The second episode of The Last of Us was all about beginnings: the beginning of the viral outbreak that would basically end the world, and the beginning of Joel and Ellie’s story as the pair, along with Tess, set out into the open world of Boston. Helmed by Last of Us game director and series co-showrunner Neil Druckmann, it was a subtly video game-influenced episode that also added to the franchise’s mythology in some scary, fascinating ways.
Before we could pick up with Joel, Ellie, and Tess, things flashed back to 2003. September 24, 2003 to be precise, a mere two days before Joel would lose his daughter in Austin, Texas. About 10,000 miles away, we’re in Jakarta, Indonesia, which—if you remember—Joel briefly heard mentioned on the radio in the previous episode. An older woman is having lunch when two military men come into the restaurant. Everyone gets scared and quiet and they ask her to leave.
This is Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim), a Professor of Mycology at the University of Indonesia. Mycology is the study of fungi, so it makes sense that Dr. Ratna is confused about what military men would want with her. They pull up to a hospital, go into a secure back section, and Dr. Ratna is asked to look at a slide. She identifies it as Ophiocordyceps—which Wikipedia describes as “zombie ant fungus”—but is confused about where it came from. The main man (Yayu A.W. Unru) tells her it’s from a human, but Dr. Ratna says that’s impossible. Ophiocordyceps can’t survive in a human. (Remember the TV show from the previous episode?)
She puts on a protective suit and goes into a room with a dead woman on a slab. This woman has been bitten on her leg and when the Ratna cuts it, it doesn’t bleed. Instead, tiny plant-like tentacles live below the surface. She puts forceps into the corpse’s mouth and pulls out living, moving, tentacles, and runs out horrified.
Shocked by her discovery, the military man explains where it came from. Thirty hours ago, this woman attacked several people at a nearby flour and grain plant. When the police arrived, they killed her, and a few hours later, all the people she attacked had to be killed. Dr. Ratna asks the next logical question—“Who bit her?”— and they don’t know. She’s also told 14 other workers from the factory are missing. At this information, she begins to shake. The man tells her they brought her here to help them stop the spread of this disease. That they need a cure. She calmly explains that there is no cure and suggests the best way to spot it is to bomb the entire city and kill everyone.
Again—this is TWO DAYS before Joel has to deal with the infected in Austin on his birthday, September 26. So the doctor’s extreme reaction was warranted. The world is doomed. Also, it’s worth noting none of this is in the game. It’s just a terrifying glimpse at where the end of the world started, newly created for this show.
In 2023, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv) are watching Ellie (Bella Ramsey) sleep. Remember, the previous episode ended with them finding out that she’d been infected. When she wakes up completely fine, Joel is ready to either bring her back to the Quarantine Zone or kill her. Tess, however, isn’t so sure, so she puts it all out there. She tells Ellie that she and Joel are not good people, that they’re helping her for selfish reasons, and if she doesn’t explain why she’s so important to Marlene and the Fireflies they’ll kill her. So Ellie, even though she was told not to tell anyone, tells Tess and Joel the truth. She was bitten a long time ago and she might be the key to a cure.
Joel says he’s heard that a million times, doesn’t believe it, and wants to bring her back, but Tess reminds him it doesn’t matter if it’s true, only that the Fireflies believe it and give them the truck in exchange. So they hit the road which, at first, Ellie is confused about. She was led to believe that outside of the QZ, there were infected running around everywhere. All kinds of weird variants of the infected. But that’s not the case. Overall, what she’s seeing is relatively quiet. That gives everyone a chance to talk.
Tess asks Ellie how she was bitten and Ellie says she snuck into a nearby shopping mall that was boarded up because she wanted to see what was inside. By herself. Tess is impressed but Last of Us gamers (and people who studied the trailers) know this isn’t quite accurate. Ellie also reveals that she’s an orphan and no one is going to come looking for her. Soon after, the trio finds themselves inside a flooded hotel lobby where Ellie reveals she can’t swim. Not that it matters—the water is shallow—but her lack of experience is beginning to show.
