where The Last Of Us is ultimately headed. Yes, it’s a zombie-adjacent survival epic with a grieving-father-surrogate-daughter emotional through-line. Yes, it’s a narrative pretext for chases, gunplay, gore, heroism and horror. But where’s it going to leave us after season two or three, after the game’s 2020 sequel has been digested in another 18 or so breathless installments?

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My money’s on: Humans lose. Joel and Ellie (or whoever replaces them) put up a good fight, they maintain their dignity and ethics, and die of natural causes—maybe because both are immune? In any case, humanity becomes extinct. The fungus flourishes. The Anthropocene ends, and nature begins to heal. That’s what I posit as Mazin-Druckmann’s long game: it’s the end of the world and we feel fine. All the gross stuff with undead cannibals and gruesome Clickers and so forth? All a beautiful part of Gaia’s epic reset. No demons. No aliens. No God. Just fungus and root systems and a happy planet for the next few billion years. Posthuman cli fi in Romero drag.

Okay, back to the zombie blasting! Post-credits (Game Of Thrones meets Time-Lapse Mold) we see Ellie (Bella Ramsey) curled up in fetal position, on the floor of a house overgrown with grass and weeds. Her bed is a mossy green patch and light streams down from the busted roof. It’s a pretty pastoral image of rewilding nature (the episode was deftly directed by Druckmann).

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Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv), now that they know that Ellie has been bitten, have keeping watch over Ellie, guns out, all night. Exasperated, Ellie points out that she hasn’t turned into a “fucking monster.” Joel, with possibly fractured fingers from pummeling the soldier to pulp last night, is still on high alert. Tess argues they push on, bring Ellie to the State House and get the car battery and other booty from the Fireflies. Joel wants to return the girl to the Quarantine Zone (QZ) and continue without her. Neither knows what’s so special about this girl.

Which seems a bit improbable. You don’t have to be a mycology professor or epidemiologist to know that if a person appears to be immune to an insanely infectious agent, they are of humongous scientific value. But okay, years in the smuggling racket have hardened Joel and Tess beyond normal reason. At any rate, Ellie has to explain that there’s a Firefly camp out west with scientists who are trying to create a vaccine and the need to study her immune system. Joel scoffs that he’s heard about miracle cures for years. But Tess wins out: whether or not the girl is for real, the Fireflies think so, and they need the gear. They head out.

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The bulk of the episode that follows is a trek-and-fight through the bombed out, cantilevered wreckage of downtown Boston, buildings Tower-of-Pisa’ed into crazy angles and festooned in miles of moss, vines, and ferns. Shoutout to cinematographer Ksenia Sereda, production designer John Paino, and a reported squad of art directors for engineering such a haunting, painterly Beantown Without Us (Tarkovsky’s unforgettable Stalker was easily in the image library).

As they walk in daylight through the open city, no infected around, Tess asks Ellie questions: age, family, how she got bitten. Ellie in turn marvels at the lack of infecteds and asks about some of the beasties we are sure to encounter: super-infecteds who spew spores, and ones with burst-open heads who lurk in the shadows.

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The trio enters the lobby of a semi-submerged grand hotel (cue random frog plonking keys on a piano as it leaps away). They wade through the green mucky water. Ten floors up, they find a collapsed mass of concrete that bars the way forward. Tess clambers over it to scout the way, leaving Ellie and Joel to get to know each other, a bit of human interaction that goes nowhere fast. She learns he’s from Austin, Tess is from Detroit, the infecteds can live for a month or 20 years, and he’s killed lots of them. When the girl asks about the soldier last night, Joel can’t find it in himself to say, He triggered a memory of my daughter being shot when she was your age. But I hope Pascal gets to act that highly emotional scene in a later episode.

Tess reappears through a side door and guides them on an alternate route. From the rooftop, they look down and see scores of undead prone in the street, groaning and writhing. Tess has a short speech about how the fungus isn’t only in the infected, but growing underground (“long fibers like wires, some of them stretching over a mile”), creating a network in which all the infected are connected and sharing information. (This mycorrhizal framing of zombies reinforces the deep-ecology theory of Last Of Us; they are of the Earth, whereas humans are the mutation.)

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Their way blocked by Sleeping Uglies, Joel and Tess take Ellie to the museum. Here’s the haunted house part of the episode. They walk tensely through the creepy place by flashlight, find a dead body. Joel mime-orders that they’ll continue in total silence. Very creepy climb up a staircase. Don’t touch the ‘shrooms, Joel! We are so ready for a Clicker to appear.

