Spoilers from the outset for this review of HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us.
The second episode to HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us follows suit from last week’s talk show interview in 1968 – and opens with an entirely original scene to open the next chapter. We begin in September 24, 2023, two days before Outbreak Day, taking us to the other side of the world: Jakarta: Indonesia. In a humble-looking cafe, a woman called Ibu Ratna is met by a General and his aide, and the cafe falls silent. Without time to finish her meal, Ratna, a professor in Mycology, is swiftly escorted to a medical research facility – and asked to review a specimen sample of odiocordyceps, which, to her initial disbelief, has jumped the species barrier into a human. To disprove her doubt, she is sent into a mortuary to find the corpse of a woman who attacked colleagues at a grain and flour factory before being shot and killed.
Ratna examines a bite mark on the woman’s leg and is notified that her attacker is unaccounted for. As cordyceps tendrils blossom from the woman’s mouth like the root of a deadly flower, Ratna further learns that fourteen other employees are missing from the factory. The other bitten colleagues were executed in line with military protocol. Most chillingly is Ibu Ratna’s reaction in discovering how widespread the strain of odiocordyceps has become. The conversation turns to medicines and solutions, of which there are none. Despite a lifetime of studying mycology, Ibu Ratna returns the questions put to her with a chilling, one-word answer. Bomb. She advises the General that they should begin bombing the city and kill everyone. Before the opener cuts to black and the credits roll, Ratna makes one final plea. She requests to return to her family – tragically – for what will likely be the last time.
Post credits, and we return to Ellie. After waking up in the beautifully serene ruins of Boston beyond, she finds Tess and Joel watching her. Joel remains hesitant about the legitimacy of Ellie’s infection, but Tess is beginning to be swayed since Ellie survived the night. Joel nurses a fractured hand following his fight with the soldier and stays confident that Ellie’s infection will kill her. He’s even prepared to return Ellie to the QZ and acquire the battery another way – despite the exchange with the Fireflies being the most straightforward option.
Ellie tells Joel and Tess about a Firefly base out west with doctors working on a cure, the Salt Lake City Hospital in Utah. Joel doesn’t believe the Firefly mantra that a cure can be found, considering it nothing more than a dream pipe as old as time. Tess encourages Joel to see the exchange through to the end. Reluctantly, he agrees, provided Ellie doesn’t begin to twitch. Ellie’s attempts to defuse the tension with some clicker-based humour are frowned upon with hostile glances. Her request for a gun is further met with a resounding no, quipping that she’ll throw her sandwiches at any infected attackers. As they venture into the ruins of Boston, it’s quite a sight to behold.
The episode adapts material in the aftermath of their escape from the QZ, minus the FEDRA soldiers and the infamous slanted skyscraper sequence. The sideways building does, however, make an appearance in our first impression of the post-pandemic city. Joel, Tess, and Ellie emerge from a building, the door creaking suspiciously like a clicker. The ruins of Boston look stunning. Reclaimed by nature, bombed to hell, but somehow beautiful. Joel and Tess discuss their options, realising that their journey to the Old State House (the Capitol building) should only be a ten-minute walk from where they stand. With the city in its current state, they’ll need to take a longer route.
During the detour, Tess asks Ellie about the infection. Ellie tells them about an abandoned shopping mall but deliberately neglects to mention Riley, who was with her when she was bit. The conversation turns to the world beyond the QZ and Ellie’s curiosity as to why the city isn’t overrunning with bloaters and swarms of infected. Joel and Tess play it down before they catch an eerie scream somewhere on the horizon. Two locations from the video game are sampled in their journey through the ruins of Boston, the first being the hotel, lifted from the Pittsburgh chapter. In a flooded hotel lobby, the adaptation establishes Ellie’s inability to swim, her dialogue at the reception desk, followed by Joel’s remarks that she’s a “weird kid,” and the fact Joel and Tess, with their knees, struggle to climb flights of stairs.
In a hallway, the three reach a blockade of debris. Tess climbs through to find a way around them while Joel asks Ellie about her knife. Dryly, she says she got it at the circus before turning the questions on Joel. We learn Tess came from Michigan, Detroit, a small detail not mentioned in the source material, before asking Joel if it’s hard to kill infected, knowing they were people once. Joel suggests that it can be on occasion, and before Ellie can ask about the soldier from inside the QZ, Tess re-emerges. The following scene on the hotel veranda is one of the most crucial moments in the episode, as it rewrites the lore behind the infected and serves as another deviation from the game.
