We know better than to form attachments with characters in a post-apocalyptic thriller-drama, especially if it is on the sadistic platform of HBO. It wouldn’t be too far of a reach to assume that they do it with cruel deliberation. Giving us characters that are hard not to root for and then taking them away from us in some of the most horrid ways possible is usually how it goes for our favorite HBO dramas. At least this time, unlike “Game of Thrones,” Pedro Pascal can be expected to evade a bloody demise. And yet, despite our painful experiences with the wretched deaths in even the recent “House of the Dragon,” we once again let our guards down with “The Last of Us.” The heartbreak is on us. Knowing that Tess was meant to die did nothing to stop us from hoping that maybe not this soon. And quite frankly, we may have even hoped that they would find a way to avoid it. But that was just wishful thinking, as inconsequential to the dark flow of the narrative as our broken hearts. Goodbye, Tess.
Spending but a fleeting moment on screen is all that it took for the incredible Anna Torv to bring this fierce warrior to life. Well, maybe it was longer than a moment, but it sure feels as though Tess wasn’t with us long enough. The moment we set eyes on the bloodied woman tied to a chair and facing the ne’er-do-well Robert with formidable authority, let’s just say that we fell in love with Tess. I mean, who wouldn’t love a badass apocalypse survivor who got caught in a crossfire between FEDRA and the Fireflies and still came out unharmed? Tess was also evidently the only person who could get Joel to let his guard down just enough. We don’t really have access to Tess’ backstory. We are completely in the dark about who she was before the unfortunate world fell prey to the rabid fungus. We do, however, have the expositions from the makers themselves saying that they did contrive a story for Tess but decided against putting it on the screen. In that story, Tess was a mother and a wife amid the bewildering Cordyceps pandemic. When her husband and her son were infected, Tess could only kill the former. It was too difficult for the mother in her to kill her infected son. The little fragments of motherly protectiveness could be seen on the otherwise steely woman when Ellie came around.
While the game consistently keeps the nature of Joel and Tess’ relationship ambiguous, the show makes their romantic dynamic pretty obvious. But even outside of the intimacy they shared, Joel saw Tess as someone he could count on. Knowing her ruthless fighter side, which was never devoid of clarity of mind, he could go even as far as to trust her with his life. More than anything, Tess could read Joel like a book. She knew exactly what to say to make him do the right thing and also to hold him back from choosing the wrong path. It was Tess’ indestructible emotional capacity that could find hope in the darkness of death all around. While Joel’s losses corroded his heart to the point of wretched indifference, Tess’ indomitable feminine strength held off a complete obliteration of hope to the best of her abilities. Tess could see the same bright possibilities in Ellie that the fireflies could. And knowing that there was no way to convince the cynical Joel of the same, Tess instead chose to remind him of the rewards that would come from smuggling Ellie. She did start off her journey with Ellie with the same goal as Joel, but down the line, she did come to acknowledge that Ellie was the real deal.
If anything, getting bitten in the clicker attack only nudged Tess even further toward her sensitive side. Her infected wound, juxtaposed with Ellie’s obvious immunity to Cordyceps, did not make Tess fall apart. Instead, she saw the light of a better future. A future where doctors may just be able to wield Ellie’s invulnerability to the disease as a worthy weapon against Cordyceps. Knowing that death is just a moment away, Tess finally came out of her shell of coldness and addressed her emotions with the same courage that also made her an expert trooper against the threats of the apocalypse. In the most affecting moment of countless hearts breaking for Tess, it got hard to decide what was more painful. While Tess’ impending death came as a devastating jolt, knowing that the love that she felt for Joel wasn’t reciprocated made the impact of the tragedy far more damaging.
Addressing the hellish zombie kiss that was assigned to Tess isn’t an easy feat. An unbiased opinion of it is almost impossible when it concerns a character who we see with the highest respect. The macabre kiss that sends squirmy mycelium down Tess’ throat does come off as dehumanizing and maybe even disparaging. If we are to push through the discomfort and come to the point of seeing it for what it is, the horrid kiss makes sense, however depressing the sense may be. The zombie that took notice of Tess and walked towards her looked more human than the rest. Perhaps it was the last bit of humanity left within him that made him opt for an intimate way of doing what he was meant to do: spread the fungus. You may wonder why Tess didn’t fight back and instead froze in her last moment. Tess knew that fighting back when she was surrounded by a horde would only make them tear her apart. The hive-like mind that the zombies share knows nothing beyond their goal of advancing the infection. They aren’t violent in their pursuit unless they face defense. Tess had no reason to choose a more painful death than she was already about to get. But was the scarring kiss that almost comes close to grotesquely sexualizing Tess’ death really necessary? While my own prejudiced perspective doesn’t allow me to actually feel the nuanced possibilities of its meaning, the death kiss did have a significance of its own. Even though I really don’t want to believe it, the kiss may have been a disturbing fulfillment of Tess’ longing for intimacy. It may have also been a creepy gesture of the fungi to welcome her into its world. We can hardly complain about the dehumanizing aspect of it when it is the moment when Tess is indeed leaving her humanity behind. We may feel better if we turn our eyes away from the kiss and look at the magnitude of Tess’ sacrifice instead. The warrior could not let her death go in vain. Tess’ bravery in bombing the State House and taking the hungry horde to dissolution with herself stands as the most consequential deed that ensures a safe passage for Ellie, humanity’s last hope.