‘The Last of Us’ fans are freaking out after the latest episode’s bizarre twist

Spoilers ahead for episode 2 of The last of us.

She was never meant to survive; that much we already knew. In 2013 the PlayStation game on which the HBO series The last of us is based, smuggler Tess Servopoulos only has a relatively short time to spend with 14-year-old Ellie Williams. Instead, it’s her work (and romantic) partner, Joel, who gets the majority of the bonding opportunities with Ellie, as he drives around the country in pursuit of the Fireflies, a rebel group intent on making a vaccine from Ellie’s fungus-immune blood . Tess dies early in the story: before she has the chance to deliver Ellie safely, one of the monstrous infected rips off part of her shoulder, also condemning her to a slow death cordyceps mushroom controls the control of her brain.

In the game, Tess refuses to “turn”, instead sacrificing herself to the incoming FEDRA soldiers, allowing Joel and Ellie to escape without detection. But in the HBO adaptation, Tess dies—in a pitch-perfect portrayal by Anna Torv—fighting infected, not humans.

The scene is purposefully intimate. Tess, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) have arrived at the capitol building, a rendezvous point where the fireflies are meant to pick up Ellie. Once there, they discover only fungus-ravaged corpses, sending Tess spiraling as she hunts for something, anything, that might lead them to the fireflies’ location. Instead, Joel urges them to return home to Boston’s quarantine zone, and she snaps, “That’s not my fucking home!”

Her reaction shows him the truth: Tess is infected, and now Ellie represents much more than valuable cargo. Tess is never going home again.

anna torv as tess in the last of us

Liane Hentscher/HBO

Her plan B is the best she can offer. She demands that Joel get to Bill and Frank, two of their smuggling connections, who supposedly can get in touch with the Fireflies. Joel is a lot does not on board with this idea, but before he can argue, an infected wakes up next to them, and Joel’s trigger-happy instincts get the best of him. When he shoots the monster in the head, its mushroom hive mind awakens other zombies in the area – most of them apparently runners and stalkers– and Tess breaks out: She immediately starts spilling gasoline drums and hand grenades on the floor. “Save who you can,” she pleads with Joel, and as he drags Ellie out of the building, she turns to face the approaching horde.

This is where the show takes a decidedly unexpected approach. As the infected burst through the capitol door, most seem unaware of her presence as she backs away and tries – unsuccessfully – to ignite the lighter in her shaking hand. But eventually you notice her uneven breathing and it approaches her slowly, almost curiously, as if it’s confused that she’s not trying to run away. As it staggers closer, Tess tries the lighter again and again, only for the stalker to come within inches of her face. Once there, it doesn’t bite; in a grotesque change of pace, that kiss her, so that the tendrils of the fungus in her own mouth spread into hers. Only with this horror realized, the lighter eventually bursts into flames and the capitol blows skyward as Joel and Ellie escape.

Why was this subtle but unexpected change so crucial to the adaptation? First, it provided significant context for how cordyceps works in the world The last of us. It is not necessarily violent in nature; it is abusive. In an interview with Variety released shortly after the second episode aired, director Craig Mazin put it this way: “I think it’s very primal in the way it invades your own body. To use an overused word, it’s triggering.”

Neil Druckmann, co-creator of the show and one of the game’s original developers, added further context to the decision. “We had a long conversation about what’s more thematically appropriate for this episode, which is called ‘Infected’ and is about the threat from the outside,” he shared. Variety. “We’ve left the quarantine zone, and that led to this second version where she allows Joel and Ellie to escape by blowing up a bunch of infected. Because we’re cruel to the characters we love so much, it felt like if she knows she’s done and then the lighter doesn’t work and we take her right to the edge of horror before we finally give her an out.”

Fans immediately jumped on the scene after it aired on January 22. Some criticized the kiss of death, calling it “unnecessary,” “ugly,” “a little strange“and they say”just couldn’t buy into it“and it”But it really threw me off and it ruined the ending.” Still others called it “thought out and terrifying“and”perfect but scary.Many of these fans are also fans of the game, meaning they knew Tess would die but were shocked by how exactly the death unfolded.

In it Variety interview, Mazin sheds some light on why it was nevertheless essential for Tess’s death to feel particularly traumatic: It’s one of several turning points for Ellie as a character. Tess is Ellie’s first connection with the outside world, someone Ellie thought would take her to the end of the line. Ellie – already suffering from survivor’s guilt – must then surrender her to the creatures that only she is immune to.

“When it came to Ellie, Tess was the one she looked up to,” Mazin explained. “Tess was the one she connected with. Joel wasn’t someone she had an instinctive connection with … Look at who she’s talking to, who she’s standing next to, who she’s walking next to, and part of that was to suggest this alternate story where it’s not Tess who meets her death, it’s Joel. And then the show is about Tess and Ellie. Maybe that’s the story that Ellie imagines in her mind, which makes what happens , even more tragic and frustrating. Joel doesn’t want her and she doesn’t want him. What they don’t know and what we do know is that they are two magnets destined to click together to form this inseparable and sometimes dangerous ties.”

Even if Ellie doesn’t see the infected kiss, it’s definitely something she can imagine. To have the sudden death, the violation of the death weighing on her? It’s something that will influence Ellie’s choices well into the rest of the series.

Main photo by Lauren Puckett-Pope

Associate Editor

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, television, books and fashion.

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