A beautifully realized apocalypse builds real terror and adrenaline until Joel, Tess and Ellie finally come face-to-face with their first monster -- and it's downhill from there!
Continuing its impressively faithful take on the classic video game, HBO's "The Last of Us" finally steps out into the decimated ruins of Boston and immerses viewers in cordyceps country.
In many ways reminiscent of early "The Walking Dead," there is a lot of cinematic beauty in the decay on display as our trio of unlikely heroes step into a world that feels even more dangerous than the AMC franchise.
Some of the visuals are ripped right from the video game, and yet they look completely believable rendered in true high-definition for this prestige series, which enjoyed the second-highest debut ever for an HBO series after "House of the Dragon."
Those fans who returned for this second installment were treated to a completely separate chapter from that first installment. Gone is the oppressive military oversight and the most dangerous things being other humans.
For this week, the most dangerous threats are the environment itself and those denizens who make it home. In another prologue sequence we even got a little more insight into the cordyceps plague, such as it was, and just how bleak it was from the outset.
In the premiere, we jumped back to the 1960s to see a scientist speculating about what would happen if the earth warmed up just enough for some of these fungal parasites to adapt to survive in human's bodily temperatures.
This week, we jumped to the start of the outbreak. As teased in last week's prologue with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), it all began in Jakarta, Indonesia when someone bit someone else in a market.
The government brought in a professor of mycology, but her solution was both extreme and a testament to that earlier scientists predictions that this is not something for which you can create a vaccine or medicine to treat.
She recommended dropping bombs on the city to try and stop the spread of infection. Obviously, that didn't stop the world from collapsing, but we later learned that this is exactly what was done, explaining the destructive wreckage of Boston as our trio steps out of FEDRA's stronghold.
Part of the horrific beauty in any post-apocalyptic setting is the jarring imagery of nature as it reclaims man-made structures like roads, vehicles and buildings. That beauty comes with a new tension in "The Last of Us," because the vegetation itself is potentially a threat.
We see it even in this episode, as bits of the fungal overgrowth move rapidly. We also learn that they are connected by an underground network, so that contact in one place can "call" infected from nearby.
No need for straight-line contact, or even for them to hear that you're there. The very ground underneath you can betray you for ... miles(?) around. If it wasn't already terrifying enough to be outside the quarantine zone, a seemingly innocuous bit of green in an empty area can suddenly see you being swarmed.
And recall these are fast "zombies," so the threat is far more deadly than what the "Walking Dead" survivors are dealing with when it comes to the undead. You can't just walk fast to escape these, or run away because they're running right with you.
It's a slow build throughout the hour, but one that's extremely effective. We feel the tension as our trio of travelers make their way through a flooded hotel lobby, terrified of what may be lurking in the murky depths of the green water.
The details of this setting, and the entirety of the hotel as they make their way through, are stunning. There are no close encounters there, but there is a birds eye view of the cordycep monsters crawling around in a unison of sorts on the ground.
Their first real close encounter is delayed, building that tension and truly giving this a video game feel. We are still in the stage where we're learning the controls and gathering information before all hell is about to break loose.
Throughout, the banter between Joel, Tess (Anna Torv) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is absolutely fantastic. It becomes clear how closed off Joel has become after the loss of his daughter, as he's ready to either kill Ellie or just take her back to the QZ now that they know she's been bit (though she's not infected).
It is only thanks to the heart of Tess, who shows more humanity underneath her tough exterior than Joel. Considering how much heart Joel had in the prologue, these exchanges between him and Tess -- and even more so between him and Ellie -- are so telling to how much he's darkened.
Also, critics of Ramsey's casting should start shutting up after this episode, as she is so perfectly in character as the Ellie fans came to know and love in the game. And outside of that game experience, for newcomers, she is nailing the 14-year-old attitude perfectly.
She shows off a silly, youthful side in the hotel lobby, faking trying to check in, shows typical teen defiance, sarcasm and backtalk throughout and then there is that youthful terror that comes out when the first cordyceps monster comes in.
This happens after they make their way to a museum to try and get through this part of the city. Once again, the very sight of mushrooms gets our heart racing, but it isn't until they navigate this very dead undergrowth and enter a seemingly growth-free exhibition room that they hear the first shrieks.
The combination of clicking and shrieking are because these monsters lose their ability to see as the growths take over the top of people's heads. So they hunt by sound.
It creates unexpected visuals, such as Joel using a flashlight to try and reload his gun while the monster is right near him. Even shining a light right in their face does nothing, which allowed for a very effective slow reveal of the full horror of this creature.
The sequence in the exhibit hall is classic horror, with two monsters hunting our three heroes, who get separated and reunited multiple times before they manage to finally take care of them. And if it wasn't clear just how dangerous they are, in this very first encounter, Ellie gets bit ... again ... in the same spot as her previous bite.
