The Last of Us HBO episode 2 recap: more ground rules and a big death

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Note: My name is Mikhail Klimentov. I’m an editor for Launcher, The Washington Post’s video game arm. Unlike Gene Park, who wrote summary of last weekI’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who hasn’t played the games – although, as someone who follows video game media, I’m familiar with the plot and characters.

I have to be brutally honest: I found Episode 1 of “The Last of Us” a bit boring. I attributed that to the fact that it was a pilot telling a story I actually already knew, but in a five-star rating system I’d probably give it a three. But good news: Episode 2 is much better!

We open in Jakarta on September 24, 2003. A woman, Ibu Ratna, a professor of mycology at the University of Indonesia, is detained by a serious-looking military authority and taken to what appears to be a hospital. There, Ratna inspects a corpse, which has a nasty bite on its leg and a mouth full of still-moving mycelium.

Judging by the intro of the first episode – the talk show bit – I found this much stronger. The first intro had the unenviable job of explaining the idea of ​​an apocalyptic fungal infection to an audience that might have been ready for just another zombie TV show. Here we know what’s going on, and the opening sequence ramps up to it, with fear and melancholy all the way through. When the professor realizes the magnitude of the problem – at that point there were only about 15 infected people missing – she tells the soldier: “Bomb. Start bombing. Bomb this city and everyone in it.” With a clear mind on the problem, Ratna asks to go home and spend the remaining time with her family.

(This is a Craig Mazin specialty, by the way. If you like this flavor of “scientist wrestling with an overwhelming, inhumane disaster in front of a bureaucrat,” I’ve got some good news for you about Mazin’s previous show, “Chernobyl.”)

We go to see Ellie, who wakes up to find Joel and Tess watching over her. They interrogate her and learn that her destination is a Firefly military base, where her miraculous survival could help craft a cure. Joel says he’s heard it all before and doesn’t want to be a part of it.

There is a nice staging in this scene. Ellie sits under a beam of light, tufts of grass and flowers around her. Joel, on the other hand, is in the dark. And Tess, as the scene goes on, steps out of the dark with Joel and ends up right in between the two. Joel’s hands are shaking all the time (a hairline crack; he brushes it off). Meanwhile, Tess’s faith – in everything she thought she knew about the infection – is also shaken. Tess finds the middle ground and the adventure continues. Ellie may not be who the fireflies think she is, but when she delivers her, the adults still get what they need: a car battery.

Outside, the group encounters a crater. “Is this where they bombed?” asks Ellie. That’s it, says Tess. Most major cities, we learn, were hit this way. But it’s not clear that it worked in all those other places, or what “worked” means for that matter. Moments later, when Ellie refers to zombies using echolocation, Tess and Joel exchange concerned looks.

Back to back we get two one-on-one conversations between Ellie and Tess or Joel. (This is known as juxtaposition.) Tess remarks that Ellie is a weird kid, but she clearly warms to her. They talk about how Ellie got bit in the first place (she gives one of those answers that feels like she’s leaving something out, like maybe we’ll get to this in a later episode), and you feel there’s a flicker of recognition when Ellie talks about breaking into a restricted area in the quarantine zone. That’s Tess and Joel’s bread and butter; they are smugglers after all.

Joel and Ellie find it harder to find common ground – or rather, their dynamic is different from Tess and Ellie’s. As a paternal guardian-type figure, Joel moves in to save Ellie from a toppling skeleton as the group makes their way to the State House. That’s a point in the Joel column. But Ellie isn’t quite ready to strike up a conversation with a man she knows has definitely thought about killing her. She jokes, and the only sincere back and forth the two have is about killing the infected. Does Joel feel bad about killing them, knowing they were once human, Ellie asks? Sometimes, says Joel.

Together, these two conversations form an interesting impression of the trio. They almost look like… a family? I hope nothing bad happens!

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There is an obstacle on the way to the State House: a mass of infected people, as seen from the roof of the hotel. We learn a little more about the rules of the world here. When a spot of light passes over the zombies, we see them writhing in unison in a wave-like motion. Tess explains that they are connected. If you step on a piece of cordyceps in one place, an underground fungal compound warns cordyceps elsewhere, like a tripwire.

Since that route is closed, the group chooses to go through a museum. There is a passage on the roof that brings them closer. The facade of the museum is covered in mold growth, but Joel tests it with the butt of his rifle and declares it to be bone dry. Perhaps, he reasons, the infected inside are dead. But as they enter, Ellie stumbles upon a body watching very recently dead. And it looks worse than other victims; Joel and Tess are visibly shaken by the condition of this corpse. But for the trio’s purposes, the only way out is through, that’s how quiet they go.

