Warning: Spoilers from Episode 2 of “The Last of Us”
The latest HBO series “The Last of Us” is a video-game adaptation that is taking over like, say, a fungal infection. The wildly popular game is reaching even higher grounds and newer eyeballs on the streaming market with the series reaching 7.5M viewers as of the fourth episode . The show continues to expand its viewership rankings each week and even led HBO to make the bizarre decision to move the fifth episode premier up a couple of days to avoid conflicting with the Super Bowl.
As a pastor with his thumb on the pulse of the popular media scene, I’ve been anticipating this release for years and had no doubt of its impact. However, I didn’t realize how well the adaptation would present the exceptional themes strewn through the original presentation. Perhaps it is the additional directorial perspective of Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) or the original director Neil Druckmann’s chance to tell his magnum opus again. Still, this story touches even more of a vital discussion point than before.
If you you don’t listen to the accompanying podcast produced by HBO for this series, then you would not only be missing out on excellent interviews but also would be unaware of Druckmann and Mazin’s major thematic goal for the series. Amongst the myriad of other themes, the duo is hoping to present the nuance of love to the audience. Apart from the cultural norm of love’s perfect redemption, The Last of Us is less optimistic about the feelings we share.
In my sermon on the series, I tackle how we are able to redeem the all-perfecting love of Christ, but for this article, my goal is to analyze more deeply one of the nuanced forms of love that relates to our theme this month: the deep-rooted love of the fungus.
A Fungus Among Us
From the onset of the series, fans of “The Last of Us” game were tipped off that the infection in the show would be slightly different. In the video game, the disease is shared via spores in the air.
However, the updated version is spread via tendrils that invade and take over the host body. In both series, this is meant to mimic the cordyceps phenomenon that we see in the insect kingdom, specifically in ants.
Perhaps too hauntingly, given the series release in a world that has experienced a recent pandemic, the first episode has a cold open that explores humanity’s total weakness to the fungal world. Why? Because fungus does not seek to kill but to control.
This sets the show off on its separation from the zombie trope it will inevitably be compared with… zombies are set to destroy, but “The Last of Us” infected are out to spread and gain control.
And, as the epidemiologist states in the cold open, “When that happens, we lose.”
It’s a terrifying sentiment and cements the show firmly in one of the finest post-apocalyptic stories ever told. If there’s one thing scarier than zombies, it’s losing control.
Hive Long And Prosper
What’s crucial about the survival of the fungal infection is that it must continue to spread to other hosts. For this reason, it isn’t necessary that they exercise violence to get their next victim. If anything, slow and methodical is preferred. For this reason, the main focus of the infected is to bite a victim and lay the initial groundwork of tendrils to finish the job.
In episode two, the viewer follows two smugglers, Joel and Tess, who have been tasked with smuggling Ellie, a young girl with a mysterious immunity to the infection. We follow the perilous journey of the smugglers toward the drop-off, where their clients will pick up Ellie for further study.
When they arrive on the scene, they are met with nothing. The journey turns out to be fruitless and they are at a dead-end. Joel, frustrated, takes out his anger on his partner Tess. Tess reveals that she has been bit and will be turning Infected soon. She drops a theological truth bomb for Joel to ‘save who he can save’ and then sacrifices herself to the infected to buy Joel and Ellie time to escape.
It’s a heartbreaking scene that players of the game are all too familiar with, albeit with some adjustments. But one change is starker than the others: When the infected begin to pour into the room, tracking her tendril infection with their hive sense, they don’t run at her with fervor and aggression. In the game, the infected are fast, loud, and menacing. But, in this moment, Tess is already one of their hive. There is no need to hurt her or be aggressive.
Instead, in an arguable lesser of two evils, one of the infected trudges up to Tess and does something completely unexpected.
It kisses her.
This was the moment that cemented the show as perhaps the superior telling of the story that Druckmann wanted to tell. The fungal infection isn’t violent - in fact, it’s arguably beautiful. It loves life and survival and spreads itself far and wide for its own propagation.
The love of the fungus is self-obsessed and survival-obsessed, not all too different from humanity. The truth of the fungal hive mind is that it’s almost too human for our comfort. It satisfies our human temptation for homogeneity. But the truth of the gospel isn’t sameness; it’s oneness.
Thankfully, the holy kiss mentioned by Paul (2 Corinthians 13:12) is filled with far fewer tendrils.
Love for its own sake isn’t enough to satisfy the gospel. There is a specific love that we are called to and a specific entity that we are joining. The Body of Christ doesn’t look like a hive mind. It’s a love that passes all understanding and allows for all of who we are to be welcome, even when it looks different than those around us.
The root that we are actually seeking depth within is not one of control. When we seek deep roots there, we find pain and lack. The deep-rooted love of Christ is one of servanthood and sacrificing control.
I hope you’ll consider watching “The Last of Us”. If you can stomach the Infected gore and the TV-MA rating, then it’s one well worth your time and is filled with powerful instances of love - both good and bad.
Nathan Webb is a major nerd in just about every way. He loves video games, anime, cartoons, comic books, tech, and his fellow nerds. Hoping to provide a spiritual community for people with similar interests, he founded Checkpoint Church--"the church for nerds, geeks and gamers." Nathan can be found lurking on some visual novel subreddit, reading the latest shōnen entry, or playing the newest Farm Sim. Nathan is an ordained provisional elder in the United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. He hosts a weekly newsletter podcast: To The Point.