In the very first episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” we were introduced to Tess Servopoulos, played by Anna Torv, as the partner in crime of Joel Miller in the present, post-pandemic timeline. After the Cordyceps fungal outbreak ravaged the earth, survivors have been gathered inside Quarantine Zones operated by the oppressive control of FEDRA, and just like the source material in the series, Tess and Joel operate from Boston QZ. Paired up with Joel’s career of smuggling, Tess’ role in the larger narrative is significant. As seen in the second episode, her decision and influence constitute a major game-changing shift in the course of the story, which will end up being a nexus point in the future. We will briefly discuss her role so far in the series and the impact of her sacrifice.
Role Of Tess In ‘The Last Of Us’ Universe So Far
In the unforgiving post-pandemic world of TLOU, where survival of the fittest is the name of the game, Tess has the edge over the rest as she believes in the “dog eats dog” policy. We first meet her being held up by the small-time crook Robert and his crew. The audience gets to know that, fearing retaliation for double-crossing her and Joel, Robert had captured her in a panic to make a case for himself by convincing Tess. Something which conveys the duo’s reputation without revealing much by following ‘show don’t tell’ rule, and also that Tess is the brain while Joel acts as muscle in their partnership. The hardships of life in the QZ have also taught her the importance of deception, and Anna Torv skillfully emulates that through different stages of emotional expression in her portrayal of Tess. Tess acts like an understanding pacifist in front of Robert, acts vulnerable in front of FEDRA to avoid unnecessary attention, and schemes cunningly with Joel to take down Robert and retrieve their belongings.
After Sarah’s death, Joel has gradually lost touch with his humanity—something that has been hinted at in the series and shown in the game as well. Things have gotten progressively worse after his brother Tommy left him after joining the Fireflies. In the absence of familial connection, a relationship with Tess is the only form of human attachment Joel has. While both of them are known in the QZ’s criminal underbelly for their ruthlessness, Tess acts more like a counsel for Joel, and adept in her street-smart ways, she is more of a negotiator between the two of them. Unlike Joel, who finds it difficult to open up and trust wholeheartedly, Tess trusts Joel enough to assist him in his dangerous undertaking of rescuing Tommy by venturing into the open world full of perils.
The best assessment of her role in the narrative, however, is revealed after the duo comes across Ellie in the Fireflies’ hideout at the QZ. An injured Marlene makes a deal with Tess and Joel and entrusts them to escort Ellie to the Firefly base at Old Statehouse in exchange for a fueled truck and a battery. According to the deal, they agree to provide the duo with everything promised upon reaching the base, or Ellie will be killed on the spot. As they venture out to escape the QZ, a FEDRA guard comes across them, and Joel proceeds to beat him into a pulp after getting his PTSD triggered. In the midst of this ruckus, Tess is the one to notice the bio-scanner indicating Ellie to be infected. However, she also listens to Ellie’s justification and is wise to postpone the conversation for later. Joel remains too puzzled in his dazed state to notice or understand anything regarding Ellie’s immunity and takes Tess’ word into account to keep moving forward. If not for Tess’ presence, Joel’s paranoid self could have killed Ellie.
Initially, both of them act reasonably distrustful toward Ellie and are hesitant to believe her revelation regarding immunity, but even so, Tess is seen to be more lenient in understanding the circumstances regarding Ellie’s importance and the possibility of her telling the truth. Except for Marlene, so far, she is the only person to treat Ellie with some kindness, as she offers to share food with her—an almost unthinkable offer to a stranger, given the circumstances. Understandably, Ellie prefers to stick close to her during their journey. Her feelings towards Joel don’t cloud her judgments either, as instinctively, she notices Joel’s broken hand twitching (from beating the FEDRA guard), which under different circumstances could have been a sign of infection. After noticing Ellie not turning infected, Tess is more than willing to believe that Ellie has a future in front of her and that it is their duty to escort her to safety. So much so she argues with Joel, who believes sneaking Ellie back to the QZ should be the best course of action. Tess’ feelings stem from her past experience and regrets; later, she resentfully hints at their past misdeeds to Ellie. For her, saving a life is worth a lot more at the moment than salvaging resources to carry on an inconsequential existence.
Upon learning the reason behind Ellie’s importance to Marlene, that her immunity might be the key to finding a cure, Joel acts cynical and stubborn, while Tess is willing to risk the journey toward Fireflies base. During their journey, Tess answers all of Ellie’s curiosities and acts as a meaningful medium of exposition for the audience. She is also appreciative of Ellie’s courage upon learning that the latter’s misadventures led to getting bitten. Through knowing about Ellie in the course of the journey, Tess begins to trust her a bit more, and that almost solidifies when Ellie gets bitten once again and doesn’t turn, although Tess is not so lucky as after being bitten by Clicker during the museum encounter, her condition is worsening rapidly.
Importance Of Tess’ Sacrifice
As the trio reaches the Statehouse, they find the Fireflies, with whom the transaction was supposed to take place, dead on the spot. This basically means Joel and Tess won’t receive anything promised in the bargain; additionally, Ellie is bereft of the safe refuge she was promised. Tess has bigger problems to deal with as she grows restless after her having been bitten, and she knows she is living on borrowed time. The deal is no longer her primary concern, nor is Joel’s mission of finding Tommy. Ellie is not only the last hope for humanity; for Tess, Ellie represents a legacy—a last good deed by saving her will allow Tess to die with dignity. She frantically searches for maps or some kind of coordinates to locate the destination Ellie is supposed to head towards, and Joel keeps acting cynical and hopeless. In a tragically ironic reversal, Ellie is the one to sense Tess infected, just the way it happened in the game also. Joel’s warning comes true, and he is too paranoid to continue this supposedly doomed journey with Ellie.
Tess hopes against hope and desperately tries to convince Joel. Keeping Ellie alive is her last shot at redemption, albeit posthumously. By her own admission, they have committed horrible acts in their quest for survival, and saving this girl and ensuring a chance of humanity’s revival might be a means for their atonement. As they are having this conversation, an infected is shot by Joel, which triggers the fungi hive mind and alerts the horde of infected in the city to their presence. With the swarm surrounding the Statehouse, the team has little to no chance of escape, and Tess decides to make a last stand by acting as a buffer between the infected and the fated pair. In her last moments, Tess confesses her unreciprocated love for Joel and pleads with him to take Ellie to safety, and knowing he will be there to look after her can provide her with some solace.
Initially taken aback at the revelation of Tess’ infection, Joel manages to gather himself to honor Tess’ last wish and rushes to escape with Ellie. We see Tess standing alone in the Statehouse with the ominous sound of an oncoming horde reverberating in the background. Although differing in context, Hodor’s act of sacrifice by “holding the door” in “Game of Thrones” comes to mind when we consider the similarity in the impact of both acts. It was a befitting and worthwhile end for her, and although tragic, her actions became a symbol of hope in the larger context of the story, as symbolized by Ellie standing in front of the Statehouse as the setting sun reflects on her.