Tuesday, April 23

HBO’s The Last Of Us Does Tess Dirty

Tess is seen crouched down next to a brick building covering her ears with a frightened expression.

Screenshot: HBO / Kotaku

The following contains spoilers for the first two episodes of HBO’s The Last of Us series.

HBO’s take on The Last of Us is generating a lot of discussion about how it’s adapting the source material. This conversation has some saying the show feels overly beholden to the PlayStation 3 game at times, while also noting that in other spots it takes some pretty notable swings, with reviews noting the changes to Bill and Frank’s storyline in an upcoming episode as a standout. But after episode two, “Infected,” I’m frankly astounded by how the show chose to portray Anna Torv’s Tess, a character who only appears for a short time in both the show and original game, but deserved a hell of a lot better than what HBO’s show gave her.

In the game The Last of Us, Tess is shown to be a competent smuggler who even calls the shots in her operation alongside main character Joel. They’re both seen as dangerous in the Boston quarantine zone where they live, but Tess is the one wheeling and dealing, using her connections to get them what they need to survive in this hellscape, and Joel answers to her. That man is checked out mentally and emotionally, and just needs someone to tell him what to do most days. The hints of tenderness they feel for each other are much more overt in the show, with a scene showing both Tess and Joel sharing a bed, and Joel showing concern for her injuries at the hands of Robert’s men rather than a general jaded annoyance. But even so, it never reaches the warmth of what Tess wants, which she acknowledges in her final scene in the second episode. Though Joel’s actual emotional entanglement with her seems complicated, it’s prevalent enough that when she asks him to redeem their long legacy of violence with an act that may result in a better world after she’s gone, he coldly complies.

Tess and Joel are seen standing over Robert, who is lying on the ground beaten down.

Tess kills Robert in the game, but in the show, he’s more scared of Joel than anything else.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog / Kotaku

The inner workings of their relationship aside, Tess is a character who oozes confidence, street smarts, and intuition in the game version of The Last of Us. In HBO’s show, I hardly recognize her in some scenes. Tess’ introduction in the first episode was her dealing with an estranged business partner Robert, who she would go on to make short work of in the game (she does not get to do so in the television series). In the show, Robert fears Joel more than he does Tess and, given that Tess is not portrayed with the same degree of ruthless capability as she was in the game, it makes sense that Robert would see Joel as the looming threat. The game’s Joel and Tess felt like equals in the violence they would commit, but a lot of the moments that contributed to that feeling are stripped away in the TV show. In pursuit of Robert, Tess is the one to ruthlessly shoot through his henchmen and initiate some of the game’s early combat sections. In the player’s first encounter with a clicker, Tess is the one to kill it while Joel’s life is in danger. But without these moments, HBO’s vision of The Last of Us doesn’t seem to acknowledge Tess as just as much a threat.

Any chance Tess and Robert have at negotiating a resolution to their dispute is cut short by an explosion as Fireflies and FEDRA battle outside. As the fighting continues, Tess walks toward a FEDRA squad loudly proclaiming she’s not a Firefly. Ignoring her protests, the officers push her to the ground, cuff her, and take her away. The scene illustrates that FEDRA doesn’t actually care about the humanity of those left in this world, but Tess being offered on this particular chopping block frames her ultimate fate in a much different way than it felt in the 2013 source material.

Tess is seen looking at something off-screen with a distressed expression.

In Tess’ final moments, she leaves Joel and Ellie with the hope that the world can still be saved.
Screenshot: Naughty Dog / Kotaku

Tess dies in episode two under similar circumstances to the ones that led to her death in the game, but with a mean-spirited and gross twist. After making their way across Boston to deliver Ellie to a group of Fireflies, Joel and Tess arrive at the rendezvous point to find that her escort is completely wiped out. But on the way, Tess was bitten by an infected, and she knows her time is limited. She pleads with Joel to take Ellie the rest of the way to her destination in the hope that her immunity can lead to a cure. As a horde of infected heads their way, she pours gasoline tanks onto the floor and scatters grenades around. She can buy the pair some time, but she’s going out on her own terms.

In the game, these infected were FEDRA forces, and Tess went out in a firefight. In the HBO show, however, Tess struggles with a lighter as she tries to ignite the gasoline covering the floor of the lobby. The explanation showrunner Craig Mazin gives for this change is sensible. It makes more sense for infected to chase after our heroes, rather than FEDRA, who would have had to fight their way through the desecrated remains of Boston for a few fugitives.

As the horde enters the building, many of them running right by Tess and completely ignoring her, it’s clear the infection is taking hold, and they’re starting to perceive her as one of them. Then one infected breaks off from the group and slowly plods toward Tess with its fungal tendrils expanding out of its mouth.

Tess is shown frightened with her back against a wall as an infected closes in on her with its fungus tendrils expanding out of its mouth.

Whatever lore this scene was meant to illustrate, the imagery is unmistakeable.
Screenshot: HBO / Kotaku

Tess eventually gets the lighter to work and drops it on the gasoline below, but not before the infected forcibly kisses her. The cordyceps fungus is already taking away her entire personhood, and the show takes that a step further by sexualizing an already horrific scene and replacing whatever agency she had with another form of violence. The argument can be made that the infected has no actual intention, but the imagery it invokes and that the audience has to witness is unmistakable. Whatever lore concept the show is trying to illustrate, it didn’t have to do it in a way this heinous. In HBO’s The Last of Us, Tess doesn’t go out on her own terms, she goes out in one of the most baffling, dehumanizing creative choices the adaptation has made thus far.

The world of The Last of Us is a brutal one, and no one is really free from that in any of its extended media, but Tess was a character who at least got to confidently stand for something in her final moments in the game. But in HBO’s portrayal of her, Tess lacks one of the main things she held onto most closely: her dignity. There are more changes to come as the series continues, and not all of them are bad, but whatever comes next, it’s going to take a lot to wash the taste of Tess’ story out of my mouth.

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