With its second episode, The Last of Us manages the unlikely trick of expanding its world and making it tragically smaller at the same time, establishing or strengthening some of its major themes and adhering to a pace and narrative structure that feels patient, well-considered, and unique to the show. As we did in the first episode, we open with an extended flashback that takes its time establishing setting, atmosphere, and characters who will likely never be seen again. Returning to 2003 and the initial outbreak of the infection might seem like ground that doesn’t need to be covered at this point. You could argue that there wasn’t enough learned in this sequence that wasn’t already made clear, or at the very least alluded to in the previous episode to justify its focus and somewhat patient pace, but we enjoyed how tightly it fits in the parts of the story already told. You might remember that Joel’s last breakfast with his daughter included a discussion of the the news of unrest in Jakarta. You might also remember that Sarah wanted him to pick up pancake mix, which he forgot to do. This is worth noting because one of things we learn in this opening sequence is that the initial outbreak occurred in a flour and grain factory, which Professor of Mycology Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim, in a wonderfully still and restrained performance) calls “the perfect substrate.” After being told how many people were infected and died, and how many more people appear to be missing, Professor Ratna informs the horrified soldier that there can be no vaccine to stop the spread and no medication to save the people. She advises him to bomb the city until everyone is dead.
Twenty years later, Ellie wakes up in a patch of mossy grass, with a butterfly fluttering about her. Having camped out in the ruins of a store, Joel and Tess apparently spent the night watching her, guns drawn. They question her, which annoys the shit out of her, but she’s smart enough to know that you can only get so many chances to be a smartass to people pointing guns at you. She tells them that Marlene found her after she was bit, convinced her people not to shoot her, and tested her for signs of infection. She gets permission to go pee, and Tess tosses her an old magazine when she leaves. We talked about this in last week’s podcast, how little touches like that, or Joel asking the soldier to give his Ziploc bag back after he emptied it of pills, show a creative team that’s really thought about what it’s like to live in that world. Joel and Tess argue over what to do with Ellie, Joel firmly convinced that she has no future ahead of her and that they should take her back to the QZ, which is kind of an odd thing to do with a person he considers infected. It also doesn’t seem like the best idea given the soldier that he may or may not have beaten to death. Tess, ever the more practical-minded of the two, argues that this is their best and probably only shot of getting a working truck with a battery — and also seems a little taken aback by Joel’s callousness regarding Ellie’s chance at a life. “I’m gonna talk to you like you’re an adult,” she tells Ellie when she returns. “Joel and I aren’t good people. We’re doing this for us.” She lightly threatens Ellie to get her to tell them the full truth: the plan is to deliver her to the Fireflies waiting for them so they take her to a base camp out west where doctors are working on a cure. Joel is immediately dismissive of the idea, claiming they’ve heard it plenty of times before. “That’s what this is?” Tess reasonably argues that they don’t have to believe it, because the people they’re delivering her to believe it and they promised to pay them in exactly what they need. In retrospect, and given how confused Joel appears to be by her reaction, it would seem that even before things went south for her, Tess was already feeling some sort of hope for redemption through Ellie. Ellie jokingly twitches while they’re debating what to do with her, which Tess shuts down immediately. You can see a connection forming between the two of them. Tess almost immediately becomes both mentor and protector to her.
Ellie is astonished to see her first daytime view of the world outside the QZ. The production design throughout this episode – restaurants with the place settings still intact grown over with moss and ivy, hotel lobbies hosting entire ecosystems, a museum nearly torn apart by massive invasive fungus – was as stunning as the digital work showing a devastated and crumbling Boston skyline. Tess and Joel clearly know the routes and the layout available to them and decide to go to a hotel to check their route first, stopping long enough for Ellie to note that Boston was bombed, just as the Professor advised them to do in Jakarta. Tess tells her that it worked to stop the spread here but that it didn’t work so well in other places. If you pay attention, you can watch all of the blank spaces of this world being patiently filled in. Tess asks Ellie how she got bit and she tells her that she snuck into an old boarded-up mall in the QZ where she was attacked, which tells you just how free of the infected the Quarantine Zones actually are. Tess is impressed to hear that Ellie went in there alone. “You got some balls on you, sister.” Ellie is flattered by the compliment, but it seems like she isn’t being truthful about that part of the story. Ellie reveals that she’s an orphan and her response to whether she has a boyfriend makes it sound like she’s not into the idea at all.
