The following is a recap and review of the second episode of HBO’s The Last of Us. Expect story spoilers.
In the second episode of the first season of the HBO adaptation of the masterful video game franchise known as The Last of Us — titled Infected — Joel (played by Pedro Pascal) begrudgingly agrees to escort Ellie (played by Bella Ramsey), alongside his longtime smuggling partner, Tess (played by Anna Torv), to the Old State House in Boston. On their way there, Ellie sees what longtime infection can turn someone into. Infected was directed by Neil Druckmann (television directorial debut) and written by Craig Mazin.
Like with the series premiere, the second episode opens with a flashback to a never-before-seen scene that was never in the game. Last week, it was the single-location but excellent fungal infection explanation scene from John Hannah’s character in the 1960s, whereas this time around we get an extended sequence involving veteran Indonesian actress Christine Rakim who plays mycology professor Dr. Ratna. These scenes in Jakarta are so fascinating and help to establish how this entire show aims to be a prestige version of something like a The Walking Dead. This sequence sees the police bring her in without explanation, and you really feel that sense of dread as she is taken away by the police. In the scenes that follow, in which she is sent to examine a body infected with the Cordyceps infection, the show feels like a blend of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later. It is all done with such gravity and it looks astoundingly well and real. Rakim is absolutely terrific here, as she plays the horror of seeing something she’s studied her whole life be the thing that’ll likely take her life eventually. The incredibly bleak scene in which she basically orders the military to bomb the city because it won’t be stopped otherwise and that a vaccine isn’t a possibility is absolutely chilling, raw, and haunting. It is an amazing addition to the lore of this franchise, especially so because the show also starts to establish that part of the outbreak happened at a major flour factory. You can just imagine how quickly it potentially spread in the days to come.
On the other side of the title sequence, we see a bird’s eye perspective shot of Ellie lying in a fetal position with a butterfly circling her. The butterfly obviously symbolizes the Fireflies, and the entire shot is essentially a counter to what Christine Rakim insisted. Ellie is the new — perhaps even only — hope for a vaccine. The fireflies hope to test Dr. Ratna’s theory with Ellie as their solution to the unsolvable vaccine. What follows are mostly scenes that build the relationship between characters, which allows for exposition to be deftly delivered to the teenage audience insert. These scenes — both inside of the building in which Ellie slept and out in the open — are quite good and, for example, you start to see how Ellie and Joel’s relationship grows. From how Joel will talk about Ellie like she isn’t there (quite dehumanizing) to him eventually, later in the episode, looking at his watch — the symbol of his daughter — after talking to Ellie after the museum sequence. Although I must say that, especially in these early scenes, I found the wobbling of the unsteady handheld shots to be quite distracting. I can excuse it when they’re walking around, but it was way too distracting in Ellie’s first scene in this episode. I should note that the sound effect used when Joel opens the door for him, Tess, and Ellie to leave the building they spent the night in elicited somewhat of a wild response from me. It sounds so much like the sound of a clicker — the gnarly infected seen later in the episode who are blind and use echolocation. It is almost definitely meant to elicit this PTSD-like response in gamers as a tease about what is to come later in the episode.
And speaking of that, I think this episode feels much more different from the game than the first episode did. They take some liberties in this episode, but I think they still manage to do a good balancing act. Here they appear to have blended Ellie’s first encounter with a clicker with both the museum sequence and the later hotel sequence, which, in the game, does not feature Tess. I think most of this makes sense, in that it is difficult to fill in the entire narrative and selection of memorable moments from the game into the series which is limited in different ways by runtime and structure. Now, the later hotel sequence is one of the very best sequences of the game, and I hope they manage to actually keep parts of it in the show, but even if they don’t, I do think that it makes sense to truncate that Ellie and Joel banter and early disagreements set inside these major buildings into a single episode. I guess you could say that we only really get the hotel lobby scene from the game, so I’m going to be hopeful that the scarier parts of that game sequence somehow made it into later episodes. We’ll see.
Other than blending different sequences together, the single biggest change to the game narrative thus far is how this episode establishes a fungal network of sorts. Now, unlike in the video games, airborne spores haven’t made it into the show, which I can understand. But I must admit that immediately as I heard this network exposition from Anna Torv’s Tess, I winced. I think it makes sense insofar as to how these fungal organisms may or may not function, but I do wonder how it changes later sections of the game’s narrative as seen in the show. I’m okay with it as it stands (I think it works here), but it is certainly the most controversial change to the story at this time. Conversely, what feels closest to the game in this episode is, to me, the look of the world and the look of the clickers. I was, frankly, blown away by how the HBO show has brought the clickers to life. I think the actors who portray them are so precise in their movements. It is in how the arms will wildly be flung as they dart to someone, it is in how they contort as they click and ‘listen.’ It is also in the look. The prosthetics, make-up, or visual effects — I’m not certain about all of the details — look astoundingly good and accurate. As a huge fan of the game, I was so happy with how they were portrayed as these unbelievably scary creatures. The scenes inside of the museum are so tense and so well-shot and acted.
All of this leads up to a very memorable moment in the game, and that is Tess’ heartbreaking farewell. Now, there are overt changes here, like how it is a swarm or herd of infected that Joel and Ellie leave Tess to contend with rather than very alive human beings with weaponry, which is how it is in the game. I actually like this change quite a bit, because their exit feels more appropriately urgent. Other than that, Anna Torv, Bella Ramsey, and Pedro Pascal play their version of the iconic scene from the game. In broad strokes, all of the major character beats are there, but I think there are some subtle differences in performance from Anna Torv, who is outstanding here, and also some lines of dialogue that are tweaked, some of which I’m a little bit disappointed were altered. I think, as a fan of the video game, it is difficult to divorce yourself from the way it plays out in the game, but we have to make room for and accept new actors and new creative teams to make these subtle changes as long as it remains respectful to the source material. And let me be clear, while there are quite a few notable changes in this episode, I am so happy with how respectful this entire series has been to the experience of the source material thus far.
All in all, I think this is a brilliant follow-up to the incredible first episode and a really strong television directorial debut from Neil Druckmann. I will say that the number of handheld shots was a little bit distracting to me, but it is a small nitpick of an episode that excellently adapts a major section of the first game,
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.