[Spoiler warning: The following discusses events from the second episode of the first season of The Last Of Us. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to wait until you have before reading on.]
Whether you’ve played the game or not, the ending of “Infected” – the the second episode HBO’s The last of us– It must have come as a shock. Although Tess’s tragic death (poignantly portrayed by Anna Torv) unfolds in a similar fashion early in the game, what happens to her after she reveals to Joel and Ellie that she has been infected is an entirely different story. No one could have predicted the creepy way Tess would turn out on the show. We all had to witness the instinctive kiss of death gag-inducing first time together, and for anyone averse to such things (including the author) it was truly terrifying.
Even worse, the episode’s director — none other than co-executive producer and game creator himself, Neil Druckmann — had the audacity to portray it as a semi-dreamy, romantic moment between Tess and the injured host. It was as if the gaseous life form that had taken over her body was seeking a connection with its own kind, keeping it frozen in place while the last remnants of its consciousness anxiously flicked that lighter, trying to turn a spark into a murderous flame. It would be nice if it wasn’t so gross. on me HBO official The last of us PodcastDruckmann’s co-showrunner Craig Mazin points out that this scene reflects the show’s theme of love and how it works. “Mushrooms also love,” says Mazin. “It makes more of itself. That’s what we do when we love each other. Many of us make more of ourselves. That’s how species reproduce.” Who knew the sexuality of mushrooms could be so fascinating? Craig Mazin, it seems.
For more context on how we got here, let’s go back. Of all the changes Druckmann and Mazin made to the show, one of the most significant was how fungi spread in the real world. In some areas of the game where the fungus is highly concentrated, spores float through the air. Anyone passing by (except Ellie) must wear a gas mask to avoid injury. The creators were concerned that audiences wouldn’t buy the premise that these germs were limited to a fixed area, with Cordyceps so widespread (they also didn’t want to put their actors behind masks all the time), so they ditched the airborne threat for the show. Instead, the fungus is associated with an underground network (based on scientific studies of actual mushroom networks). The infection is now transmitted from a bite or through tendrils that invade the body through an existing opening, such as the mouth.
And so, with Tess choosing to remain behind to give Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) time to get away, she becomes a target of the invading infected. Another difference between the game and the show is that she wasn’t originally fending off a horde of monsters, but a far less intimidating squad of FEDRA goons. At this point in the game, they’ve 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 on the show.
The Last Of Us taps into something deeply unsettling about our relationship to fungal organisms. It’s hard to explain why; it’s just primal. If you feel a little queasy watching the opening credits, that’s a natural reaction. The show also wants us to appreciate the aesthetics of these fungi, the organic colors and shapes that make them unique. There’s no better example of this dichotomy than the scene between Tess and the formerly human host with whom she shares her last kiss. Our instinct is to turn away as those mouth tendrils reach out for her, yet at the same time we can’t help but watch it as it happens. Just like Tess.
We have to credit Anna Torv’s fully committed performance, which works in tandem with the cinematography and 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 longs to believe there’s still hope for humanity. We only had two episodes to get to know her (although she may show up in future flashbacks), but she made a huge impact. Like Joel, we’re not going to get over her untimely demise (or the disturbing way it went down) anytime soon. As players have been learning the hard way since 2013, letting yourself get invested in anyone besides 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 may think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea what’s in store. Thanks for the nightmares, guys.