This entire section of the episode mirrored the feeling of The Last of Us game incredibly closely. Slow walking through huge abandoned cities. The threat of death around every turn. Exploring different pathways to find new passageways. And crucial information being constantly dispensed. Tess goes off to find a way past a dead end in the hotel and Ellie chats up Joel. She learns he’s from Texas, and that Tess is from Detroit, but Joel doesn’t want to say any more about that. He does tell her that the lifespan of someone who has been infected can vary, from a few months to over 20 years and counting and that he’s killed many of them. She starts to ask about the non-infected soldier he killed the previous evening when, mercifully for Joel, Tess returns.
She reveals the way they were going has been blocked by a mountain of seemingly dead infected. However, when the sun moves over them, they move too and here The Last of Us show adds to its mythology. Tess explains to Ellie that the fungus that infects everyone also runs underground and connects them all. So if you do something in one place, it will tell infected in other places, and your location will be given away. The idea that not only is it this one virus that has infected the world, but also that it’s in constant communication with itself is just another level of creepy.
Because of all of the infected in their path, Joel and Tess decided to go another way, one they were scared to go before: through the Bostonian Museum (not a real place, it turns out). Covered with ominous-looking fungus and vines, it’s pretty obvious why they didn’t want to go this way. It’s got to be full of infected. Joel realizes, though, that the vines all seem dead and—maybe—so are all the infected inside.
At first, it seems that way, but when Ellie stumbles on a guy who was killed much more recently, Joel says everyone has to be completely silent. Slowly they climb the stairs of the museum, which are covered with piles and piles of bodies. At the top, they enter an old weapons exhibit, but the walls behind them collapse making a very loud noise. That’s when they hear it. The clicks. First from one side, then the other, and creepy looking infected with huge cauliflower/coral-shaped heads come into the room. Joel signals to Ellie that these creatures can’t see, but they can hear, so to be quiet. But when one comes into sight, Ellie gasps, and all hell breaks loose.
Though they’re just fighting two Clickers, it’s an incredible chore, which makes for a fun, satisfying action sequence—exactly what audiences are surely craving from this show. After barely killing both creatures, everyone makes their way outside and Ellie reveals she’s been bitten or scratched. “If it was gonna happen to one of us…” she jokes, because she’s apparently immune. Joel still isn’t sure about Ellie’s condition but Tess stops him and makes him appreciate the fact that they actually survived.
They make their way to their final destination, the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, (an actual place, probably best known in pop culture for being featured in The Departed). The problem is, no one is there. There were supposed to be Fireflies there to take Ellie off their hands, but when Joel, Ellie, and Tess go inside, there’s no one. No one alive, at least. Apparently, someone got infected, hid it, and it spread to everyone, killing them. Joel is ready to turn back but something has gotten into Tess. She doesn’t want to go back. She wants to stay and get Ellie where she needs to be. And in that rage-filled desperation, Ellie figures it out. Tess has been infected. She shows her wound to Joel to confirm.
However, because Tess was bitten about the same time as Ellie, she asks to look at Ellie’s wound. Ellie’s wound, unlike Tess’s, is actually improving and that’s when both Tess and Joel know Ellie is for real. She really is immune and really might be the person who can save the world. Tess begs and pleads with Joel to take Ellie to “Bill and Frank’s place” where she’ll be safe. He doesn’t want to but she says she’s never asked him for anything, hinting at some deeper problems with the relationship. As this tense, emotional conversation is happening, one of the dead Fireflies starts to come back to life and Joel shoots him. In doing so though, the spores coming out of his hand, begin to grow into the ground and wake up infected from all over the city.
Joel peeks out the door. Tess asks how many are coming to which he replies “All of them.” Tess starts dumping gas and pulling out grenades, and vows to make sure they aren’t chased. “Joel, save who you can,” she implores, and so he grabs Ellie and runs. The swarm enters and at the last possible second, Tess is able to ignite her lighter and blow them all away. From outside, Joel and Ellie duck as the building explodes. Now, it’s just the two of them.
As I said at the start, the second episode of The Last of Us was all about beginnings. We saw the beginning of the outbreak. We saw the beginning of Joel and Ellie’s friendship. And, with Tess’ sacrifice and death, it’s now the true beginning of the show, as Joel and Ellie are now on their own, hoping to find a place to learn from this girl’s miracle.
Watch the latest episodes of The Last of Us on HBO Max.
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