After an absolute cracker of an opening episode, it seemed that The Last Of Us had finally smashed the curse of the video game adaption that saw such titles as Sonic The Hedgehog and Halo harmlessly bounce off that glass ceiling, but what if that first episode was a fluke and the insanely promising start this show had was merely the start of a slow decent in mediocrity that would unfold over an agonisingly long nine-week period? After all, it’s happened before – anyone remember Netflix’s attempt at Resident Evil?
Well, you can all relax, because not only is The Last Of Us now two for two when it comes to superlative episodes, but in many ways, Infested actually surpasses the premier to not only expand the world of this fungal dystopia further, but gives us a chilling, closer look at the mushroomy monsters the majority of mankind has become.
Starting their trek beyond the Quarantine Zone in order to deliver 12 year old Ellie to a branch of the resistance group known as the Fireflies, partners in crime Joel and Tess try to figure out exactly what makes their charge so valuable. Sporting a three week bite on her arm from one of the infected, Ellie obviously has some sort of immunity to the fungal epidemic that’s reduced a sizable portion of the city into screaming, moldy creatures, they surmise that the smart-mouthed adolescent maybe the secret to creating a cure to what’s afflicted the world for the past twenty years.
Giving Ellie a crash course in Infected 101, they find that their planned journey – a safer, but longer route – is no longer as safe as it once was due to scores of Infected laying out in the open and so they have to take the alternative.
This route takes them through a dark, musty museum and proves to be just as perilous as you’d expect as it’s home to a different, more advanced breed of Infected known as a Clicker, a creature made blind due to the grotesque growths on its face but who track by using echolocation in the form of a series of creaking, clicks as it stalks its prey.
However, upon making it to the rendezvous area, the trio discover that the party they were due to meet has come to a very sicky end, apparently turning on one another after one of their number became stricken with the apocalyptic disease. Worse yet, the plant based threat also has vines that stretch along for miles, so if you tread on a patch of vegetation that’s connected, Infected streets away will instantly know where you are – so guess where Joel has just planted his foot?
With hordes of Infected on the way and no team to offload Ellie onto, Tess insists that Joel continues on with Ellie and take her all the way to her final destination – but what could lead Tess to take such altruistic measures?
I’m loathe to keep comparing The Walking Dead unfavourably to The Last Of Us, but one of the biggest complaints leveled at the long running zombie saga is that later series favoured more human threats over the billions of undead that loped across the face of the earth – so it’s something of a relief to see that virtually the entire second episode of The Last Of Us is dedicated to showing us exactly how dangerous these zombie-adjacent creatures are.
Starting, much like the first episode, with a unrelated scene that chillingly fills us in on not only the origins of the virus, but exactly how devastating it is, the slow burning dread flows like wine at Caligula’s bachelor party. A scene set in Jakarta, Indonesia back in 2003, clues us in to how an mycology professor, visibly traumatised at the ramifications of the fungal virus she’s been invited to study, flatly details how we should deal with the infection with chilling simplicity – “Bomb this city and everyone in it.”.
Things don’t get much rosier from there as we flit back to the present and deal with Joel, Tess and Ellie’s predicament and the episode almost takes the form of a perverse nature hike as the two adults lead the child in their care (and, in turn, us) through what life in this grim future has become. It’s fascinating stuff, made all the more engrossing by the fact that the city has been reduced to a crater-filled wasteland dotted with crooked buildings all coated in sinister vegetation and the show visualises in a way that somehow feels utterly new despite similar futures popping in in movies like I Am Legend.
The second thing the episode focuses on is its ‘shroomy antagonists, clearly and organically explaining what their abilities are without falling into a pit of endless exposition, thanks to an intelligent script and flawless delivery thanks to Pedro Pascal and Anna Torv. And then, after a bunch of creeping and a chunk of explaining (none of which is remotely boring) the Infected finally make their presence known. Despite showing the beginnings of the invasion in the previous episode, the Infected have had twenty years to really let the mold that’s pulling their strings do a number on them, forcing elaborate mushrooms and other such exotic fauna to sprout from their faces. However, these guys are fucking runway models compared to the Clicker, a special breed whose growths look like an elaborate coral formation has split their skull in half. Clicking their way ominously through a nail biting scene of cat and mouse, it’s a memorable way for the show to differentiate its creatures from standard zombie fare and is a surefire way to cause any viewers to suffer from an instant case of pucker-butt.
However, the third aspect the episode fleshes out is Anna Torv’s Tess, shifting the character to centre stage for reasons that horrifically become clear. With a dystopian-sized spoiler warning in effect, The Last Of Us claims yet another victim in heartbreaking fashion after the run-in with the Clickers leaves her ridden with the virus. Torv has always been able to bless her characters with a certain amount of weight (just check out Fringe, if you need further proof) and confronted with her fast approaching mortality, she begs Joel to do something altruistic and escort Ellie to where she needs to be.
It’s a scene we’ve all seen a million times before: the bitten character hanging back to sacrifice themselves for the others. But director Neil Druckmann doesn’t let us off anywhere near that easily, switching Tess’ death from a fatal shooting by FEDRA guards in the game to having her big moment almost foiled by a defective lighter and thus causing a particularly amorous Infected a chance to get up close and personal as tendrils sprout from its mouth into her’s. It’s only then, once the horror of the situation has reached its absolute crescendo, that Tess’ light finally sparks into life and mercifully ignites the cocktail of gasoline and grenades she’s strewn about the floor. It’s this precise dedication to the horror aspects of the piece that gives the quieter, dramatic moments to wallop to make you not only give a shit about these characters, but makes its threats bloom (literally) into nightmares made flesh.
In a mere two episodes, The Last Of Us has become the best of us.