Everything is new to Ellie, despite her hardened exterior. She asks in wonder if they’ve ever stayed in a hotel and is scared for a moment when she thinks she’ll have to swim across the flooded lobby. “This is so gross,” she says with delight as she wades across the lobby pond, past ducks and piano-playing frogs. She play-acts checking into the hotel, something she clearly read about in books, and Joel calls her a weird kid. After getting briefly scared by a skeleton, she assures a concerned Tess that she’s “Fucking fabulous.” The way through the hotel is blocked by collapsed debris, leaving Ellie and Joel alone for the first time while Tess climbs her way around it. They clearly can’t stand each other. He asks her a question about herself, she gives a smartass answer. She asks him, and he cuts her off from asking any more questions. She does, however, get a pretty good series of expositional lessons on how the infected work, thanks to her first exposure to a mass of them, writhing around on the ground outside. Joel tells her that some infected last around a month, and others are still wandering around after 20 years. Tess clues her in on how they’re all connected to each other through the cordyceps fungus growing throughout the earth. This last point is pretty much Chekhov’s gun. It got fired later in the episode. “You’re not immune to being ripped apart,” Ellie tells her gently, but with a quiet vehemence. “You understand? It’s important. We’re trying to keep you alive.” Joel watches this conversation, clearly on the outside of whatever relationship is burgeoning between Ellie and Tess. Since it’s clear they can’t go the way they planned, thanks to the writhing mass of fungus people, Joel suggests going through a history museum to get to the State House, where they’re supposed to hand off Ellie to the Fireflies. The museum is overgrown with fungus, but Joel determines that it’s long-dead, which we suppose to mean that there shouldn’t be too many infected inside, since the fungal growth seems to have happened some time ago. Or it means that the live fungus itself is dangerous to be around. Either way, Tess once again firmly lets Ellie know what the ground rules are and that she is to stay behind them if things get dicey. Ellie keeps asking them for a gun, but they’re both adamant that she’s not getting one. They come across a collection of long-dead infected, their bodies exploded with fungus. “Cooked,” Joel calls them. Just as they think they might get through the museum without any trouble, Ellie finds an uninfected person who’s been killed recently. She doesn’t understand how his body could have been so damaged, which indicates once again how little people on the inside of the QZ understand what’s going on outside of it. Joel and Tess exchange knowing looks. She’s clearly starting to panic a little. Joel orders them to be completely silent going forward. Part of the building collapses as they’re making their way through it, blocking any attempts to flee. It also serves as a good reminder of why anyone traveling through the city needs to know which route to take if they’re to survive. It’s a minefield of collapsed or collapsing structures. They walk through masses of dried out fungus exploding out of bodies and all over the interior of the building. It’s incredibly creepy. They encounter a “clicker,” an infected whose entire head has been overgrown with fungus, leaving them blind, but able to navigate and find prey by clicking and listening, in the series’ first genuinely scary sequence. The spasming and jerking performance of the actor and the unsettling staging of only seeing its obscured form through dusty glass before you finally get a look at it, was effective enough that we involuntarily held our breath. Of course all hell breaks loose, with some great staging, particularly in the shot of Joel standing just on the side of a doorway trying to quietly load his gun as we see the clicker approaching in the background. The camera gets tighter and tighter on Joel until we can’t see the clicker anymore, raising the tension even further. Tess gets separated from Ellie but comes in at the last second to help them put down the second clicker after Joel dispensed with the first one. One thing the show has in common with The Walking Dead, unfortunately: no one seems able to land a head shot easily, even though you’d figure they’ve had a lot of practice by now.
