Why those 5 little words in The Last Of Us are so important

Warning: this article contains spoilers for episode two of The Last Of Us. Proceed with caution. 

I didn’t think it was possible, but the second episode of The Last Of Us was even better than the first – even if we did wind up bidding a very sad goodbye to Tess (Anna Torv). 

Of course, Tess went out with a bang. Literally. And, of course, her final words changed the destiny of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey).

Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, let’s wind it back a bit…

A frightening reality

In a stark Chernobyl-esque flashback, we wind things back to 24 September 2003. 

Two police officers in Jakarta, Indonesia walk into a restaurant and unceremoniously escort Ibu Ratna, a professor of mycology at the University of Indonesia, into a waiting car. Without much explanation at all, they drive her to a laboratory at the Ministry of Health, where they ask her to look at a slide prepared under a microscope, and tell them what she sees.

We all know the answer, of course. It’s a fungus: ophiocordyceps, specifically, which – as we all learned last week – famously alters the behaviour of its hosts and driving them mad, solely so it can ensure it is spread more effectively. Once done, the fungus kills its host and then grows its fruiting bodies from their ruined heads. 

Ratna asks why the slide has been stained with chlorazol (a chemical which, I have on good authority, is commonly used to identify elements taken from human hair, nails or other specimens). 

“Cordyceps cannot survive in humans,” she tells the police officer. 

The dead body waiting on the autopsy slab, however, tells another story.

Ibu Ratna plays a small but pivotal role in The Last Of Us.

The police inform Ratna that the now-dead woman was, just one day before, working at a flour and grain factory on the western side of Jakarta, where she was bitten by an unknown human being. She quickly became violent, attacking four coworkers, and biting three of them, before they were able to lock her in a bathroom. There, she was shot in the skull.

The three coworkers who were bitten were executed a few hours later.

“Bomb the city and everyone in it”

When Ratna learns that 14 of the dead woman’s coworkers are still missing, her hands immediately begin to shake, and she’s forced to place her tea on the table.

“We brought you here to help us keep this from spreading,” the officer tells her.

Ratna, however, informs him that there is no vaccine, no medicine, no cure whatsoever that can stop this fungus from spreading.

“So what do we do?” he asks.

“Bomb,” she replies. “Start bombing. Bomb this city, and everyone in it.”

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Then, wiping tears away from her face, Ratna begs to be excused.

“I would like to be with my family,” she says haltingly. Though the words remain unspoken, her meaning is clear: she would like to die surrounded by her loved ones.

One major change from The Last Of Us videogame

I have one word for you, dear reader: spores. Or, rather, where are all the spores at?

In the videogame, as anyone who has played it will know, the Cordyceps fungus is spread through airborne spores – which means players have to whip on a gas mask whenever they spot the deadly specks hanging lazily in the air. 

Watch the trailer for The Last Of Us below: 

In the TV series, however, spores are replaced with “tendrils” and bites from infected people – which means all of those cannibalistic monsters have to get really up close and personal with their victims in order to transform them.

“Obviously, there are some big things that we know we’re keeping [from the video game], of course, but then there are challenges from the game to the show that had to be considered,” series co-creator and showrunner Craig Mazin explains to ComicBook

“For instance, little things like the spores. In the game, you encounter spores, and you need to put a gas mask on. In the world that we’re creating, if we put spores in the air, it would be pretty clear that they would spread around everywhere, and everybody would have to wear a mask all the time. And probably everybody would be completely infected by that point.”

Mazin adds: “So, we challenged ourselves to come up with an interesting new way for the fungus to spread, but mostly, I think we just connected with the soul and spirit of the game.”

The impossible girl

Ellie, as we all guessed from last week’s episode (or knew, if we’ve played the games), isn’t an ordinary 14-year-old. 

“What was Marlene doing with an infected kid?” asks Tess.

“She locked me up and had her guys test me every day to see if I was getting sick,” replies Ellie, pointing out that the key giveaway to her immune status was the fact that she “didn’t turn into a fucking monster.”

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Tess and Joel have very different reactions to this revelation; she thinks that they have to protect Ellie, keep her safe, and get her to the Fireflies so that they can find a cure.

 Joel, however, refuses to believe that anyone could be immune to the virus that’s wiped out most of humanity.

“We’ve heard this a million times,” he snaps. “Vaccines, miracle cures – none of it fucking works.”

There are small moments in the second episode that suggest Joel (Pedro Pascal) has already come to care for Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Just a little bit.

To be fair to Joel, he’s been through a lot. You can forgive him a little negativity.

A very unwelcome find

The people that Joel and Tess were supposed to hand over Ellie to? Yeah, they’re all dead – and bitten up real good by those fungal monsters, too.

Determined to get Ellie out of Boston and deliver her to the Fireflies, Tess frantically searches for clues about where they were going – a map, a scrap of paper with a scribbled address, anything – but Joel is reluctant to do so.

“Tess, it’s over. We’re going home,” he insists.

“That’s not my fucking home,” she fires back furiously.

As Tess rounds on them both, though, Ellie realises what’s wrong: Tess has been infected, bitten on her shoulder by the runner that she was fighting off in the museum.

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“Show me,” orders Joel, voice hoarse.

Tess does, and the bloom of her wound – red and angry – is in stark contrast to the cool scar on Ellie’s arm: this is the real deal.

“You get her there, you keep her alive, and you set everything right,” she begs him.

“Please say yes, Joel.”

Those five all-important words

Of course this emotional goodbye is going to be cut short by a hoard of Infected rushing hungrily towards them all, eh?

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Tess immediately starts kicking cans of petrol over, scattering hand grenades across the floor as she does so.

“What are you doing?” asks Ellie.

“Making sure they don’t follow you,” says Tess resolutely. 

Then, turning to Joel, she orders him simply: “Save who you can save.”

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It’s just five little words, but it sums up the heart and message of this TV series.

All those years ago, we saw a terrified Ibu Ratna order officers to bomb Jakarta. To kill every last man, woman, and child living inside the city – herself and her own family included.

It’s easy to assume that this is a cold act of compassionless rationalism, but it’s actually an example of The Trolley Problem in action. You know the one: the thought-experiment that offers you the choice to save five people in danger of being hit by a trolley, by diverting the trolley to kill just one other person.

Basically, it’s all about making a choice that seemingly has a trade-off between what is good and what sacrifices are “acceptable,” if at all. And Ratna determines – wrongly, as it turns out – that wiping out the inhabitants of Jakarta will protect the rest of the world’s population from succumbing to the infection. That diverting thetrolley is the only acceptable course of action.

Joel, however, lost just one person, and it ruined him – so much so that one can only assume he would let all five people be mown down by that careening trolley if it meant one person, the person he loves most, could be saved. 

Tess, of course, is the perfect middle ground between both Joel and Ratna, because her advice is simple: save who you can save. To save anyone that it is within your power to save. To divert the trolley and then run as fast as you can to knock that one other person out of harm’s way. To, should you fail, never blame yourself, because it’s the trying that matters most. 

Intention, for Tess, is everything. With those five little words, she’s advising Joel to do as much good as he can with the hand he’s been dealt – and, perhaps, to be a little bit selfish sometimes. Because he can’t blame himself for everything, hold himself responsible for everyone else; he can only save those he has the power to save.

Even if, just maybe, one of those people is himself.

Until next time.

The Last Of Us will air weekly on Sky Atlantic at 2am BST. 

Images: Sky/HBO

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