PM @ TILT: The Last of Us Season 1 Episode 2 Review – “Infected”
There’s a moment early on in “Infected”, The Last of Us‘ laborious second episode, where Tess, Joel and Ellie open a dilapidated door and let their eyes adjust to the sunlight. If for a moment, a dying world is at peace, a fitting metaphor for a trio of people clinging onto anything not sliding into the shadows – or even more troubling, reemerging from the darkness a screaming, ravenous mushroom head. But what seems like a passing observational moment is really a harkening for the very pathos at the heart of the series: The Last of Us is a decidedly unhappy franchise (even for a zombie story – it has terrible storytelling, but at least people get laid in The Walking Dead), one that revels in its ability to depress its audience at every possible turn, something “Infected” puts on full display – for better or worse.
A more obvious way to perceive The Last of Us‘s second episode is to observe it from the point of view of poor Tess. Though a woman who clearly is willing to do what she needs to do for survival – I mean, what character says “I’m not a good person” out loud, and lies about it? – a part of Tess clings onto the hope that may the last twenty years have been a nightmare, one that’s on the verge of ending. She may not say it, but she believes in people; she believed in the battery smuggler in the pilot, she believes in Joel somewhere in the past, and she believes in Marlene’s mission to transport Ellie west after she sees with her own eyes the teenage girl’s immunity. While Joel looks for the world to let him down, a tiny piece of Tess still looks to the sunlight, to bask in what’s left of the world’s sense of shared purpose – and maybe, for her own hopes to build out a peaceful life, where she no longer has to commit horrific acts for ration papers.
To its credit, “Infected” does a fantastic job funneling that optimism through Tess – and Anna Torv’s understated performance is beautifully delivered, pushing down that sense of hope and optimism creeping in, only letting it out into the world when she knows it is completely useless, and can no longer be jinxed by being stated aloud. Tess’s role in this episode is phenomenal; it helps accentuate the moments in between this episode’s long stretches of Walking Simulator 3000 (which, as it continues to imitate much of the video game’s narrative rhythms, just reminds that these scenes were created during a very different era of single-player gaming). More importantly, it allows Tess a bit of agency to impact the story’s emotional arc a bit – which to this point, has been drenched in Joel’s unrelenting, depressing nihilism (though you know, can’t really blame the guy).