In the game, there were airborne spores. In the series, there are vines of the Cordyceps fungus, many of which run underground and fan out for miles. If you catch a vine underfoot, it could alert the infected to your location from miles away and send them to you. If it sounds familiar, this concept essentially mirrors a near-identical storyline featuring the Upside Down in Stranger Things. Swap out Demogorgons for clusters of infected, and you’ve got the idea. The route through the hotel is a bust, so they amend their journey. The museum is another prominent location featured in the video game adapted for the series.
Dead Cordyceps in the doorway calms any initial fears of finding infected inside until they find evidence of clickers somewhere in the museum. Joel tells Ellie that they need to be silent. It is one of the finest lines from the episode, and there’s something in this quote that delivers chills. Audiences might find themselves in breathless silence as Joel, Tess and Ellie navigate the museum before hearing the unmistakable clicks and clucks of the clickers. With only his hands, Joel points to his ears and mouth to mutely inform Ellie that the clickers use sound to find their prey and cannot see. The sound design and performances in this sequence are second to none. To add further authenticity to the scene, the original clicker actors from the video game returned for the silver screen version.
After one shallow, panicked breath catches the attention of the clickers, all hell breaks loose. A hasty, unplanned fight plays out. Joel unloads his automatic weapon onto the clicker with no consequence. Tess misses multiple shots and stumbles over museum ornaments. Inevitably, the clickers are taken down with bullets to the head and the handy work of a hatchet. After, as Tess recovers from a twisted ankle, she gives Joel a tender, resigned glance, which all but confirms what fans of the game know will happen in the next ten minutes. At the same time, Ellie finds another bite mark, echoing events covered at the end of The Last Of Us Part II. For Tess, this shuts down any doubts over Ellie’s immunity, but Joel is less than convinced. From the museum roof, they cross a plank of wood to another building, where Joel and Ellie watch a sunset, followed by the “you can’t deny that view” line as Joel glances at his watch.
At the Old State House, swapped in for the Capitol Building, they find empty military vehicles, dead bodies, and blood on the steps leading up to the building. Inside, they find the Fireflies dead after becoming infected. Despite Joel’s insistence that their mission is over, Tess scours the place for signs of where the Fireflies would go next. She refuses to return to the QZ, revealing that she’d become infected during the clicker attack. Similarly to Sarah’s death during the opener, this is an essential moment in the story that plays out near-identical to the source material. There are, however, a few noteworthy changes, and one quite surprising one.
Tess urges Joel to take Ellie with her to Bill and Frank’s, knowing that Ellie presents an opportunity to find a cure. Tess tells Joel that in all the time she’s known him, she’s never asked him for a favour, including “to feel the way I felt,” which flawlessly encapsulates the kind of relationship they’d shared. After one of the infected Fireflies reanimates, Joel shoots it in the head. As Tess had described earlier, stepping on a vine in one location could alert infected miles away to that location. The gunshot triggers tiny vines to grow between the fingers of the dead Firefly. We cut back to the swarms of infected seen from the hotel veranda awakening, and they start running.
As Joel drags Ellie out of the building, in another departure from the game, Tess scatters grenades and douses petrol across the floor as infected swarm the hall. She takes out a lighter, and after numerous failed attempts to light it (Sam Drake’s Uncharted easter egg), an infected man approaches her. This is the most profound difference from the source material and the most bizarre deviation made in the adaptation. The infected man, it appears initially, begins to kiss her, but instead, we catch the cordyceps tendrils entering her mouth as if by way of transferring the fungi. At the last moment, Tess catches the lighter and drops it, causing the Old State House to explode. Outside, Joel and Ellie remain vigilant and shocked as a handful of infected burn and fall before Joel walks away distraught, leaving Ellie alone.
Episode 2 is a 9 out of 10. One could argue it’d be unfair to give it a 9 based on the clicker kiss or the absence of Joel’s famous “It is over, Tess” line, but this isn’t the reason for the point drop. It’s the clicker kiss. The series has already appointed some significant deviations from the video game, including how the infected function in groups and their general appearance with cordyceps tendrils flowing from their mouths. The television adaptation was never intended to be a shot-for-shot iteration of the game, so these differences should be foreseen. The 9 out of 10 score reflects the strangeness of the moment, mainly given the heightened sense of tension and drama in the scene leading up to Anna Torv’s blaze of glory exit from the show.
This particular aspect of the story will be left in some uncertainty for the time being. Opinions and judgements change over time, and as the story progresses, with more context, this scene might make more sense. Druckmann and Mazin have neatly subverted expectations with this twist, but the moment feels a fraction out of place. There’s still so much to value about Episode 2. There’s the Sam Drake easter egg (Tess’ lighter), the chilling opener in Jakarta, Boston’s astonishing post-pandemic landscape, and the moment a clicker catches the lightest tinkle of bullets Joel loads into his revolver. The second episode of HBO’s adaptation recently smashed new viewership records for the network. Read about it here.