Photograph: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Spoilers comply with for the second episode of The Final of Us, “Contaminated,” which premiered on HBO on January 22, 2023.
All horror subgenres, and the monsters who populate them, have a sure set of tropes that talk to viewers what they’ll count on from that kind of story. Haunted homes and their spooky noises can sign familial dysfunction; werewolves and the total moon, the attract of reckless unrestraint; and zombies — with their lurching gait and askew limbs, single-minded obsessiveness, and that chomping starvation — the hazard of conformity.
The Cordyceps-controlled in The Final of Us aren’t undead just like the zombies of George A. Romero’s definitive movies or the sprawling franchise world of The Strolling Useless, or contaminated with the Rage Virus, as in 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. And The Final of Us co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have pushed again towards the Z-word by emphasizing how the Cordyceps plague is predicated in trackable science. However even because the collection’ first two episodes take nice care to distinguish, by way of varied organic innovations, what we’re watching now from what we’ve watched earlier than, the strain and heartache of the season’s introductory arc is straight indebted to the zombie subgenre’s acquainted filmmaking thrives: a shriek within the distance, and a guttural growl shut by; a single determine noticed down a darkish hallway, and a crowd of our bodies shifting in unison, converging in a dense swarm; a gaping mouth stuffed with bloody enamel, threatening to chunk — and in The Final of Us, gossamer-like fungal threads, able to unfurl and infect.
Tess can also be bitten and dies defending Joel and Ellie within the online game, however the circumstances of her dying in “Contaminated” are distinctive to TV’s The Final of Us, due to the invention of an underground Cordyceps community that may activate contaminated folks in different places. And onscreen, her sacrifice is all of the extra significant for the way it honors each the style’s historic curiosity in the price of particular person selection, and The Final of Us’s particular curiosity within the galvanizing impact of hope. Tess’s final stand is a tearjerker, and her beseeching Joel to “set the whole lot proper, all of the shit we did” — a brand new line written by Mazin for this episode — enhances The Final of Us’s morally minded tableau.
These going into The Final of Us with no consciousness of the online game’s plot might need anticipated Anna Torv’s character to last more than two of season one’s 9 episodes; I actually did. Whereas the primary half of premiere episode “When You’re Misplaced within the Darkness” centered on Joel and his brother Tommy and advised that their blue-collar, combat-zone backgrounds made them preternaturally adept at combating the Cordyceps-controlled, the second half launched Tess as a resourceful lady and fellow smuggler equal in means. Torv’s candy spot as an actress, evidenced by her work on Fringe and the canceled-too-soon Mindhunter, is as an incisive and intuitive pragmatist who can measurement up a state of affairs and get a learn on an individual extra shortly than anybody else, and she or he brings these qualities — her even gaze, her assured physique language — to Tess. She’s a gentle associate to Joel, and the snug, acquainted approach during which they converse to one another suggests a protracted relationship after the dying of his daughter Sarah originally of the outbreak.
Photograph: Liane Hentscher/HBO
When Joel and Tess agree to move the mysteriously useful Ellie outdoors the Boston QZ and to a stronghold of rebel Fireflies to allow them to take her west, it’s Tess whom Ellie warms as much as first, and whom she appears to be like to for steering and safety as The Final of Us cycles by way of a variety of acquainted zombie eventualities: a historical past lesson, with Tess explaining to Ellie as they give the impression of being into a huge crater in a road outdoors Boston’s QZ that bombing to include Cordyceps “labored right here, but it surely didn’t in most locations.” A silence-penetrating scream they hear whereas making their approach by way of car-jammed roads, and a digicam pan that reveals nothing of their quick neighborhood; a glance over a resort’s balcony at a subject of contaminated feasting on people, and a protracted take that reveals them shifting in unison away from the daylight and towards shadow. A crash course in how these explicit contaminated work, throughout which Tess explains to Ellie (and us) that Cordyceps additionally grows underground, with lengthy fibers that join patches of fungus — and the previous people hooked up to them — into an conscious organism that spans as much as a mile. And an agonizing climb up a body-filled stairway into an exit-blocked room, the place Tess tries to guard Ellie from the pair of Clickers utilizing echolocation and the digicam tiptoes round blind corners, finds reflections in chunks of jagged glass, and swings upward to greet contaminated sprinting straight at us.
What comes subsequent, after the trio have escaped the Clicker-filled museum and made it to the statehouse stuffed with useless Fireflies, can also be a zombie hallmark: Tess revealing to Ellie and Joel a beforehand hidden chunk on her neck, its proximity to her mind that means that in mere minutes, she’s already starting to show. This second exists within the online game, too, with Tess uttering the identical resigned “Our luck needed to run out in the end” line and pushing Joel and Ellie away from her to allow them to escape the FEDRA troopers advancing upon them.
However the adjustments that Mazin and Druckmann make to this second for the TV present give it grander existential stakes and a extra nauseating sense of how Cordyceps infiltrates and ingratiates. Torv provides Tess’s expanded dialogue a combination of steeliness, solemnity, and melancholy as she speaks to her and Joel’s shared previous, and to the chance Ellie presents for a greater future. (“Joel, she’s fucking actual … That is your likelihood to get her there, to maintain her alive.”) Her assured physicality as she knocks over gallons of gasoline, empties a field of hand grenades, and flicks a lighter time and again to get it to spark because the Cordyceps-infected stream into the statehouse conveys her resilience and dedication. And there’s an extremely human high quality to the modified dynamics right here, with Tess standing towards the turned as a substitute of towards FEDRA.
Tess being killed by FEDRA is a political assertion on the evil of a police state, however given how Joel’s daughter Sarah is killed at first of the sport and TV collection, it nearly appears like a repetitive level. Tess attacking the Cordyceps collective, in the meantime, is her last act of singularity. Her option to die as she desires, as a substitute of changing into yet one more part of the identity-less contaminated, is an expression of free will towards an entity that defies humanity’s understanding of pure legislation, a final funding within the form of optimism that she and Joel have spent years refusing, and an act of resistance that may have lingering results on the story to come back.
Watching a monstrous transformation, or strolling by way of a yawning doorway right into a menacing room, or standing behind a twitching foe because it strikes towards our protagonists — the instantly prickly and panicked reactions we have now to those compositions and views in The Final of Us are knowledgeable by a long time of comparable photos all through movie and TV. And whereas Mazin and Druckmann might discourage zombie comparisons, the noble and tragic send-off they provide to Tess in “Contaminated,” through a lethal kiss that brings to thoughts 28 Weeks Later pushed into extra grotesque territory, is a reminder that no style trope stays useless for lengthy.