Pedro Pascal
Pedro Pascal
Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO
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And one obliges. The three are stopped in their tracks (after a sudden collapse that conveniently occurs after they get through a doorway) by the sound a strangulated glottal cackle coming from a hallway. The raspy ghoul enters the room, stalking around glass display cases. Joel signals to Ellie to be totally silent; they are drawn by sound. But when Ellie gets a glimpse of the thing, with its braised-cauliflower head, she gasps and it pounces with a scream. Joel fights off the creature. The noise draws a second fried artichoke, and Tess and Ellie get separated.

The Steadicam work in the ensuing sequence is quite effective, controlling how much we see the Clickers, making use of wildly swinging flashlights and panicked bodies in motion. Joel steers Ellie to safety; wastes a Clicker before it can French kiss him with its mycelium tendrils; Tess buries an axe in the head of another that Joel finishes off with a few bullets. (Clickers can take more rounds before dropping.) Ellie was scratched or bitten on the arm—again—but she’ll survive. Tess, on the other hand, looks stricken.

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Our group gets to the roof of the museum, makes their way across a rickety looking plank bridge to the next building, and continue on their way to the gold-domed state house. When they actually get there, they find the bloodied bodies of numerous Fireflies in the lobby. What happened? Joel reads the scene and deduces that one got bit and the infected and healthy killed each other in firefight. Tess frantically searches through the Firefly supplies for anything they can use: a radio, a map. Joel shouts at Tess it’s over; they should go home. Tess refuses. “I’m staying,” she says. “Our luck had to run out sooner or later.” That’s when Ellie realizes the truth. “Fuck,” the girl says. “She’s infected.”

Somewhere during the fight in the museum, Tess was bitten. Joel demands to see it. Tess shows a nasty, livid infection on her neck and shoulder. “Whoops, right?” she jokes (same as the game, btw). Just then we see tendrils on the mossy ground, like parasitical worms, stretch out and burrow under the skin of dead men’s fingers. The fungus is waking up the infected (which we saw earlier having a nap), giving them a boost of vitamin Cordyceps. Untold dozens of the flesh-eaters leap up and start running toward the state house.

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Tess doesn’t have much time. She tells Joel to promise to get the girl to Bill and Franks. Tess then dumps several barrels of gasoline in the lobby, scatters some hand grenades on the floor, and commands Joel: “Save who you can save.” Joel pulls Ellie away, who protests and curses him for leaving Tess behind. Tess makes a heroic last stand against the marauding undead mob, finally igniting a zippo and blowing up the state house, mid-tendril kiss with a Clicker. Joel and Ellie, a safe distance from the Capitol, see the conflagration, register the loss of a comrade, and keep going.

The episode’s emotional arc among the three characters goes something like: hostile mutual mistrust melts incrementally into wary allegiance. Tess, like a friendly aunt, made the earliest overtures to Ellie by way of bonding, while Joel remained stony and silent on the outside. Once Tess is bitten, she can’t afford to deepen any emotional attachment to the girl. Joel’s raw grief over losing Tess can convert either to bitter resentment toward Ellie, or a fresh sense of paternal responsibility. Or an anguished meld of both. When and if Joel allows himself to feel for Ellie as he did for Sarah, it’s going to be explosive stuff.

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And so, another fine episode in which the world-building emerges organically and persuasively, the visuals and acting continue to be top-notch, the tension builds to a bloom of satisfying violence. Still unclear whether the series is slickly repackaged horror tropes or a deeply philosophical (forgive the term) game-changer. But we’re in no hurry to find out.

Stray observations

  • Last recap, I included a full disclosure that I’m not a gamer and never played the Naughty Dog version of The Last Of Us. However, research was conducted over here, for those with ten hours to kill.
  • In the previous episode’s extended prologue set in 2003, Joel, Tommy and Sarah were having breakfast when a news report came on the radio about an emergency in Jakarta.
  • Ellie waking up on the ground is an elegant call-back to Sarah waking in bed up at 2am when the outbreak hits Austin.
  • As someone from New Hampshire who has lived in New York a long time I must say, Boston has never looked so livable.
  • The Last Of Us is the furthest from z comedy (where my Return of the Living Dead fans at), which makes Ellie’s wisecracks and teen sass all the more welcome. Her “twitch” gag and then muttering okay, if she can’t have a gun she’ll throw a sandwich is low-key but refreshing comic relief.
  • Tess’s line, “It’s the long or way or the we’re-fucking-dead way,” is one I plan to use on my next car trip.
  • Art direction kudos: One-second shot of empty restaurant: tablecloths covered in moss, water glasses brimful of green. Nearly every shot has a verdant splash, even when the trio cross the hotel roof bar, plastic chairs are bright green.
  • Is the idea of a Zombie Siesta new in z lore? When the undead aren’t actively chasing lunch or out for a nice shamble, do they take a grumbly disco nap?
  • Random thought re: the colonial history we glimpse in the spooky museum: White European settlers were an invasive species in the Americas.
  • Calling it now: Tendril smooch with Anna Torv? Most sex in all of season one.