This post contains spoilers for “Infected,” the second episode of HBO’s The Last of Us.
For the second episode in a row, The Last of Us opens with a flashback, though this one is set very close to the events we witnessed early in the series premiere. It is September 24, 2003. The zombie apocalypse is days away, and the government of Jakarta is finding this out before anyone else. We follow Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim), a mycologist who has been asked to investigate a violent incident at a flour and grain factory. She has studied spores and fungi all her life, and she understands instantly that there is no cure for this — that the only way to save humanity is, “Bomb. Start bombing. Bomb this city and everyone in it.”
“Infected” is written by Craig Mazin and directed by Neil Druckmann. In both style and theme, that opening is reminiscent of Mazin’s great work on Chernobyl, which was all about smart people sacrificing themselves for the greater good. In that case, it worked; many died, but Eastern Europe didn’t become an irradiated wasteland. Here, Ibu Ratna’s warning comes much too late, and the series takes place in the terrible world that she was unable to prevent.
Why do we start there this week? As with the John Hannah prologue in the premiere, there’s some value to offering context to all the gory, scary things we witness Joel, Ellie and Tess experience in 2023. But in this case, the scientist’s certainty that there is no way to treat this infection serves as a contrast to the whole reason Joel is meant to take Ellie to parts west. She is not only immune to the infection, but the Firefly doctors believe she may be the key to creating a vaccine to protect future generations from this plague.
Joel scoffs at this, having heard similar gossip before. But it’s also clear throughout the hour that he has given up. He cannot believe in any kind of future other than the one immediately in front of him. One step, then the next step, and maybe the one after that are all he can allow himself to think about. He is afraid to care about Ellie because of the trauma he still carries from his daughter. And he is afraid to hope for anything at all after spending 20 years in the bleak, ruined world we see all around him. After the three of them survive a zombie fight, seemingly unscathed, Tess suggests to her longtime partner, “For once, maybe we can actually win?” Joel doesn’t want to hear it.
The irony, of course, is that Tess is the one who should feel hopeless coming out of that fight. As we will find out later, she has been infected, and the only good option left is to blow herself to kingdom come and hope to take enough zombies with her to keep Joel and Ellie safe for now. And this, in turn, gives Joel yet another reason to feel like existence has nothing for him anymore but loss and despair.
Before Tess goes out in a blaze of glory, though, we first get to spend a concentrated amount of time with them as a trio. Anna Torv’s performance is so vivid, and so well-matched to what Pedro Pascal is doing — even if Tess is less guarded than Joel — that as someone who knew nothing of the game, I let myself believe that the show would be about the two of them acting as Ellie’s protectors. And it’s the strength of Torv’s work that in turn makes Tess’ death hit much harder than the loss of any character should after only two episodes.
But perhaps the most important thing the episode does is to make sure we see Ellie as a person first, rather than a walking vaccine incubator. As the three heroes make their way across Boston(*), we get to know her far better than there was time for in the premiere. She very much acts like a kid her age would, even in the before times. She is profane as fuck, curious about both the current world and the one from the before times, and somehow manages to enjoy herself despite overwhelming reason not to. Though she has lived her entire life post-downfall, she is not feral, nor in any way unrecognizable from a teenager in our version of 2023.
(*) It’s striking that the show spends such a short amount of time in the flooded wreckage of the luxury hotel, and a sign of how much bigger budgets can be at HBO versus AMC. If The Walking Dead wanted to build a set like that, it would have necessitated situating most or all of a season there to amortize the cost.
That Ellie allows herself fun and optimism marks her as Joel’s spiritual opposite, and thus an interesting traveling companion as they continue their journeys without the more even-keeled Tess as a mediator. But it also means that when Tess kills herself to protect them, it shakes her in a way it doesn’t Joel. He is very obviously grieving the loss, but he also has had so much practice at that as to be able to quickly get moving again before any of the surviving zombies notice them. Whereas Ellie, who was having such a good time for much of their journey, can’t help but look back at the fires. She is humanity’s potential salvation, but she’s also a girl who just lost someone she had grown to like a lot in a short amount of time. It’s raw, and it hurts, and it’s very effective as drama.
The episode’s also pretty effective as horror thrill-ride, too. The bulk of the zombies are saved for the final sequence, but even with only a few of the monsters, the museum fight is intense and very well-constructed. The show does a good job of establishing the rules of play — the zombies track you by sound, not sight, for instance — as well as continuing to make the creatures feel distinctly gross in appearance and everything else. The clicking sound they make as they move is haunting, as is the visage of the one zombie whose head has been largely consumed by the fungus. Nasty all around, and if the fight sequence in a few spots perhaps drifted too close to feeling like a game level (the shots from Joel’s POV, for instance), for the most part, Mazin and Druckmann have a clear sense of how each action beat has to work as drama, rather than something interactive.
Second episodes are hard. “Infected” is a really good one, sacrificing the sprawl and spectacle of the premiere to drill deeper on character, and to better situate us for what’s to come as Joel and Ellie have to move on without Tess.