Silence is the keyword here. Remember those zombies Ellie mentioned that use echolocation? There they are! When the group reaches the second floor, the ceiling collapses behind them, blocking their way out. The commotion also attracts two zombies; Joel signals to Ellie that these infected cannot see, and move by sound. (These appear to be clickers, a kind of zombie from the game.) An exhale from Ellie sets off one, and Joel fights it off while the second chases Tess and Ellie. At some point, Ellie and Tess break up and attention turns back to Joel, who regroups with Ellie. The camerawork here really ramps up the tension: in my estimation, the infected are more out of the picture than in this sequence, with tight zooms taking them off our radar. The fight ends with Joel shooting one zombie and Tess sticking an ax into another.

Ellie is bitten again, but shrugs, “If it happened to one of us,” she says as she fades away.

“Is everything alright?” Joel asks Tess. Twisted ankle, she responds.

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Joel goes to bandage Tess’ foot, but is reprimanded when he asks if she thinks the second bite could actually infect Ellie. She wants him to look on the bright side. Maybe for once they can really win, she says. He looks toward the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House, and something that looks like a smile appears on his face in the sun.

As the group approaches the State House, they spot a truck. It’s empty, and there’s a corpse not far from it. A trail of blood leads inside. Tess rushes in, only to find more corpses. One was bitten and the healthy fought the sick, Joel notes. For him, this means the adventure is over and it’s time to go home. But Tess is adamant: Joel must now take Ellie to her destination. Ellie finds out before Joel: Tess is infected.

Her hands shake and her voice wavers as she asks Joel to take Ellie to Bill and Frank, who she says will take her out of his hands. (For the record, we don’t know who Bill and Frank are yet, though folks who’ve played “The Last of Us” might have some idea of ​​what the story is there.) There’s some blinking and you’ll-miss-it characterization here too: Tess begs Joel and tells him she never asked him to feel the way she felt. Tess and Joel are close enough. But the takeaway here is that Tess found something akin to post-apocalypse normalcy: love. It doesn’t look like Joel ever did. At least he never admitted it.

As this scene unfolded, Joel stood in place, silently nodding or shaking his head. Suddenly, one of the corpses shudders to life, and this is a world where Joel feels comfortable again. He approaches him with authority and shoots the zombie in the head. Then we see tendrils shoot up between the corpse’s fingers. The underground mold wiring Tess mentioned earlier is activated and a nearby horde of zombies wakes up. The time Tess thought she had with Joel has been cut short.

Save who you can save, Tess tells Joel. So he grabs Ellie and drags her out of the building, leaving Tess behind.

Tess starts flipping barrels of petrol and throwing grenades around, intending to blow up the zombies that have arrived. But she struggles to turn on her lighter, which catches the eye of a zombie who’s a bit more human than the clickers we saw before (he has recognizable facial features, including one eye). In what may have been my least favorite sequence on this show to date, the zombie plants a rank-packed smackoo on Tess; it’s a cursed mirror image of the recognition and intimacy that Tess wanted from Joel. (I’ll go into that scene a bit more in a separate article). As the mycelia work its way to her mouth, we see the lighter finally produce a flame.

From Ellie and Joel’s vantage point outside, we see an explosion erupt from the State House, with a handful of the infected burning up on their way out of the building. Ellie seems shocked. Joel’s expression, meanwhile, questions Tess’ previous statement about his feelings for her. His gaze lingers, his eyes water – then he remembers Ellie, turns away from the State House, and walks on.

Questions and comments

  • This episode is all about Tess. She can imagine a future. She wants to know things about other people. Episode 2 is about her personality being reflected by Ellie and Joel, and what is revealed about the main characters in that light.
  • I’ve seen some YouTube videos theorizing that the source of the yeast infection is contaminated flour. Sarah, Joel and Tommy emphatically avoid foods with flour in Episode 1, and in this episode the outbreak originates from a flour and grain factory in Indonesia. It’s an interesting Easter egg if you’re into that sort of thing (although I’m not).
  • There is a clip in the intro sequence where we see the face of an abstracted person. The fungal growth then continues from the forehead – just as cordyceps really do with their insect hosts.
  • There was a whole fuss about the show with no mold spores like in the game. Well, if you care about that, Ellie says the word “traces” around the 20 minute mark. Eat your heart out. This was this week’s edition of Spore Watch. I wouldn’t count on this being a recurring segment.
  • In this episode, a frog plays the piano. The piano sounds shockingly good because it was submerged in water and probably hasn’t been tuned in about twenty years. Every piano tuner I’ve ever talked to says you have to tune them at least once a year or else the pegs will get messed up. Maybe I’ve been scammed.

Episode 1: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”

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