Towards the tip of the second episode of “The Final of Us,” it’s revealed that Tess, Joel’s associate in crime, has been contaminated. To make issues worse, a horde of zombies is en path to the trio’s location. As Joel and Ellie, the collection’s protagonists, make a break for it, Tess stays behind to sluggish the zombies down by upturning a couple of barrels of gasoline and setting off a stash of grenades left behind by a gaggle of smugglers and freedom fighters. However earlier than she will be able to spring her entice, she’s approached by a still-human-looking zombie, who kisses her — with jellyfish-like tendrils reaching out of his mouth and squirming into hers.
My first response was disgust. My second: Why on earth did the present’s creators do this?
The sequence performs out otherwise within the present than it does within the sport, the place Tess is killed by brokers of FEDRA, the authoritarian pseudo-government propped up within the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. Right here’s how showrunner Craig Mazin defined the change to Elise Favis, my former colleague, who just lately interviewed him for The Washington Put up.
“So I might ask Neil [Druckmann, co-creator of “The Last of Us”] a thousand annoying questions, particularly early on,” Mazin mentioned. “And I keep in mind one of many annoying questions I requested was, why are FEDRA troopers all the best way out right here? If the open metropolis is absolutely, actually harmful, it looks like they’re actually going approach, approach out of their strategy to discover Tess and Joel. They may say, ‘Hey, they did a horrible factor, however they’re simply gonna get killed on the market. So what can we care? We’re actually not gonna allow them to again in. If we ever see their faces once more, we’ll get them.’ And [Druckmann] was like, ‘Okay, that’s truthful.’”
The inventive workforce opted, as an alternative, to make use of the episode as a possibility to put out some floor guidelines — for Ellie and the viewers alike.
“One of many wants we had was to point out how the contaminated take over a metropolis,” Mazin mentioned. “How do they work? How do they infect? What number of of them are on the market? What sorts [are there]? And that naturally led to what made sense for that ending, which was for it to be contaminated quite than FEDRA troopers. However you’ll see FEDRA troopers once more, simply not in Boston.”
Which may clarify why zombies kill Tess as an alternative of FEDRA, however past simply the utility to the showrunners, it’s price contemplating what the up to date scene does symbolically, and what the change means within the context of the story. What does a kiss imply? We will free affiliate right here. Kisses will be romantic. They’ll symbolize love. They are often nonconsensual. There’s the kiss of Judas, the kiss of demise, “Kiss from a Rose.” Bear in mind “Cat Particular person?” Kisses will be tender, moist, dangerous, sloppy, bored. There are bisous, a playful French greeting that includes gentle kisses on the cheeks. All through historical past, kisses have meant a number of issues. So what does the zombie kiss imply right here?
There are a couple of interpretations that I feel an individual can arrive at in fairly good religion. It’s attainable the showrunners of this horror drama TV present simply needed a dramatic and horrifying physique horror gross-out scene. However scratching the floor a bit, each the kiss and its tendrils give the sense that Tess is being welcomed into a brand new “neighborhood” of contaminated. There’s one thing harking back to Judas’s kiss in it too; it’d sign that if Tess fails to detonate the explosives round her, she’ll ultimately develop right into a monster and go on to contaminate different individuals — going from somebody making an attempt to save lots of humanity by smuggling Ellie to somebody who will betray it.
One other attainable which means is related to Tess’s relationship with Joel. Earlier than dying, Tess tells Joel she by no means requested him to really feel the best way she felt (which means: to reciprocate her love). The zombie kiss is a grotesque inversion of what Tess appeared to need very badly from Joel: intimacy, closeness, oneness. However this closeness comes at a price: a lack of each her id and humanity.
There’s a final interpretation, one which’s much less charitable. The kiss is clearly nonconsensual, a grim fictionalization of rape tradition and the sort of brutish conduct so many individuals undergo even in our present non-apocalypse. (You possibly can learn this as considerate critique or inconsiderate replica.) And maybe the showrunners, who’re males, didn’t take into consideration whether or not it may be merciless or ship a bizarre message to topic one of many present’s most outstanding feminine characters (up to now) to a good worse destiny than she suffered within the sport, and in a extra lurid approach at that.
These totally different interpretations can, after all, overlap. Which means is messy, and you’ll select to consider a number of of those directly. I might additionally warning that there in all probability isn’t a proper interpretation, even when Mazin and Druckmann may need a most well-liked one. A great way of fascinated about these readings is as stops on a metro line. You could have your vacation spot, different individuals have theirs, and at any given level, you will get proper again on the road and go someplace else. If, for instance, later within the season, Mazin and Druckmann choose to kill different feminine characters with abandon and in equally grotesque methods, you might hitch a trip from one interpretation to a different.
Attempting to parse the which means of the kiss additionally raises the query of the way you watch TV. Within the case of “The Final of Us,” I feel there are roughly two sorts of viewers. There are those that purchase into the fiction of the present and interpret the stuff that occurs on display very plainly, as a narrative. Then there are those that watch the present and see it because the product of tons of of individuals’s work and consider the proceedings as borne of creators’ selections. It’s the distinction between saying “I can’t consider Joel did X” and “Why did Mazin and Druckmann create an episode the place Joel did X?”
As a result of The Final of Us franchise has existed for practically 10 years, lots of people are instinctively within the latter camp, having seen Druckmann specifically elevated from random sport director to minor superstar inside online game tradition. And my first response (ick!) leaned that approach too. Why, I puzzled, did these two creators go for what gave the impression to be only a extra disgusting televised demise for Tess? Having spent some extra time with the scene whereas engaged on my recap of the episode — and attempting to consider it by itself phrases — I feel the best way the present performs the scene is the second interpretation, the one which facilities on Joel and Tess’s relationship. The entire episode is about their dynamic, and the way Tess and Joel differ of their relation to Ellie.
With that spin, the scene reads as greater than only a gross-out. And but, I can’t assist however really feel upset. The seek for a deeper which means was enjoyable so far as spending a couple of hours goes, however the seemingly appropriate interpretation isn’t that revelatory or fascinating, which is why, at first blush, it appears like simply a grisly, vaguely sexualized demise of a serious feminine character.
We already knew that Tess needed extra from Joel than she obtained. We already get the horrors of this apocalypse. However past that, for all its glances and gruffness, the present is gentle on significant characterization. Which is what makes selecting an interpretation so troublesome — and studying the scene as indulging in brutality for its personal sake really easy.