Ellie recovers quickly “Well, at least I didn’t shit my pants.” She discovers a second bite at the exact site of her first one, even though her sleeves were down through the whole scene. A rewatch from this point on shows the shift in Anna Torv’s performance; the subtle cues that tell you she’s processing her fate without revealing it to anyone. One of her great strengths on Fringe was her ability to convey a lot non-verbally and it’s nice to see that skill put to good use here.
Joel tries to talk to Tess about Ellie and her second bite, but she gets impatient with him and his inability to show any sort of optimism. She waves him off from trying to help her and he’s confused about why she’s mad at him. He goes to Ellie and asks her if the outside world is everything she’d hoped for. “The jury’s still out,” she replies. Then, looking out over the overgrown and dilapidated Boston skyline, adds “But man, you can’t deny that view.” He seems taken aback for a moment by her youth and eagerness and for just a second, sneaks a look at his watch. Love that solid nonverbal acting that tells you everything you need to know without saying it.
Unfortunately no one greets them at the State House and further investigation reveals a Firefly compound with a lot of recently dead Fireflies. One of them got bit and the rest of them seemingly panicked and started a firefight that got them all killed. Tess seems increasingly desperate about the situation, in a way that Joel doesn’t quite grasp. When he tells her it’s over and they’re going home, she turns on him and says viciously “That’s not my fucking home!” It’s Ellie who figures out that Tess is infected. Again, Joel is slow to process the situation. He’s so cut off from his emotions that it’s making it difficult for him to accept reality. Tess knows him better than she knows himself and she does the job of snapping him back to reality. “This is fucking real,” she tells him as she shows him Ellie’s new wound, which is already healing. She begs him to take Ellie to Bill and Frank’s (the “B/F” written above the decade-based radio code Ellie discovered last episode), reminding him that she never asked him for anything, not even “to feel the way I felt.” It’s tragic and it’s clear that Joel is blindsided by all of it, not just her impending death or her declaration of love, but the idea of Tess being full of hope about a future she isn’t going to be a part of. “You keep her alive and you set everything right. All the shit we did.” Torv is heartbreakingly great in this moment. Unfortunately, there’s no time to debate the issue, because Joel winds up shooting the newly revived infected, who communicates his location through Chekhov’s fungal network. Things instantly become hopeless as the entire mass of infected start heading their way. Tess quickly figures out a plan. “Save who you can save” she whispers to Joel. It’s the last thing she says to him and we think it’s safe to say it will be his defining ethos for the rest of the series. He grabs a protesting Ellie and drags her out of there. Tess upends some gasoline and grenades from the Fireflies’ stash and goes out in one hell of a blaze of glory. The bit about not being able to get the lighter work was a little bit of a cliché, but they’d already shown her hand spasming earlier, so we’ll allow it. The fungal kiss, on the other hand, felt a little cheesy. Our first thought was that she deserved a better ending than having to make out with her ostensible killer, which is funny to think about a character we only saw for an episode and a half, but you can chalk that up to the performance as well as Craig Mazin’s and Neil Druckmann’s scripting and direction. Last episode gave us an economical 30-minute introduction to Sarah only to kill her off brutally, for maximum emotional impact to the audience and a devastating origin story for Joel. With two episodes and the great Anna Torv occupying the part, the show managed to outdo itself by delivering a fully realized character who went on an emotional journey right in front of our eyes while the people around her missed what was going on, making her death that much harder to take. For a second there, they showed you a potential version of the story where Tess and Ellie bond on their journey and how great that might be for the both of them, only to rip away the possibility and leave behind two people who clearly don’t like each other. It’s devastating emotional work and it’s really well executed.
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