Near the end of the second episode of “The Last of Us”, it is revealed that Tess, Joel’s partner in crime, has been infected. To make matters worse, a horde of zombies are on their way to the trio’s location. As the series’ protagonists Joel and Ellie take a break, Tess stays behind to slow down the zombies by knocking over a few barrels of gasoline and setting off a stash of grenades left behind by a group of smugglers and freedom fighters. But before she can trigger her trap, she’s approached by a still-human-looking zombie, who kisses her on the mouth – with jellyfish-like tendrils coming out of her mouth and wriggling into hers. .
My first reaction was disgust. My second: why the hell did the creators of the series do this?
The sequence plays out differently in the series than in the game, where Tess is killed by agents of FEDRA, the authoritarian pseudo-government backed in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. Here’s how showrunner Craig Mazin explained the change to Elise Favis, my former colleague, who recently interviewed him for The Washington Post.
“Then I would ask Neil [Druckmann, co-creator of “The Last of Us”] a thousand annoying questions, especially at the beginning,” Mazin said. “And I remember one of the annoying questions I asked was, why are the FEDRA soldiers here? If the open city is really, really dangerous, it looks like they’re really going out of their way to find Tess and Joel. They might say, ‘hey, they did a terrible thing, but they’re just going to get killed over there. So what do we give a fuck? We’re definitely not going to let them in. If we ever see their faces again, we will have them. And [Druckmann] was like, ‘Okay, that’s right.’
The creative team instead chose to use the episode as an opportunity to lay down some ground rules — for Ellie and the viewers.
“One of our needs was to show how infected people take over a city,” Mazin said. “How do they work? How do they infect? How many are there? What types [are there]? And that naturally led to what made sense for that ending, which was that she got infected rather than FEDRA soldiers. But you will see FEDRA soldiers again, but not in Boston.
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This could explain why the zombies kill Tess instead of FEDRA, but beyond the usefulness of the showrunners, it’s worth considering what the updated scene does symbolically and what the change means in the context of the game. ‘story. What does a kiss mean? We can associate for free here. Kisses can be romantic. They can symbolize love. They can be non-consensual. There is the kiss of Judas, the kiss of death, “The kiss of a rose”. Remember “Cat Person?” Kisses can be tender, wet, mean, sloppy, boring. There’s les bisous, a playful French greeting that involves light kisses on the cheeks. Throughout history, kisses have meant many things. So what does the zombie kiss mean here?
There are a few interpretations that I think a person can come up with in good faith. It’s possible that the showrunners of this horror drama TV show wanted a disgusting scene of dramatic and horrifying body horror. But scratching the surface a bit, the kiss and its tendrils feel like Tess is being welcomed into a new “community” of infected. There is also something reminiscent of Judas’ kiss; this could signal that if Tess fails to detonate the explosives around her, she will eventually turn into a monster and infect other people – going from someone trying to save humanity by smuggling Ellie , to someone who will betray her.
Another possible meaning is relevant to Tess’ relationship with Joel. Before she dies, Tess tells Joel that she never asked him to feel what she felt (i.e., to return her love). The zombie kiss is a grotesque inversion of what Tess seemed to want very badly from Joel: intimacy, closeness, togetherness. But this closeness has a price: a loss of both identity and humanity.
There is a final, less charitable interpretation. The kiss is clearly non-consensual, a dark fictionalization of rape culture and the kind of brutal behavior that so many people experience even in our current non-apocalypse. (You can read this as a thoughtful review or a thoughtless reprint.) And maybe the showrunners, who are male, haven’t given much thought to whether this might be cruel or send a weird message to submit one of the series’ most important female characters (so far) to an even worse fate than she suffered in the game, and in a more sinister way at that.
These different interpretations can of course overlap. The meaning is messy, and you can choose to believe more than one at a time. I would also like to warn that there is probably no right interpretation, although Mazin and Druckmann might have a preference. A good way to think of these readings is like stops on a subway line. You have your destination, other people have theirs, and at any time you can get back on the line and go somewhere else. And if, for example, later in the season, Mazin and Druckmann choose to kill other female characters with abandon and in an equally grotesque way, you can hitchhike from one interpretation to another.
Trying to analyze the meaning of the kiss raises the question of how you watch TV. In the case of “The Last of Us”, I think there are roughly two types of viewers. There are those who adhere to the fiction of the series and very clearly interpret what is happening on the screen, as a story. Then there are those who watch the show and see it as the product of the labor of hundreds of people, and see the debates as the choices of the creators. It’s the difference between saying “I can’t believe Joel did X” and “Why did Mazin and Druckmann create an episode where Joel did X?”
Because The Last of Us franchise has been around for nearly 10 years, many people are instinctively in the latter camp, having seen Druckmann in particular elevated from random game director to minor celebrity in video game culture. And my first reaction (ick!) leaned that way too. Why, I wondered, did these two creators opt for what seemed like one more disgusting TV death for Tess? After spending more time with the scene while working on my recap of the episode – and trying to think of it on its own terms – I think the way the show plays the scene is the second interpretation, the one that focuses on Joel and Tess. love relationship. The whole episode is about their dynamic and the difference between Tess and Joel in their relationship with Ellie.
With this twist, the scene reads as more than just rudeness. And yet, I can’t help but be disappointed. The search for deeper meaning was fun to spend a few hours, but the seemingly correct interpretation is not that revealing or interesting, which is why at first glance it seems only a grisly, vaguely sexualized death of a major female character.
We already knew Tess wanted more from Joel than she got. We already have to obtain the horrors of this apocalypse. But beyond that, for all its looks and grossness, the show is light on meaningful characterization. This is what makes choosing an interpretation so difficult – and reading the scene as crudeness for itself so easy.