The Last of Us: Infected

The trouble with being a week (or more) behind on my self-assigned reviewing project is that I was happily doing some thinking about “Infected”, the second episode of The Last of Us, when I got hit with episode three, “Long Long Time”, which is serious gut-punch. The latter is the kind of story that post-apocalyptic narratives are uniquely suited to tell — strip out society and focus hard on fragile, beautiful human connection — but, for whatever reason, doesn’t. So. I’m going to do my best to muddle through some thoughts about “Infected”, but know that my heart isn’t quite in it because Frank and Bill broke it.

One thing I didn’t mention when talking about the pilot episode was the cold open. The entire series opens on a 1960s talk show panel discussing one of the panelist’s new book, something apparently about the dangers of infectious disease in the age of air travel, and the prospect of a pandemic. I was rueful when one scientist talked about how a disease could move from one side of the globe to the other “in a matter of weeks” — surely it’s faster than that now — but then I realized that Covid-19 did indeed take weeks, sometimes months, to get all around the globe, infection rates and incubation periods being what they are. I was just talking to a family member about the beginning of the pandemic, and Minneapolis shut down on the Ides of March — March 15. We weren’t locked down here, at the top of Lake Superior 200 miles away, until the day after St Patrick’s Day — March 19. Four days, 200 miles. This is all a jillion times faster than when the Black Plague landed in Europe, in Italy, in 1347, and took almost five years to travel to northern Russia.

Then the other epidemiologist (played by the charming John Hannah) chimes in: I’m not scared of viruses or bacteria, he says, what really worries me is fungus. He then goes on to describe in loving and terrifying detail what the cordyceps fungus does to ants. The whole vibe of the room changes. The audience goes from laughing at the moderator’s stupid jokes to watching in stony silence as he talks about the annihilation of the entire human race. It’s a pretty great opening, because while obviously it’s there to infodump how the zombie pathogen works in this story, it also seeks to disarm an audience which is weary of pandemics in general, and zombies in specific. I did it myself while watching: yes, yes, we all know how air travel will change the way diseases move through the population; you sweet summer children have no idea. Hannah’s little monologue really gets into the terror of the fungal infection — being piloted and replaced by an alien while you remain locked in your own body — while explaining to a pandemic-weary modern audience why we should sit up and take notice.

The cold open in the second episode doesn’t so much explain as illustrate, profoundly and horribly, how this fungal zombie infection is Not Your Daddy’s Zombie Virus. We open in Jakarta two days before the opening of the first episode. An older woman — a mycologist — is having lunch at a cafĂ© when some cop-types escort her to … well, it’s not entirely clear. A government facility? There is a split second showing a sign giving advice about how to deal with SARS, which definitely dates the proceedings. She’s shown a slide of something which they claim came from a human, but she pushes back: cordyceps cannot infect people. She’s then sent into a pressure-negative clean room to inspect a body. She cuts near a bite mark on the body’s ankle, which reveals fibrous strands, not the usual blood and muscle. When she opens the cadaver’s mouth, fungal spores reach out, straining in the air towards her. She reels out of the room, clearly horrified almost to the point of panic.

This actress did such an amazing job. Like most of the audience for The Last of Us, I don’t speak Indonesian, so she had to convey her emotional state through body language and her carefully expressive face. You can see it all: her confusion and fear when she’s picked up, which segues to a casual professional confidence when she snaps into scientist mode. So when we see her shakily drinking tea and quietly, calmly suggesting they should firebomb Jakarta, you know exactly how fucked up everything is. Like the 1960s talk show, this isn’t really telling us anything new, except in the minutia. We’ve seen the clickers at work in the pilot, and we’ve already gotten the scientific rundown. There was some mention of flour mills in Jakarta in the first episode, so this is a confirmation of that location as ground zero for the infection. But this sequence put a face on what could be dry facts: This pathogen is so terrifying an expert in mycology suggested firebombing her hometown. Even then, she knows it’s not going to work, and asks to be returned home, so she can spend what little time she has left with her family. Oof.

After the cold open of second episode, the narrative continues with Tess, Joel, and Ellie outside of the Boston QZ, moving towards a meeting with the Fireflies so Joel and Tess can pass off Ellie, and move onto whatever bullshit they have going on. This part of the episode definitely had the feel of a video game. Encounter an impediment; work around the impediment. Tess and Joel discuss going the long way or the short way. The long is, of course, the safer. There’s a fair amount of crawling over things and working around obstacles, like the kind of thing you’d find in a video game. They inevitably end up going the short way after the long way proves blocked; the short way is through the Bostonian Museum, a (fictional) museum which appears to be about colonial Boston. We get our first up-close look at a clicker who’s been overtaken by the fungus for years, and these zombies are definitely residents of the Uncanny Valley, their faces covered with mushroom frills, blind, and smelling. Their blindness makes them seem less worrisome than your usual Romero-style zombie — stay silent and out of the way — but once they hone in on your location, they are significantly harder to kill. We also get some important exposition about the clickers. Apparently those fungal fucks are connected underground, so that if you disturb the wrong thing, it’ll pluck the unseen network like a spider’s web, and draw clickers from miles around down on your location. (Surely this won’t be necessary information later.)

Ellie is alive with wonder and curiosity about the world outside the QZ, and fascinated by the remnants of a modern world she has never lived in. Sometimes recklessly so: She tells them she was infected with cordyceps when she broke into a mall which had been declared off limits. (She also claims she was alone, and that is surely a lie. As I mentioned in my first post, I don’t have knowledge of the game to fall back on, but seriously. No one underlines how alone they were in fiction unless they weren’t.) Ellie’s delight with the world, even the ravaged, decaying parts, is in contrast with Joel & Tess’s world-weariness and trauma. I find this is a common tension in zombie narratives (and post-apocalyptic stories more in general): the new generation, the one born after the death of the modern world, has very different instincts than that one who watched that world die. Boston isn’t a cenotaph for Ellie, not a marker for the death of modernity, and modernity itself is something between a tall tale and a myth.

So. A totally decent episode which was more about setting up necessary exposition than hard-core interpersonal interactions. I mentioned Colson Whitehead’s Zone One last week, how he builds a taxonomy of survivor recollection. The Silhouette is for people who you don’t intend to be with very long, just a simple sketch of where and when. The Anecdote is for more long-term of one’s short-term companions; this recounting will get deeper into details. The Obituary is the real story, with blood, snot, and tears. The last episode was Joel’s Obituary. It showed us who he lost and how utterly devastating that was. In this episode, he barely, barely, gives Ellie a Silhouette. She asks him not very intrusive questions — the kind of thing you’d ask someone in a waiting room — and he answers “pass” to more than a couple. Given his resolve to stick with her at the end, it’ll be interesting to see him thaw towards the more intimate modes of recollection — and she him.