It shouldn’t have been a surprise that a TV show about infected zombie fungi would include some body horror at some point. Still, I was surprised when it happened.
At the end of the second episode of “The Last of Us,” it is revealed that Tess, Joel’s partner in crime, has been infected. Even worse, a large group of zombies is on its way to where the three people are. As the series’ main characters, Joel and Ellie, run away, Tess stays behind to slow down the zombies by turning over a few barrels of gasoline and setting off a stash of grenades that a group of smugglers and freedom fighters left behind.
But before she can set her trap, a zombie that still looks human comes up to her and kisses her on the mouth. Tendrils that look like jellyfish reach out of his mouth and wiggle into hers.
The first thing I felt was disgust. Second, I don’t understand why on earth the show’s creators did that.
The sequence goes differently in the show than it does in the game. In the show, Tess is killed by agents of FEDRA, which is a fake authoritarian government set up after the zombie apocalypse. In the game, Tess is killed by zombies. Here’s what showrunner Craig Mazin told the media about the change.
So, Mazin said, “I would ask Neil Druckmann, who helped make “The Last of Us,” a thousand annoying questions, especially early on. “I remember that one of the things that bothered me was asking why FEDRA soldiers were all the way out here. If the open city is really, really dangerous, it seems like they are going way, way out of their way to find Tess and Joel. They might say, “Hey, they did something bad, but they’re going to die anyway.”
Then why should we care? We’re not going to let them back in at all. We’ll get them if we ever see their faces again.’ “And Druckmann said, “Okay, I guess that’s fair.”
Instead, the creative team decided to use the episode to set some ground rules for both Ellie and the viewers.
Mazin said, “One of the things we had to do was show how the infected take over a city.” “What are they for? How do they get diseases? How many do you think there are? How many types are there? And that led naturally to what made sense for that ending, which was that it was infected instead of FEDRA soldiers. But you will see FEDRA soldiers again, just not in Boston.”
That might explain why zombies killed Tess instead of FEDRA, but it’s important to think about what the changed scene means in the context of the story, not just how it helps the showrunners. What does it mean to kiss? We can talk about anything here. It can be romantic to kiss.
They can be a sign of love. They don’t have to be agreed upon. There’s “Kiss from a Rose,” the kiss of Judas, and the kiss of death. “Cat Person” comes to mind. Kisses can be tender, wet, bad, sloppy, or boring. There are bisous, which are light kisses on the cheeks that are a fun way to say hello in French. Kisses have meant a lot of different things over the course of history. So what does “zombie kiss” mean in this case?
There are a few ways to look at it that I think people can get to in good faith. It’s possible that the people in charge of this horror drama TV show wanted a scary gross-out scene with a body. But if you look a little deeper, both the kiss and its tendrils make it seem like Tess is being welcomed into a new “community” of infected people.
There’s also something about it that reminds me of Judas’ kiss. It could mean that if Tess doesn’t blow up the bombs around her, she’ll turn into a monster and infect other people. She’ll go from trying to save humanity by smuggling Ellie into the country to someone who will betray it.
Another possible meaning has to do with how Tess feels about Joel. Tess tells Joel before she dies that she never wanted him to feel the way she did (meaning: to reciprocate her love). The zombie kiss is a grotesque twist on what Tess seemed to want very much from Joel: closeness, intimacy, and being one. But being so close to him costs her her identity and her humanity.
There is one more interpretation, which is less kind. The kiss is clearly not voluntary. It’s a grim fictionalization of rape culture and the kind of brutal behavior that many people still have to deal with even though we’re not in the middle of the end of the world.
This can be read as either a thoughtful critique or a thoughtless copy. And maybe the showrunners, who are men, didn’t think about whether it would be cruel or send a strange message to make one of the show’s most important female characters (so far) suffer an even worse fate than she did in the game, and in a more shocking way.
Of course, some of these different ideas can overlap. Meaning is messy, and you can believe more than one of these at the same time. I would also say that there probably isn’t a right way to look at it, even if Mazin and Druckmann think there is. These readings can be thought of as stops on a subway line. You have your own place to go, and everyone else does too.
At any time, you can get back on the line and go somewhere else. And if, for example, Mazin and Druckmann decide to kill off other female characters later in the season with reckless abandon and in similarly gruesome ways, you might be able to hop from one interpretation to another.
When you try to figure out what the kiss means, it makes you wonder how you watch TV. I think there are about two kinds of people who watch “The Last of Us.” There are some people who believe the show is real and see everything that happens on screen as a story.
Then there are people who watch the show and see it as the work of a lot of people. They think that the way things go is because of the choices made by the creators. It’s the difference between saying “I can’t believe Joel did X” and “Why did Mazin and Druckmann make an episode where Joel did X?”
Since The Last of Us has been around for almost 10 years, a lot of people are naturally in the second group. In particular, Druckmann has gone from being a random game director to a minor celebrity in the video game world. My first thought (ew!) also pointed in that direction. Why, I wondered, did the two people who made the show choose for Tess to die in a way that just seemed more disgusting?
After spending more time with the scene while writing my recap of the episode and trying to think about it on its own, I think the way the scene is played on the show is the second interpretation, which focuses on the relationship between Joel and Tess. The whole episode is about how they work together and how Tess and Joel’s relationships with Ellie are different.
With that twist, the scene is more than just a disgusting one. But I still can’t help but feel sad. The search for a deeper meaning was a fun way to spend a few hours, but the interpretation that seems to make the most sense isn’t that surprising or interesting, which is why at first glance it seems like the death of a major female character was just gruesome and vaguely sexualized.
We already knew that Joel didn’t give Tess what she wanted from him. We already know how terrible this end of the world will be. But other than that, the show doesn’t have a lot of interesting characters, even though it has a lot of looks and roughness. This is why it’s hard to decide what the scene means and why it’s easy to see it as grossness for its own sake.