The Last of Us: season 1, episode 2 – Infected

“Save who you can save.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

In every post-apocalyptic story, there’s the chance to show off the devastation of The End of the World by having a wander round an eerily empty, ruined city, with all the modern surroundings rendered unfamiliar by collapsed buildings, rampant vegetation – and, of course, corpses. That is, if your budget allows it; it’s not cheap to clear chunks of real cities in order to film a post-human wilderness. No matter how much CG you use to paint out the reality of the bustling metropolis you’re trying to portray as a desolate ruin.

Fortunately, HBO has given The Last of Us that budget and more to spare. But it’s in keeping with the show’s already established slow burn plotting that we don’t get to see a ruined city until the second episode (The Walking Dead went straight to it at the end of ep1).

It’s also taking that slow burn approach to showing us its monsters. In ep1, we saw them briefly at the beginning of the outbreak, not in much detail, and saw only a fungus-puffed corpse in the later scenes in the Quarantine Zone. A slow burn’s all very well, but this is a zombie show (well, sort of), and at some point you have to give the audience some monsters.

This ep does get round to that, and does it well – but it takes some time to do it. Before Our Heroes’ trek into the ruins of Boston, we get a lengthy prologue showing how the authorities responded at the very beginning of the outbreak – refreshingly, not in the US but Jakarta, Indonesia. The international setting gives a real sense of worldwide scope to the disaster.

It also serves to give us (like last week’s 1968 prologue) some useful exposition. Last time, I mentioned that the nature of the Infected, and how they propagate, was less than clear; with the caveat that I expected this to be revealed later on.  This ep duly gives us that information, though not all of it. It’s definitely a good approach to reveal the rules of your New World as the story progresses, rather than deluging the audience with explanations at the outset. I do wonder whether every ep will begin with a prologue like this, parcelling the exposition out across the show’s nine episodes.

Indonesian mycologist Dr Ratna (an earnest turn from Christine Hakim) serves both to show us what she learns about the Infected and convey the gravity of the situation with her shaken response: “there is no vaccine – you must bomb all the cities”. It seems the Infected do indeed pass on the fungal spores by biting, as the seemingly normal corpse in the Jakarta mortuary reveals. The writhing tendrils inside its mouth were a suitably nasty touch, and set the scene for later revelations courtesy of Joel and Tess.

The doomy duo were as good as last time, their world-weary dialogue dropping recurrent hints as to having done some VERY bad stuff in the past, without revealing what it was. Pedro Pascal continues to be emotionally closed off as Joel, unwilling to bond with their teenage charge beyond considering her as merchandise in a deal. Like Han Solo, though, there’s definitely hidden depths there. Pascal is doing ‘haunted’ very well, but you just know he’s going to come through with the Millennium Falcon when it matters.

But it’s Bella Ramsey as Ellie that really gets a chance to shine in this ep. Introduced fairly late on last week, the character didn’t get much depth beyond ‘irritating teen’. This ep certainly reinforced that – this is a typical teenager, with a smart-alec response to everything – but also began to give her a backstory, and some affecting vulnerabilities. She may seem confident, but when confronted by actual skeletal corpses – and even worse, the terrifying Infected – she goes to pieces convincingly.

We also learn that she’s an orphan, and her dismissive response to the query about having a boyfriend (“ugh, no”) makes me wonder whether one future revelation will be that she’s gay. If so, good – that would be a welcome, unusual choice for a teen girl in this kind of story.

We also get a further demonstration that she’s immune to the fungal infection, as she gets another bite this time around to no effect. Just like, in fact, the teen girl protagonist of the very similar The Girl With All the Gifts (which, to be fair, was written after the initial Last of Us game). That puts paid to any doubts Joel and Tess have, despite their scepticism as to the idea of an immune survivor.

Alas, though, as I predicted, Tess doesn’t make it any further than this episode. Last week established the precedent that this is a show in which anyone, no matter how significant they may be, can die. So it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that Tess gets herself bitten in the tense standoff with the swollen-headed Infected in the Bostonian Museum. She goes out well though, sacrificing herself to wipe out a horde of Infected, and building up tension with the tried-and-trusted ‘unreliable lighter that works at the last minute’ gambit.

Before she goes, though, she gets a really icky taste of how the Infected pass on the fungus, as a distorted former human being effectively kisses her with a mouth of writhing Cordyceps tendrils. It’s a gruesome moment gamely played by Anna Torv, who will certainly be missed; but it also serves to give us more of an insight into how the Infected work. In keeping with the show’s general style, they’re introduced gradually, initially in a very low-key way. As Joel, Tess and Ellie gaze out from the balcony of a half-ruined hotel, we see, in long shot, what appears to be a massive pile of corpses. It’s only when the camera cuts back to a slightly closer shot that we realise the pile is actually moving – individual limbs flailing without purpose, as the creatures wait as if on standby.

That’s nasty enough, without Tess’ revelation that everyone infected with the fungus is connected to each other, and to the fungus itself, via a hive mind. That’s a really interesting idea, as the fungus can spread, outside of human bodies, for enormous distances, and keep its more mobile agents aware of potential victims for miles. It’s also believable. The world’s largest organism is indeed a fungus – a colony of Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon that covers 10 square kilometres and is thousands of years old.

So the Infected definitely aren’t your usual ‘zombies’; a distinct plus point given that much of the territory of this story is so well-trodden. We learn, via dialogue, that most die within a couple of years, but some live for decades. Despite twenty years of experience with them, it seems humanity is still mostly ignorant of how they work.

The early stages of infection look about the same as your usual zombie, albeit with fungus tendrils in the mouth and horns of Cordyceps bursting out of heads in an unsightly way (much as the real Cordyceps does with ants). But the long-term Infected – whoa, they’re something else. Misshapen heads composed of masses of fungus eruptions, they’re clearly blind, hunting by sound and using an eerie clicking noise as, presumably, a form of echo location. The scene with Joel, Tess and Ellie trying to evade them in the dusty, darkened museum is incredibly tense, as directed by original game creator Neil Druckmann. There may not be much original about the show, but these are definitely not the zombies you’re used to.

Having established itself well with its lengthy opener last time, this second, more conventional -length episode carries on the quality established there. I’m purposefully avoiding finding out about the original game (though I gather fans of that love this) but even from my limited experience, I can tell that this is very faithful in visual style. It may sometimes be a little too obviously derived from a game – scenes like the museum standoff reek of a ‘save point’ where you keep getting killed – but the strength of the characters and the performances work in its favour. And the ‘zombies’ are definitely something I haven’t seen before, despite the fact that they’re really just a variant on an established formula. As before, nothing here particularly surprises; these are roads we’ve been down countless times before. But it’s done so well that I’m definitely going to keep watching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: