Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 2 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!
The most memorable moments in video games are not often at the start. They ease you in, familiarizing you with the mechanics and controls before taking off the training wheels. It stands to reason, then, that watching HBO's The Last of Us series retread the game's early gameplay sections wouldn't stack up to its stellar premiere.
While the second episode still reaches thrilling highs as Joel, Ellie, and Tess grow closer on their journey through Boston's ruined cityscape, the show pumps the brakes a little, leading to an episode that's more measured and builds the atmosphere while simultaneously allowing its two brightest talents to shine.
But before Joel and Ellie continue their journey out of the QZ, we get another 2003 flashback. This time we're in Jakarta, which we previously heard referred to as the location of ground zero. An extended scene with mycology professor Ibu Ratna provides a glimpse to the outbreak's origins while still leaving some of the core mystery intact. It also continues the show's body horror hot streak as the professor checks on a tendril-ravaged cadaver. Ratna's later recommendation that the army bomb Jakarta lands with a shattering impact – and will likely leave lumps in the throats of many as an echo of the first days of COVID.
Despite that, the scene runs the risk of feeling a little redundant. The Last of Us – like one of HBO's other great dystopian dramas, The Leftovers – has never been about the how and why of it all, only the broken people left behind. Ratna's unsettling mic drop may increase the clickers' danger level, but it largely fulfils the same purpose as the prior episode's cold open.
Back in 2023, Joel, Ellie, and Tess make their way towards the Fireflies, first taking the Long Way and, when clickers block their path, the Short Way. It's here where the limitations of a game adaptation begin to surface ever so slightly. Where, in the game, this trip is punctuated by combat encounters and game overs, it's instead relegated here to the central trio going from room to room, with only a smattering of jump scares, though there's one incredible-looking clicker that sets nerves jangling.
The gentler pace, however, allows for Bella Ramsey to really make Ellie her own. She playfully banters with Joel and Tess, while later wisely keeping quiet when Joel snaps at her for asking too many questions. These complex interactions make their eventual connection – through a fleeting moment as the sun streaks across the Boston skyline – all the more affecting.
Co-showrunner and the game's creator Neil Druckmann, making his TV directorial debut, clearly has a keen eye for beauty in this shattered world. One image in particular – a frog hopping along a piano's keys – is beautifully realized. Druckmann also proves that he is more than capable juggling the more subtle intimacy between The Last of Us' leads and the pulse-pounding terror surrounding them as they creep around erratic clickers.
It's in that intimacy where the episode, titled 'Infected', really excels. Anna Torv is given ample room to tease emotional depth to Tess, her bruised and battered face feeling just as sunken as the flooded interiors the group travel through. Pedro Pascal, meanwhile, is selfless and restrained as Joel – standing back so his two co-stars can seize the opportunity to showcase their considerable talents. It’s bolstered, too, by Craig Mazin's punchy dialogue. In an episode that could have otherwise felt sluggish, each little chat or quiet aside carries dramatic weight and purpose as each person's icy front begins to thaw.
Click, click, boom
At their trip's end, the group discover their Firefly contacts killed and Tess' has been bitten by a clicker. "Save who you can save," Tess imprints on Joel as she heads to her doom, taking a horde of oncoming clickers with her. While ‘Infected’ doesn’t feature as many iconic moments as last week's premiere, the scene in which Tess and Ellie slowly break Joel's walled-up exterior will prove to be an essential character beat.
Tess being 'kissed' by the clicker as the tendrils reach out to her lips, though, is a baffling creative choice and fundamentally silly as a concept. Even saying it out loud – Tess kisses a clicker – provokes a few schoolboy titters and chuckles. What should have been a dramatic sacrifice is robbed of any emotion and turned into an accidental punchline. It's the first deviation from the games that could cause ripples of dissent among the fanbase – as does the major change from the episode: the way Tess dies.
While comparing how every moment from the games translates to the small screen is an exercise in futility, the decision to swap Tess's death from being at the hands of FEDRA to being mauled by pack of clickers is the HBO show's first real misstep.
How the scene originally plays out is designed to put the spotlight on the dark underbelly of this new world's authoritarian regime. This just takes an overplayed zombie-like threat and fumbles an emotional plot beat by executing it in a scene that’s equal parts strange and by-the-numbers. Tess (and Anna Torv) deserved a better send-off.
The Last of Us' second episode, then, is a slight comedown. The swirling combo of action and horror has dissipated and, in its place, a more calculated entry that focuses on Ellie and Joel’s fledgling relationship. It's a decision that allows the former to really step into the forefront of the show. Some game changes may rankle but The Last of Us still proves, even in its quieter moments, it’s a show that’s worth shouting about.
The Last of Us streams Sundays on HBO and HBO Max and Mondays in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. For more from the HBO series, check out our guide to the major Last of Us episode 1 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus. Discover when the next episode is dropping with our Last of Us release schedule.