Throughout the episode, we get one constant battle between Tess and Joel. He wants to throw in the towel and return to the QZ. Tess wants to finish this job, trading Ellie to the Fireflies for the truck battery they need to get out of dodge.
It finally erupts when she tells him that Boston is not her home. We never really get why she's so vehemently determined to get out of there, but so much of this story rides on what is not said.
In an attempt to bond with Joel earlier in the hotel, Ellie asks him about where he's from and how he wound up in Boston. Joel shuts her down about as effectively as she shuts him down with constant smartass answers to his questions.
The bottom line, as we're shown in these scenes, is that no matter how close these characters may seem, they're miles apart in so many ways. Even Joel and Tess, whose relationship remains undefined and unclear, seem to have chasms between them and walls up, as well.
Ellie never really says much what she wants, but it's surely on her mind that the soldier was going to execute her for flashing red for cordyceps infection. Tess said as much that the moment they see she's a carrier, she'll be killed -- they nearly killed her themselves.
Hell, Ellie woke up with Joel's gun to her face and a debate about what to do with her. Even after this much time with her, they're still nervous that she could turn at any moment. It's understandable. After 20 years with no one ever showing signs of immunity, would anyone believe it?
The climactic showdown of the episode happened at the rendezvous point, which turned into a big whiff. Rather than a swarm of Fireflies there to greet them, the gang was met with an empty truck, a trail of blood into a government building -- and a very different swarm.
It took some time to suss out just what had happened, as it wasn't immediately clear if the Fireflies were attacked by rogue human elements, or something far worse. The bottom line, though, is that they were gone.
Once again, Joel's solution was to throw in the towel and head back, while Tess was determined to keep moving. It was clear right away that she was starting to see the bigger picture. Ellie had finally revealed the truth about why Boston Firefly leader Marlene wanted to get her west.
Apparently, there are scientists out there who may be able to synthesize a cure for the infections. There is a chance that this little girl could be the savior of humanity. For Tess, that's worth fighting for. For Joel -- well, his only motivation is family, i.e. his brother Tommy. These people aren't family and the whole world sure as hell ain't family, so he doesn't seem to care.
But he does care about Tess. In fact, in one of the most poignant moments of the episode, Tess almost puts words to what has gone unspoken between them for so long. It's just a shame it took a fateful encounter to push her to do so.
It turns out that Ellie wasn't the only one bitten in that first encounter with the two cordyceps monsters. In a tragic reveal, Tess showed Joel her own wound. She also showed him how much more advanced her infection already was compared even to Ellie's newest bite. In fact, there were no signs of infection with Ellie's bite.
In the hour's most terrifying moment, we see tendrils from the ground wrap around the bodies of the dead at the feet of our heroes. At that moment, across town, the message is received an all those undead monsters rolling around suddenly were on their feet and running toward the building. Did we mention how terrifying the running is?
With maybe a minute to spare, Tess makes the bravest choice she can make, deciding to sacrifice herself to save Joel and Ellie. She knocks over barrels of gasoline and grenades and prepares to take out as many as she can.
It's a classic horror trope, but one played with incredible effectiveness thanks to the performance of Torv. She perfectly captures resignation and strength paired with genuine horror and terror at what's about to happen. Just because she'd doing the brave thing, doesn't mean she can't also be scared out of her mind!
Sensing that Joel is poised to be stupid, she urges him to "save who you can save." That works, as he grabs a reluctant Ellie and runs. Ellie was also prepared to try and stay, but that's more because Tess had shown her actual compassion and kindness whereas Joel -- well, he's a very broken man.
The final scene with Tess is hauntingly gross. As she struggles to light a lighter, she's confronted by one of the monsters, even as others run past her. It comes upon her with those gross tendrils of growth coming out of its mouth and gives her a death kiss.
With a very effective closeup on just one eye -- leaving Torv to act the hell out of the scene with just one eye, and boy does she! -- she finally gets the lighter to go and is able to save everyone.
Before the monsters can get through the building and perhaps give chase to Joel and Ellie, the whole first floor explodes in a massive firebomb, killing everyone. It also saved Tess from becoming one of the monsters herself.
But it leaves Joel and Ellie alone, a clear parallel to his life with Sarah two decades prior. A lot has changed in those decades, though, hardening Joel against personal connections. He's certainly doing his best to resist this teen girl who reminds him of his daughter -- even with her rougher edges.
We'll see how long he can hold out.
The episodic nature of "The Last of Us" actually makes it an almost unique cinematic experience each week. These first two episodes are connected, but also stand alone beautifully, telling full stories. The only through line is that they each end with the protagonists on the road and looking ahead.
The journey continues on "The Last of Us," Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.