Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for Episode 2 of The Last of Us.
With a single episode, The Last of Us achieved what few video game adaptations could, pleasing both fans of the original games and people who had never heard of the franchise before. The narrative of The Last of Us games has been praised for almost a decade, so it shouldn’t be surprising HBO’s story is so captivating.
However, what makes the series so engaging is how it dives into the backstory of its main characters, giving more emotional weight to their suffering in the present. That means game fans get to spend more time with beloved characters. As for the rest of us, who are just now meeting Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal), we still get a deeply emotional journey through a devastated world. Unfortunately, by the end of Episode 2, “Infected,” it feels like the series missed a great opportunity to flesh out Tess (Anna Torv) before her ultimate sacrifice.
‘The Last of Us’ Episode 2 Returns to a Flashback Structure
With its feature-length first episode, The Last of Us let us know Joel and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) before the Cordyceps infection spread through the globe and almost wiped out humanity. Instead of jumping straight to the outbreak, Episode 1 spends enough time with Joel and Sarah to make the young girl’s death all the more devastating. We feel Joel’s pain while he holds Sarah’s lifeless body, and one week later, we are still mourning her loss.
Episode 2, once again, takes us to the past, before the outbreak. This time, we follow a group of military personnel and scientists as they try to comprehend what’s happening with people infected with the Cordyceps. The intro of Episode 2 takes place in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where the fungi infection originated in the show. It’s painful to see hope slowly being drained as authorities realize the best way to contain the infection is to sacrifice the whole city, especially when we already know their efforts will be fruitless. And just like it happened to Sarah in Episode 1, Episode 2’s flashback allows us to mourn a different character: human civilization.
The gripping Episode 2 intro also dives deeper into the Cordyceps lore, explaining how they replace human internal tissues and turn them into killing machines. That makes Joel, Tess, and Ellie’s journey through a city filled with Cordyceps more thrilling. By explaining the risks, The Last of Us ensures viewers realize no one is safe in this terrifying post-apocalyptic world. And as expected, Episode 2 already claims a new victim, Tess. Her death, however, feels wasted in the show.
Tess’ Sacrifice Is a Wasted Opportunity
Episode 2 follows the trio of protagonists as they crawl through an abandoned museum and fight some infected people. Joel and Tess are still trying to take Ellie to a Fireflies outpost, where the girl will be transferred to a medical facility. After accepting Ellie is asymptomatic, Joel and Tess realize it’s in their best interest to keep their side of the deal and give the Fireflies what they want.
However, once the trio gets to the outpost, they realize the Fireflies have been wiped out. There’s only death and destruction around them and no one to give Joel and Tess what they were promised. To make matters worse, the group inadvertently attracts the attention of a horde of infected, who starts to run toward the outpost. That could be the death of everyone, but Tess reveals she was bitten, and now all she can do is sacrifice her life so that Joel and Ellie can escape safely. Tess turns the outpost into a trap with fuel and explosives and stays behind to set the infected ablaze. Before saying goodbye, Tess also tells Joel that Ellie might hold the key to saving their soul, as helping the girl find a cure for the infection could atone for their sins.
Tess’s death is supposed to be the emotional highlight of Episode 2. However, her demise is less effective because we don’t know much about the character. While The Last of Us episodes are lengthy, we only see Tess in the post-apocalyptic world, when she’s already a tough-as-nails criminal like Joel. We know the two of them did a lot of bad things together, but in Joel’s case, we also saw a tender side of the character in Episode 1’s flashback. Tess didn’t have the same luxury, which makes us care less about her. Besides that, we only get a broad idea of what her sins are, so the whole atonement justification for her actions falls flat.
What’s worse is that, by underlining how the show will use the flashback structure to expand the narrative into new directions, HBO showed us the perfect way to make Tess’ death count. Instead of taking us to Jakarta, Episode 2 of The Last of Us could have fleshed out Tess and made her death hit us as hard as it should. Actually, scrap that. No one would be bothered with another feature-length episode, so they could have taken us to Jakarta AND explored Tess’ life before the pandemic.
Some fans of the original game told me Tess was even more wasted in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and that the series did improve on the character. Still, with a structure in place to take us back to the past, it’s disappointing that Tess died before we learned her motivations. Now, it’s just too late. Even if future episodes give us more of Tess, we already know she dies. If we’d gotten to know Tess better before her sacrifice, the scene could have had the same emotional impact as Sarah’s demise. As it is, Episode 2’s ending seems to get rid of a supporting character so it can focus on its leads. While that’s a valid script strategy, the show’s creative team already proved with its first episode that it can do better for The Last of Us characters than the game did.
New episodes of The Last of Us come to HBO and HBO Max every Sunday.