(Spoiler alert: The following discusses events from the second episode of the first season The last of us. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to wait until you do before reading on.)
Whether you’ve played the game or not, the ending of “Infected” is it second episode of HBOs The last of us– had to come as a shock. Although Tess’s tragic death (impressively embodied by Anna Torv) plays out in a similar way early in the game, what happens to her after she reveals to Joel and Ellie that she has been infected is a completely different story. No one could have predicted the creepy way Tess would go out on the show. We all had to watch the gag-inducing mushroom kiss of death for the first time together, and for anyone with an aversion to such things (including this writer) it was truly horrifying.
Even worse, the director of the episode – none other than co-executive producer and creator of the game himself, Neil Druckmann – had the audacity to film it as an almost dreamlike, romantic moment between Tess and the infected host. It was as if the invasive life form that had taken over her body sought a connection with its own kind, holding her frozen in place while the last remnants of her consciousness anxiously flicked the lighter, trying to turn a spark into a deadly flame. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so ugly. On HBO’s official The last of us podcast, Druckmann’s co-showrunner Craig Mazin points out that this scene reflects the show’s theme of love and how it works. “The fungus loves too,” says Mazin. “It makes more of itself. That’s what we do when we love each other. Many of us do more of ourselves. This is how the species propagates.” Who knew the sex life of mushrooms could be so fascinating? Craig Mazin, obviously.
For more context on how we got here, let’s back up. Of all the changes Druckmann and Mazin made to the show, one of the most fundamental was how the fungus spreads in the real world. In some areas of the game where the fungus is heavily concentrated, spores float in the air. Anyone passing through (except Ellie) must wear a gas mask to avoid being infected. The creators were worried that audiences wouldn’t buy the premise that these spores were confined to a fixed area, with cordyceps being so prevalent (they also didn’t want to put their actors behind masks all the time), so they did away with the airborne threat for the show. Instead, the fungus is connected by an underground network (based on scientific studies of actual mycelial networks). The infection is now transmitted from a bite or via tendrils that invade the body through an existing opening, such as the mouth.
And then, when Tess chooses to stay behind to give Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) time to get away, she becomes a target for the invading infected. Another difference between the game and the show is that she wasn’t initially fending off a horde of monsters, but a far less terrifying squad of FEDRA pawns. At this point in the game, they have been chasing the trio ever since their noisy escape from the Boston QZ. After the officers catch up with them at the State House, Tess makes a similar sacrifice. It’s a heroic moment, but not quite as charged, or as skin-crawling, as the way it plays out in the show.
The last of us taps into something deeply disturbing about our relationship with fungal organisms. It is difficult to explain why; it’s just primal. If you feel a little sad watching the opening credits, that’s a natural reaction. The show also wants us to appreciate the aesthetics of these mushrooms, the organic colors and shapes that make them unique. There is no better example of this dichotomy than the scene between Tess and the former human host with whom she shares her final kiss. Our instinct is to turn away when these mouth tendrils reach for her, but at the same time, we can’t help but watch it happen. Like Tess.
We have to credit Anna Torv’s fully committed performance, which works with the cinematography and the framing of the shot to make the scene eerily effective. From the moment we met her in the premiere, Torv put her own spin on the fan-favorite character, giving us a version of Tess who’s tough and in control, but underneath it all yearns to believe there’s still hope for humanity . We only had two episodes to get to know her (although she able to appear in future flashbacks), but she made a huge impact. Like Joel, we don’t get over her untimely demise (or the disturbing way it went down) at any point. As gamers have learned the hard way since 2013, letting yourself invest in anyone other than Joel and Ellie in this story is setting yourself up for heartbreak. The one-two punch of losing Sarah (Nico Parker) and then Tess in the first two episodes is a warning to viewers and players alike – you might think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea what is pending. Thanks for the nightmares, guys.