24 February, 2023
The year is 2003. An infection known as the Cordyceps brain infection has quickly made its way across the world after its inception at an Indonesian flour and grain factory. Twenty years later, most of humanity has either died or been infected.
This is the world of The Last of Us, a show on HBO Max that debuted on January 15th. Based on the video game of the same name, it follows two characters trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world full of infected.
So, how does the infection work? It’s actually based on a real-life infection sometimes called the “zombie-ant fungus.” In an article for The Atlantic, Ed Yong described the process:
“When it infects an ant, it kills neurons and hijacks the insect’s control panel [and] moves the ant to an elevated plant stem, one where the temperature and humidity conditions are ideal for fungi to flourish [and] allowing the fungus time to spread through the body.”
This haunting characterization translates onto the screen in a way that is nothing short of nightmarish; when humans are infected, they can turn in a matter of five minutes or 24 hours, depending on the location of the bite. They become mindless, violent creatures that destroy anything in their path—“billions of puppets with poisoned minds,” as Dr. Neuman, a character featured in a flashback during the first episode, puts it.
The first episode, titled “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” introduces us to Joel and his 14-year-old daughter, Sarah. While the day starts out normally, things quickly take a turn for the worst. In a sequence almost identical to the game, shot nearly frame-for-frame, Joel and his brother Tommy attempt to drive out of town with a panicked Sarah in the backseat. In the chaos—an airplane crash, a crowd of wailing people running for safety—Sarah is shot by FEDRA agents, and she dies in Joel’s arms.
Two important groups in the series are the Fireflies, a terrorist group leading a revolution, and FEDRA, the target of the Fireflies’ violent plots.
The show then jumps forward 20 years to a quarantine zone in Boston. We meet Tess, Joel’s partner, and Marlene, the leader of a liberatory terrorist group targeting the operating government, FEDRA. Together, Tess and Joel are tasked with smuggling a young girl, Ellie, out of the city and into the care of the Fireflies at a rendezvous point. At the end of the first episode, we learn that Ellie is infected with the virus, but seemingly immune.
The second episode, “Infected,” follows Tess and Joel’s journey to get Ellie from the quarantine zone to the capitol building in Boston. They travel through an abandoned museum, and it’s at this point that we get our first up-close encounter with a clicker—an infected person that uses a form of echolocation—in a tense sequence following the group as they maneuver between museum exhibits in an effort to avoid it. In the aftermath, Ellie reveals that she’s been bitten once again, but remains unaffected—a sure sign of her immunity.
When they reach the capitol building, full of dead Fireflies, Tess reveals she’s been bitten. Her dying wish to Joel is simple—“You get her there. You keep her alive. And you set everything right.”
One of the show’s highlights is its third episode, “Long, Long Time.” In a change of pace for the action-packed series, this episode follows Bill, a quiet survivalist and so-called doomsday prepper. He meets Frank, a man stranded from his traveling group, and from there blossoms a beautiful love story. In a review on IGN, Simon Cardy remarked, “It beautifully tells a story of romance found in a seemingly hopeless place in a relatively action-free chapter that instead focuses on the love and sadness that both companionship and loneliness can bring.”
While the episode garnered adoration across the Internet, there were many who felt that it didn’t contribute anything meaningful to the show.
In the fourth episode, “Please Hold to My Hand,” we meet Kathleen, the leader of a group of civilians that have overthrown the oppressive FEDRA rule in the Kansas City quarantine zone. The threat of the hunters becomes all too real when Joel and Ellie are cornered and stuck in a firefight. Joel and Ellie make it out okay, and following the short battle we learn that Kathleen is searching desperately for someone named Henry. At the end of the episode, Ellie and Joel awaken from their sleep to find themselves held at gunpoint by a man and a young boy. That’s their introduction to Henry and Sam.
In the fifth episode, “Endure and Survive,” we learn more about the Kansas City quarantine zone. Henry says that FEDRA “raped and tortured and murdered people for 20 years,” enforcing a brutally oppressive rule. Henry is a “collaborator,” and he gave information to FEDRA soldiers that led to the execution of Kathleen’s brother, a prominent figure of peace in the community, in exchange for medicine for Sam’s leukemia.
In a significant variation from the game, Sam’s character is slightly younger and deaf. Co-creator and writer Craig Mazin explained, “It’s a way that Sam has to rely on Henry even more.”
Henry proposes that Joel help him and Sam escape the city through underground tunnels, and Joel hesitantly agrees. When they make it out, a horde of infected breaks out from underground. Among the horde is a “bloater,” the final stage of the infection and, much like in the game, they’re notoriously difficult to kill. In the chaos, Kathleen is killed, but Henry, Sam, Joel, and Ellie make it out seemingly unharmed.
At the end of the episode, Sam shares with Ellie that he’s been bitten on the leg. On a pad of paper, he writes, “If you turn into a monster, is it still you inside?” In a desperate attempt to save him, Ellie shares that she’s immune and her “blood is medicine,” cutting her hand to spread her own blood on Sam’s bite. Her efforts to save Sam prove fruitless, and the next morning he attacks her. Henry shoots Sam to save Ellie, and then takes his own life.
Sam and Henry’s relationship serves as a mirror to Joel and Ellie, allowing them to view their relationship from a different perspective. The dynamic of caretaker-and-child contrasts the dark, oppressive environment they have had to live in. Additionally, Joel begins to view Ellie as a reminder of what he lost. He has developed a habit of looking at his watch—a birthday gift from Sarah on the day that she died—when Ellie says or does something that reminds him of Sarah. It’s clear that Joel is beginning to care very deeply for Ellie, and that’s something he will struggle to come to terms with.
The Last of Us is a testament to love and life in a desolate world ravaged by darkness. In the following weeks, we’ll see where Joel and Ellie’s journey takes them.
You can stream The Last of Us on HBO Max, with new episodes releasing every Sunday at 9 p.m.