The Last of Us exploded onto HBO with a massive series premiere, scoring 4.7 million viewers for its opening installment. It’s HBO’s second-biggest premiere since 2010’s Boardwalk Empire, surpassed only by a certain dragon show. With its second episode, The Last of Us explodes in a literal way, as the show’s fungal foes finally arrive in earnest, and one party member exits the stage in tragically early and fiery fashion.
Directed by Neil Druckmann, co-creator of the Last of Us video game and show alike, episode two, “Infected,” lives up to its title, taking us all the way back to the origin point of the extinction-level event: Jakarta, Indonesia, briefly referenced in the series premiere. If John Hannah’s Doctor Neuman called the mushroom apocalypse back in 1968, then University of Indonesia mycology professor Ibu Ratna verifies it here in 2003. The scientist (played by Indonesian acting icon Christine Hakim) spends the last day of her life before the fall of civilization much the same as Pedro Pascal’s Joel: eating a meal, perhaps not thinking much of the day ahead. Then, a pair of soldiers appear in the restaurant she’s dining in, unannounced. They escort Professor Ratna to a facility to help them confirm the government’s worst fears: a human host infected by a lethal fungal strain, one that should not exist in humans at all.
“Cordyceps cannot survive in humans,” says Ratna, leaning on her years of expertise, denying the truth on the microscope slide right in front of her. But there’s no room for denial when she sees the infection thriving in a human body, cold and naked on an autopsy table, a white web of tendrils sprouting beneath the surface of the skin, more embedded in the throat. An empathetic, but visibly terrified military official (Yaya A.W. Unru) sits down with the horrified Ratna, to tell her how they came across this Cordyceps-infected corpse. (Corpse-dyceps? No? Listen, I’m just trying to lighten the mood here. It’s the end times!)
Effectively, the woman violently attacked a number of colleagues at her place of work, a flour and grain facility. (Not a joke: a widespread number of fans left the Last of Us series premiere pointing at bread as the source of the apocalypse, with Joel’s half-assed Atkins Diet, or maybe just his inability to make a grocery run, literally saving his life. It sounded fairly ridiculous in the moment, but who’s laughing now?) While the folks the woman attacked have all been handled—as in, executed “according to procedure”—there’s no accounting for the person who bit the infected woman, and no accounting for fourteen missing coworkers either. The military official begs Ratna for guidance on what to do next.
“I have spent my life studying these things, so please listen carefully: there is no medicine, there is no vaccine,” Ratna tells the officer. When pressed on what they can do to stop the thread, Ratna’s answer is a single, horrible word, spoken in English: “Bomb.”
Twenty years later, we see the results of Professor Ratna’s scientific guidance, as far away from Jakarta as a bombed-out New England. Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) continue their mission to safely escort a teenager named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to what’s left of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. But much like Ratna, Joel, and Tess are having trouble believing what they’re seeing: Ellie has tested positive for Cordyceps, and yet, she’s not a monster. Just as Cordyceps growing within humans was once thought an impossibility, Ellie’s apparent immunity swings things back in the other direction. Against all advice from Firefly leader Marlene (Merle Dandrige), Ellie tells Joel and Tess all about her bite, and her resistance to the cause of mankind’s near-extinction.
“There’s a Firefly base camp out west, with doctors working on the cure,” says Ellie. “Whatever happened to me, is the key to–”
“–finding the vaccine,” says Joel, finishing the sentence, incredulous about what he’s hearing. “That’s what this is? We’ve heard this a million times … this isn’t going to end well, Tess. We need to go back.”
In another universe, in another show entirely, Anna Torv once embodied a soldier who encountered stranger situations than fungal zombies; perhaps some measure of that acceptance has leaked over from Fringe to The Last of Us, as Torv’s Tess shuts down Joel’s pitch to turn back around to the quarantine zone, and instead decides to finish the mission of delivering Ellie to the Fireflies. By the end of the episode, you can imagine Joel’s plea ringing through whatever’s left of Tess’s ears.