If you’re one of the millions of people tuning into The Last of Us every week, you probably know by now that it’s a great show. Packed with emotional and smartly written dialogue, exciting action scenes and gut wrenching drama, it’s easily one of the best video game adaptations ever, and some of the best TV has to offer this year too. As the series has gone on though, I can’t help shake that little voice in the back of my silly gamer head, and it’s asking me – where are all the Infected?
Let’s start with a disclaimer. The Last of Us doesn’t need Infected to be good. The Last of Us is excellent on its own, and I’m not the type of viewer to demand constant action. I don’t feel the need to be fed with constant zombie hordes tearing up main characters as you may see in a show like The Walking Dead or its spin-offs, and I don’t need flashy CGI like you’d see in the latest Marvel movie either. The Last of Us is made excellent by its characters and its heart, and I see that, but still I feel that craving for more Infected.
The golden rule of storytelling is often summed up quite simply in just three words: show, don’t tell. It’s an age-old rule that can be seen through the greatest art of history, and carries on to this day in prestige television. Telling the audience information lacks the impact that showing them has, and is a cheap way of establishing a world without engrossing us in it. There have been plenty of moments where The Last of Us showed us exactly how this world is, but for some reason, I don’t feel the presence of the Infected in a bunch of the episodes thus far.
Let me give you an example. Episode 6 of The Last of Us just aired, and offered up some wonderful character development for both Joel and Ellie, and solidified the relationship between them. We are shown Joel’s mental anguish over the loss of his daughter, just like how we are shown Ellie’s childlike joy, as her beaming smile and laugh playing with the sniffer dog breaks the tension between the Jackson scouts and Joel. This is all great, and an effective visual representation that tells us a lot about our characters by showing us how they respond to things. That’s where the Infected problem comes in. Repeatedly through the episode, reference is made to the Infected. Characters in this episode tell us they’re found anywhere people used to be, and how they can break off into smaller groups, and wander the wilderness ready to get shot at. The Infected are clearly still a present threat in the world, and the side characters in this episode have encountered them.
Despite all this Infected telling though, we don’t get any showing. Instead, the episode shows us the opposite. We see Joel and Ellie exploring the wilderness in the harsh grip of winter, and their travels are relatively safe. Ellie stays up and scouts the area, but no sign of any Infected is mentioned once. Sure, it’s a big place so chances are slim they find one at that exact moment, and the two are soon swept up in the plot to head to Jackson.
After their visit to the Jackson commune however, the duo end up at the University of Eastern Colorado, walking through the haunted and abandoned campus. This was a place that was full of life, with Joel emphasizing this is where young people stayed to find themselves as a person. Remember, before this point, the show has established that Infected are found in populated areas. We’ve seen them bunched together back in Boston, we know they exist in these cities. Yet, despite the set up for how populated this place clearly once was, there’s not a single Infected in sight.
It may seem minor in just one episode, but it’s not a single-episode issue. The Infected are the reason for the ongoing apocalypse, and it’s true that the damage they have done to the world is certainly clear in every moment. Despite this, out of the six episodes currently aired, the Infected have been absent from three of them. Episodes three, four and six all had no Infected appearances (excluding the minor one in episode three that established Bill as a talented trap-maker). This means that half of The Last of Us’ debut season have had no Infected thus far, and if you’ve played the game, you know this is definitely not the case in the source material.
The Infected are a key element of The Last of Us gameplay, serving as the game’s primary antagonists, alongside raiders and other human villains. The show does a phenomenal job of adapting the game’s story, whilst making improvements and changes along the way that just fit perfectly. Yet, the Infected, one of the biggest features of the game, are barely making appearances. Their function is vital to the game experience, adding layers of excitement, tension and fear to key moments, combining with the writing and the story to create an elevated and incredible gaming experience. HBO’s The Last of Us does give us both of these, but hesitates to combine them very often.
Another important element to the Infected is that they aren’t just a villain in this story, they’re part of the message and the world. The Last of Us is about survival, and the natural instinct to push on and to thrive, as can literally be inferred from the name. Nature reclaims the streets of the urbanised human world, visualising the struggle that exists in the heart of the story between humanity and the Infected. The storytelling beauty of the Infected is often underrated, with how this monstrous fungal aberration of the human form acts in ways that mirror that of humanity, even when they directly conflict with one another. Just like humanity, the Cordyceps fungus is on a mission to survive. Just like the plants that reclaim the skyscrapers, the agent of nature that is the Cordyceps reclaims the body of the humans. The Infected aren’t just “zombies”, and they aren’t just killing machines: they represent the natural world, the antagonist of the story, the Yin to the Yang. Yet we don’t see them much.
We have seen some of the Infected already of course, and they have been used in both cool and thought provoking ways. The controversial kiss of death in episode two was a unique, if disturbing, image with a lot of layers to it. Additionally, episode five’s Infected horde delivered tension and thrills, whilst also having an intense emotional climax right at the end with Henry and Sam. It’s not that there’s not any Infected, but with how excellently they have been used so far, it just goes to show that when Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann choose to use them it can pay off big time. So why are they so sparse?
No matter what happens next in The Last of Us, I can already tell that it will be quality. Part of me will always wish though that the Infected had a little more spotlight and physical presence in the world that they as a collective are fighting for. The writing and drama of The Last of Us separates it from any of its genre predecessors, but amongst all that emotion, it could use a tad more… bite.