Warning: This article contains spoilers for the second episode of The Last of Us (and the first game up to that point).
Remember the first time you played The Last of Us. When was the first moment the hairs on your arm stood up? It’s very likely that it was when Joel, Ellie and Tess wandered into the dark halls of the museum in downtown Boston. It’s a desperately harrowing, grim, violent and tense sequence. The kind that plays best in the dead of night, with the volume turned up so you can track and avoid the screams of the newly revealed Clickers. And in “Infected”, Druckman and company translate that feeling perfectly..
In the second episode, the HBO adaptation adds even more moments and conversations extracted almost verbatim from the game, and ends up offering a master class in tension and terror in its final actin which he adapts one of the spookiest sequences from the source material with terrifying precision.
One of the most difficult things about adapting a video game for television or film is the great question of how to put the viewer in the skin of the protagonist. The nature of video games allows us to drive the story, make decisions and feel the emotions of the character we control. These kinds of decisions are what made The Last of Us a massive success. It puts us in the driver’s seat and asks the player to make impossible decisions, pushing us to ask monumental moral questions as we do everything we can to survive the end of the world. So far, the series has used handheld cameras, clever lighting, and a cleverly written script to immerse the viewer in the world of Joel and Ellie, even if it doesn’t get to direct the decisions they make.
In the third episode of Naughty Dog’s horror game, you head to the Capitol just like Joel (Pedro Pascal), Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) in the second episode. Your goal is to deliver the unexpected cargo of a young infected/uninfected girl named Ellie to the Fireflies in exchange for the loot Robert betrayed you for. But along the way, you will have your first real contact with the horrors that await outside the Quarantine Zone.
For a long time, zombie stories have been characterized by sneaking through dark tunnels, gloomy empty buildings, and moonlit nights. But in The Last of Us game, the creators contradict that trope by placing us in the overwhelming beauty of a city in ruins. Much of the adventure takes place abroad and many of the first adversaries we face are humans. But when Joel, Tess and their cargo arrive in downtown Boston, everything changes. Suddenly, they find themselves thrust into the dark depths of abandoned buildings where the infected still roam. While the game briefly plunges into the depths of the subway (and we’ll probably be delving into those tunnels sooner rather than later in the series), the series dives straight into the haunting halls of the Museum.
The tonal change of the series is so well done that, as soon as Joel destroys the Cordyceps that keeps the doors of the Museum closed, the atmosphere changes. But there’s a glimmer of hope: The fungus was “dry as a bone,” which means the monsters inside might not be as bad as we think. Unfortunately, when the trio pulls out their flashlights, anyone who has ever played the game (or seen a horror movie) gets goosebumps. Though their path outside is blocked by twisted mushroom-monsters, everything in you screams at them to stay out of the darkness. But of course they must. The echo of the footsteps and the shaking of the lanterns transport you not only to the memories of playing The Last of Us in the darkbut also Resident Evil, Night of the Living Dead and those kinds of stories that never end well and in which a monster always appears and will haunt you for years.
As Ellie, Joel, and Tess crawl through the halls of the museum, director (and game creator) Neil Druckmann uses a shaky camera, close-ups and the beam of Joel’s flashlight to catch us. Each crunching step and shuddering breath seem like a threat. When Joel warns his teammates to keep quiet, players will know why. But, for those unfamiliar with the material, it’s just one more thing to fear before the horror is revealed for real.
Viewers have seen some of the lesser Infected before the protagonists arrive in town, but it’s in the museum moments. when the series introduces the most nightmarish evolution of the Cordyceps brain virus, the mushroom-faced terrors known as Clickers. To become a Clicker, the infected must have survived for at least a year, and though they are blind, their hearing is preternaturally acute. Their skulls are covered in fungus and finger-like funnels. The only thing that reveals their previous humanity are their open mouths full of teeth. Although players encounter the Clickers just before entering the Museum, it’s in those empty, echoing hallways that they really have to test their stealth and skills against them. It’s a desperately harrowing, grim, violent and tense sequence.
The creepy final act is a great example of how the team carefully chooses the most iconic sequences from the games. Although the epic scope of the tube station would have been impressive from the start (we’ll probably see them there later in the series), the second episode revolves around the intimate relationship between Joel, Ellie, and Tess. The contrast between their casual, almost friendly journey (and banter) in the wide open space of the fallen city and the churning fear that immediately permeates when they enter the museum’s cramped interiors is striking. It also helps that an empty museum is an inherently haunting and liminal space. We expect to see them teeming with life, but here The Last of Us guides us through ruined corridors of broken glass, haunting mannequins, time-shattered remnants of the past, and the violent effects of the Cordyceps virus. It’s the perfect setting for the series to introduce its most familiar monster, and the trio’s battle for survival against the Clickers cements Joel and Ellie as comrades-in-arms, at least for now.