The second episode of HBO’s latest series, “The Last of Us,” was released yesterday, and judging by the reception it’s been receiving, the video game adaptation might be grabbing big prizes at the award ceremony next year. Peppered around these episodes are several tiny clues that, when pieced together, complete the story and fill in the blanks if you didn’t play the game. Although a lot of eagle-eyed viewers might have spotted a few already, here are the ones that you might have missed in the second episode.
The episode begins at a restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2003, where two uniformed officials approach a woman named Ibu Ratna and escort her away. While they’re heading towards the laboratory, a poster for the SARS virus is visible on the wall. This helps substantiate the show’s basis by throwing light on an actual virus had broken out in Indonesia between 2002 and 2004 that led to the deaths of 800 people. By using that poster, not only is the timeline of the story substantiated, but it also serves as a warning to the viewers that outbreaks like the cordyceps attacking humans might happen someday in real life. Ratna, a renowned mycologist, studied the sample and learned that the incident started in a flour mill in the city. This links to the little news report on the radio in the first episode that mentioned disturbances happening in Indonesia while Joel, Sarah, and Tommy were having breakfast. Ratna learns that a female worker in a flour factory suddenly turned violent and attacked her co-workers, and thus is able to theorize that flour was the best substrate that helped the fungus grow. This also has some ground factually because Jakarta is the home to the largest global flour factory. The series explains by the second episode where the outbreak came from, and given the warmer temperatures of the earth, it’s easy to deduce how we have a pandemic at hand. While the game had stated that the disease came with imported South American crops, the series takes a different direction, but this connects a lot of actions that follow.
Director Craig Mazin stated that throughout the show, there were scattered “breadcrumbs” that would point toward the origin of the infection. Indeed, it seems that avoiding bread or any gluten-based products helped Joel and Sarah escape the infection in the first episode. Joel forgot to buy a cake, Sarah didn’t make pancakes and didn’t have the god-awful raisin cookies at the Adlers’ residence, and it seems they survived unknowingly. Bread or any gluten-based product has been deemed unsafe in the years following the outbreak, which is why Joel and Tess have to survive on dried beef jerky for breakfast while Ellie enjoys a sandwich. Not only is she immune from the bite, but the fungus in the flour seems unable to affect her.
Additional scenes like the three people walking through a deserted restaurant in the episode serve as a contrast to the lively hubbub of the one during the opening of the episode and, in turn, point at how far the world has changed in these two decades. We see Ellie to be strangely attached to her jack-knife, and Joel watches her fidget with it. This might be a call-back to the time in Episode 1 where Sarah was intrigued with her father’s knife and probably serves as a way to connect the two girls as people Joel feels the need to care for.
The showrunners realized what a hassle it would be if Joel, Tess, and every other character who isn’t immune to the fungus would have to wear masks half the time, not to mention the fact that the expressive potential of these actors would be greatly limited. So they changed it from an airborne disease to one that travels through food or bites from the infected. Instead of airborne infectious spores, a new theory was introduced: the fungus has a hive mind, which allows it to communicate through the underground roots with every infected person with tendrils growing through them and send them rushing to wherever new victims might be found. Interestingly, this is based on an actual fact because there are certain fungi colonies that are spread through wide distances, and they are somatically connected, allowing them to share information.
To show people how futile the relics of the past are in a world where humanity has been pushed into the corner, Mazin gives a detailed view of the dusty Civil War museum, covered in fungus and dead people. When the world comes to an end, nobody remembers the model of guns used hundreds of years back, but the actions of the people that help them survive. Thus, the museum lies in waste, with moss growing on its outer walls and zombies walking around inside its rooms. Things like jingoistic patriotism have no value in a world where borders don’t exist anymore, and the concept of “us versus them” has changed. In post-apocalyptic 2023, it’s humanity versus zombies, while in 2003, it was ordinary people like Ibu Ratna against the armed forces. While being escorted by the officials, she asked if she had committed any crimes, making it clear that a barrier existed between common people (us) and the armed officials (them). These days, it’s just fighting not to get eaten by monsters with tendrils sprouting from their eyes. However, the shot of Ellie standing with the tattered yet flying American flag represents hope that better days might be ahead.
The show makes a few big changes towards the end of the episode. For instance, Ellie getting bitten a second time shows nobody is safe from the Clickers, but the wound getting healed so fast is the final proof that she’s the answer to the cordyceps disease. Moreover, Tess’s last moments aren’t spent fighting the FEDRA and dying in a shootout as in the game, but she blows up the Capitol Building and innumerable zombies along with herself to protect Joel and Ellie. While the pair have to escape several armed soldiers in the game, here they watch as the Building explodes with Tess in there.