‘The Last of Us’ Episode 2 Review: Multiple Dooms for the Infected – Spoilers
It’s another episode about greetings and goodbyes, this time showing Ellie and the audience how to navigate this world.
(Editor’s note: Included in the following review spoilers for “The Last of Us” episode 2, “Infected”.)
It’s an easy shortcut to unpack the episode with the opening sequence, and I promise it won’t be like that for the next two months. But it’s worth pointing out that the first two cold openings of “The Last of Us” heighten the sense of global unease as much as any wiretapping news, Oval Office headline or TV test sample. In the second episode of Infected, a late ’60s public affairs roundtable hosts Dr. Ibu Ratna (a wonderful Christine Hakim), a scientist and professor who was one of the first to recognize that humanity is a real problem.
If last week’s first episode wasn’t enough to make viewers feel hopeless about the early stages of “The Last of Us,” here’s an expert who realizes within minutes that nothing can be done. Dr. Ratna goes through stages of confusion, curiosity, dread, and resignation, already mourning a society he knows is doomed. There is something eerie about a scientist, in a profession renowned for weighing possible alternatives and explanations, making such a definitive (and ultimately correct) statement. It’s as factual as showing the factory worker’s bullet hole on the autopsy table. This is not an environment where hope thrives.
This introduction not only shows what was lost (before we clarify that this is another 2003 flashback, there is that hopeful two-second gap where it seems that civilization might somehow have survived Indonesia), but emphasizes how much “The Last of Us” is based on a new, unconventional flow of information. Last week’s pilot showed people following a leak of symptoms before the avalanche. Later scenes in “Infected” show that even 20 years of experience leaves some gray area around the enemy everyone is fighting. Everyone trying to stay alive gets caught up in the dangerous game of telephone, which would be difficult enough even if the motives of everyone involved were clear. Ellie will be the easiest test case for this – she’ll see how her ideas about the world beyond the wall match up with reality.
These are abstract entry points into an episode with a fairly simple sequence of events. Joel, Ellie and Tess, fresh from escaping the FEDRA-controlled part of Boston, now find themselves in the “outside world”. Getting Ellie to her Firefly allies means traversing what’s left of eastern Massachusetts, starting with the burned-out remains of a decades-old town riddled with bomb craters. According to Joel, this is the result of a success story – it is possible that mass sacrifices helped to stop the spread of cordyceps and create a quarantine zone, a process that did not always happen in the big cities of 2003.
As “The Last of Us” runs through the various story and design decisions faced by post-apocalyptic shows, this second episode gives audiences a better idea of how things went down here. “When You’re Lost in Darkness” focused on collapse and the new semblance of order in a controlled area. “Infected” is the first large-scale look at what’s left behind. Not quite the irradiated, barren wasteland that comes after total destruction. Nor is it the frozen-in-amber, ghost-town feel of 2021’s beautifully haunting “Anna,” where the population disappears much more gradually. “The Last of Us” chooses the middle path, where destruction is the most preserved thing, as all kinds of plant life take off. Contrast the damage inflicted by man-made weapons against an invincible opponent with the fractal-like, prismatic cordyceps growths from the entrance to the Boston Museum. Illness has more beauty than healing.
Of course, this does not apply to all discoveries of our trio. There are dead bodies in the hotel at the mouth of the Long Way out of town and the Short Way museum. Their path is littered with people, whether smugglers, escapees or proactive travelers who have underestimated the minds of the mushroom hives or renegade forces still trying to survive them. Like the attack that takes place in Rear Window when Tommy drives the pickup out of their Austin neighborhood, the group of infected that Tess shows Ellie to is a set of consequences visible from a great distance. Seeing this new world through Ellie’s eyes makes “Infected” feel like the second half of a massive pilot. Ellie is the newcomer/surrogate in how to process what Boston has become in the 2023 version. When he, Joel, and Tess have to wade through waist-deep water that has flooded what used to be a hotel lobby, it might as well be the opening level of a game to get a new player used to the controls. By the time they arrive at the (fictional) museum in Boston, director Neil Druckmann has effectively set the stage for the protagonists’ physical and emotional lengths.
This extends to the sensory experience of the episode. The score is sparse here, which means we start to get used to the overwhelming sense of silence that accompanies long stretches of Joel and Ellie’s journey. They are away from the daily buzz of QZ. The cacophony of breakout day and guerrilla warfare has now given way to a world where a single crunch can mean the difference between survival and infection. The relationship to sound is sometimes more playful (hello, new frog friend!), and sometimes more instructive (just hearing the dead cordyceps root under the butt of Joel’s rifle is enough to let him and us know that it’s no longer a threat).
Of course, it’s in the museum room at the top, where we get our first brush with a fully grown Cordyceps Infected. This isn’t the kind of show where everyone spends the first season bailing out of tough scrapes and close calls at the last minute. As Tess says, your luck will run out at some point. Aside from yet another example of how nobody in this world (other than Joel and Ellie at this point) is guaranteed to make it to the next episode, it makes sense that a short fight with two angry opponents would only leave one of them. this trio is unharmed. Tess’s acceptance of her fate mirrors Dr. Ratna’s.
Sarah’s death didn’t just stand out in the pilot because it was meant to be what drives Joel to survive his new enemy. He stood out because he was rough, messy and ruthless. For the second time in as many episodes, Joel has only a split second to say goodbye to someone he cares about. Her heart is hardened, Joel’s story repeats itself, and someone close to her dies without a word of comfort before they leave.
And that terror rubs off on Tess, whose final moments are mostly spent worrying that Joel and Ellie won’t have enough time because of her death. (As someone who wrestles with lighters, I’d almost certainly experience the same combination of fear and frustration.) His river of gasoline and hand grenades eventually decimates the local infected population, but it’s the least triumphant sacrifice possible. Not only does Tess deny Joel some final words, but she has to deal a fatal blow to the enemy while he’s in the middle of an attack with his own violent displays. Her bodily autonomy is the last thing to be taken from her, and only her final outcome is concerned with her death. The last moments show how much of Tess’s pain and sadness Torv managed to carry in his facial expression alone.
Pascal is also asked again in this episode to do a lot with a little. If the events of the pilot hadn’t shut him down like a lived-in, world-weary Joel, his quarter-tone instructions around the truck and inside Independence Hall would have done the trick. A part of him who doesn’t say much is beaten down by survival. It’s also a big dose of self-preservation. Fewer words means less chance for strangers to guess who you really are, and less chance of saying/not saying something you’ll regret. From top to bottom, “Infected” is about maintaining your dignity despite almost certain failure. Dr. Ratna just wants to be with her family. Tess finds a way to make her death mean something. Now Joel and Ellie carry on in silence, trying to hold on to the last shred of hope.
“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PM on HBO and can be streamed on HBO Max.
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