Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
The exciting new post-apocalyptic series on HBO takes place 20 years after a global pandemic kills off most of the world’s people. However, this disease is different from any we’ve seen before. So how did the spread of The Last of Us begin?
In the first episode, which aired on January 15, 2023, we learned more about how the outbreak started than in the video game, which was made by Naughty Dog. In the first scene, two epidemiologists are on a talk show in 1968, speculating about how dangerous viruses might be to people.
One person says that viruses are like the flu, but Dr. Newman says that is not true. “Since the beginning of time, people have been at war with the virus. Sometimes millions of people die, just like in a real war. But in the end, we always win,” he says, adding that fungus will be humanity’s downfall “in the direst terms” and hinting at how it might start. In The Last of Us, this scene is key to understanding how the outbreak starts.
How Did ‘The Last of Us’ Outbreak Start?
How Did ‘The Last of Us’ Outbreak Start? In The Last of Us, the disease that kills most people is a fungus. It is a mutated microorganism called cordyceps, which does exist in real life but can’t infect people. At least, though.
In the first scene of the first episode, Dr. Newman says, “Fungi seem harmless enough, but many species know better because some fungi don’t want to kill, they want to control… Viruses can make us sick, but fungi can change our minds. As an example, the illegal drug LSD is made from psilocybin, a psychedelic prodrug compound that is naturally made by more than 200 species of fungi.
“There is a fungus that infects insects. When it gets into an ant, it travels through the ant’s circulatory system to the ant’s brain, where it floods the brain with hallucinogens and controls the ant’s mind. The fungus starts to control the ant’s behavior, telling it where to go and what to do like a puppeteer with a marionette, and it gets worse.
He says, “The fungus can’t live without food. So, it starts to eat the ant from the inside, replacing the ant’s flesh with its own. However, it doesn’t let the ant die. It stops the puppet from breaking down, which keeps it alive. How? “Where does penicillin come from?” he asks, referring to the revolutionary antibiotic that was first found in moldy bread.
The other epidemiologist speaks up and says that this kind of fungal infection does exist, but not in people. “Yes,” says Dr. Newman, “fungi can’t live if the temperature inside their host is above 94 degrees. And right now, there’s no reason for fungi to change so they can live in hotter places. But what would happen if that changed? What if, for example, the world got a little bit hotter?” he challenges, which predicts the climate crisis of today.
“Now, there is a reason to evolve,” he says, listing a few fungi that could change to the point where they could grow into our brains and take control of billions of us. Billions of puppets with poisoned minds are always focused on one goal: to spread the disease to every living person by any means necessary. And there are no treatments, cures, or ways to stop this from happening.
“So, if that happens—” starts off the host of the talk show. “We lose,” says Dr. Newman in a blunt way, and an ominous soundtrack starts up as people start to think about the end of the world. We know that the show will talk about how the outbreak started, but we don’t know much about that yet. The games, on the other hand, might give hints.
At the beginning of The Last of Us: Part I, there is a newspaper that explains how the outbreak started. In the games, it was mostly caused by crops that had fungus on them. People ate food that had enough cordyceps in it to make them sick and lose their minds. The disease is spread by getting bitten by someone who already has it or by breathing in spores from dead infected people that are floating in the air.
In that way, the show is different from the game. The airborne spores that made gas masks necessary are gone, and in their place are tendrils, which, from a visual standpoint, will make your skin crawl. This could be based on the real-life COVID pandemic, where wearing a mask helps slow the spread of the disease.
In An Interview with Collider, the show’s creators, Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (president of Naughty Dog), said that they tried to make the infection as realistic as possible. Mazin said, “Cordyceps is a fascinating idea, and it is a real thing.” “We wanted to go a little further with that. We tried to make it as real as possible because the more real it is, the more we can relate to the people who are playing around in that space.”
Druckmann said, “With the most recently infected, we talked a lot about what that vector could look like because we took some things out of the game.” People had to wear gas masks during the game because there were spores in the air, and we decided early on that we didn’t want to do that for the show,” he said. “In the end, those talks brought us to these tendrils.
Then I was thinking about how the infection spreads from one person to another, and how, like fungus, it could grow into a network of connections. It became very scary to think that they were all working together against us, which was a theme I liked that the show developed.
Mazin went on to say that people today know more about pandemics than they did when the game came out in 2013. “It was also important for us to acknowledge that the audience knows more about pandemics now than they did five years ago. “We can’t act like they don’t know anything,” he said. “And in fact, a big part of why this show starts with that scene from the 1960s is to say, ‘Look, there are viral pandemics, and they’re pretty dangerous, but there’s something worse out there.'” Yikes.
You Can Stream The Last of Us on HBO Max. New episodes air every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. Here’s how you can watch it without paying.