REVIEW: ‘The Last of Us’ Splits Heads and Builds Tension in Subtle Second Episode

The Last of Us is a storytelling machine fueled by nuances. So much of its plot, and consequently, its character development, plays out in the form of sudden movements and stilted glances. In its original video game format, the traumatic tale of Joel and Ellie was allowed to be immersive, executed as something experienced by both the protagonists and the player controlling them. On television, this can’t be the case, so formerly passive moments of world-building become incredibly deliberate choices, and once-lively sequences of gameplay transform into subtly intense scenes on camera. It’s not an easy transition to pull off creatively, but this tight-rope act is the name of the game in Infected, the second episode of HBO’s newly acclaimed adaptation.

Picking up where the premiere left off, Infected sees Joel, his smuggling partner Tess, and their new cargo Ellie fleeing from the Quarantine Zone and traversing a post-apocalyptic Boston. Their goal is to drop Ellie off with the Fireflies and go their separate ways, but the path to the designated meeting point is blocked by a horrifying horde of the fungally infected, and not everybody is going to survive the alternate routes. This episode is, perhaps, a slower burn than the last, but works insanely well as a masterclass in creating tension. From beginning to end, the stakes feel high, and the expert pacing leads to truly awe-inducing payoffs that firmly cement The Last of Us as a terrifying, heartbreaking new world of monsters.

Much like the first episode, Infected begins with a cold open set before the events of Outbreak Day. A scientist in Jakarta is tasked with inspecting the body of a freshly infected person, quickly coming to the realization that society, as humanity knows it, is about to end. While striking, the scene at first feels repetitive of what was already presented in the pilot, an almost unnecessary addition to the story when Joel and Ellie’s journey is begging to continue rolling. There’s an extreme sense of foreboding, a deeper look into how the fungus began spreading, and a reminder that people won’t be able to win this battle before cutting to the opening credits. However, as the rest of the episode unfolds, it starts to become clear just how brilliant the cold open actually was.

As its title implies, Infected does a lot of leg work when it comes to explaining how The Last of Us’ zombie-like plant baddies function. The information given to viewers in the episode’s first few minutes is expanded upon as the remaining hour ticks away, with each new detail creating a higher sense of danger than the last. As the stand-in for the audience, Ellie gives all the correct reactions, ranging from disgust to strange admiration. Like anything humans may fear in nature, there’s an innate level of respect for the fungus and its unstoppably connective nature, but it doesn’t make the simultaneous pain and destruction its growth results in hurt any less. Tendrils, for example, finally have a purpose, and the show’s manner of presenting them as both deliciously creepy and oddly beautiful makes for a wonderful mixed bag of emotions for those watching at home.

Like the cold open itself, most of the horror in Infected comes from what the audience doesn’t see. Viewers are told what could kill them, and they’re told how dire the situation has become, and then they’re left to imagine what that might look like for the large majority of the episode. Characters peer through collapsed buildings, walk past craters in the street, hear screeches come from the distance, and see far-off, ant-sized bodies roll in a giant mass along the ground. It feels like anything could come crashing through the wall at any moment, and it causes every action the protagonists take to feel like a life-or-death decision. All this, so when the Clickers finally make their live-action debut, it’s worth every second of agonizing anticipation that came before it.

Avid fans of The Last of Us have heard the sound of Clickers a million times in the past, yet somehow, HBO’s latest series manages to bring a fresh kind of fright to the first time that guttural noise comes around the corner. It’s not the action-packed museum fight sequence from the game, but it doesn’t have to be. The point is to experience the terror of the infected, and director Neil Druckmann only needs two of them to get the job done. Every motion of the camera while Joel and Ellie hide (in a surprisingly game-accurate way) is genius. A continued play on the phobia of the unknown. They, and the viewers, only get glimpses of a living nightmare that forces them to play by its rules. If Clickers weren’t already part of the classic horror villain lexicon, they will be now.

This unique sense of dread extends to the episode’s closing moments, which find Anna Torv‘s Tess sacrificing herself in a bittersweet effort to save the planet. This, too, is made better by the beginning of the episode, acting as a hopeful bookend to an hour of empty loss. In Jakarta, it’s made perfectly clear that there is nothing people can do to stop the fungus. The only option, according to a tearful scientist, is to take lives away. Here, after discovering Ellie as a potential solution, Tess realizes the answer may actually be keeping a life intact. Again, after a long subtle build, the payoff comes due in a gorgeous, intimate moment of humanity, surrounded by the bizarre parallel of the fungus – now spreading into Tess – also doing what it can to stay alive.

Of course, none of these nuances could possibly work as well as they do without the pure talent of the cast. Bella Ramsey comes to life as Ellie in this episode, and it becomes apparent by the end exactly why they were chosen for the role. A perfect blend of vulnerable and tempestuous. Specifically, a moment between Ellie and Joel in the lobby of a flooded hotel feels ripped straight from the game, with Pedro Pascal also embodying the latter character with immaculate accuracy. Somehow, The Last of Us has been reborn on HBO, and with time, it may even prove to be a better version of the story than the original model. At the very least, these first two episodes have been nothing short of amazing, and hopefully, are enough to bring viewers back for more.

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