Towards the end of the second episode of ‘The Last of Us’, Tess, Joel’s partner in crime, is revealed to be infected. To make matters worse, a zombie horde is on its way to the trio’s location. While Joel and Ellie, the protagonists of the series, take a break from it, Tess stays behind to slow down the zombies by turning over a few barrels of gasoline and detonating a cache of grenades left behind by a group of smugglers and freedom fighters. But before she can open her trap, she is approached by a still-human-looking zombie, who kisses her on the mouth – with jellyfish-like tendrils emerging from his mouth and twisting into hers.
My first reaction was disgust. My second: Why the hell did the show’s creators do that?
The sequence plays out differently in the show than in the game, where Tess is murdered by agents of FEDRA, the authoritarian pseudo-government established 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.
“So I’d ask Neil [Druckmann, co-creator of “The Last of Us”] a thousand annoying questions, especially at the beginning,” said Mazin. “And I remember one of the annoying questions I asked was why are FEDRA soldiers all the way here? If the open city is really, really dangerous, it seems like they’re going really, really far to find Tess and Joel. They might say, ‘Hey, they did a terrible thing, but they just get killed right there. So what do we care? We certainly won’t let them in again. If we ever see their faces again, we’ll get them.’ And [Druckmann] was like, ‘Okay, that’s fair.’”
The creative team instead chose to use the episode as an opportunity to lay down some ground rules – both for Ellie and for the viewers.
“One of our needs was to show how the infected are taking over a city,” said Mazin. “How do they work? How do they infect? How many are out there? What kinds [are there]? And of course that led to what made sense for that ending, which was that it was infected instead of FEDRA soldiers. But you’ll see FEDRA soldiers again, just not in Boston.”
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That might explain why zombies kill Tess instead of FEDRA, but beyond just the showrunners’ usefulness, it’s worth considering what the updated scene does symbolically and what the change means in the context of the story. What does a kiss mean? We can associate here for free. Kissing can be romantic. They can symbolize love. They can be non-consensual. There’s the kiss of Judas, the kiss of death, “Kiss of a rose.” Remember “Cat Person?” Kisses can be tender, wet, bad, sloppy, bored. There are bisous, a playful French greeting with light kisses on the cheeks. Throughout history, kisses have meant a lot. So what does the zombie kiss mean here?
There are a few interpretations that I think someone could arrive at in pretty good faith. It’s possible that the showrunners of this horror drama TV show wanted a dramatic and gruesome horror scene. But if we get to the surface a bit, both the kiss and the tendrils make it feel like Tess is being welcomed into a new “community” of the infected. There is also something reminiscent of the kiss of Judas; it could indicate that if Tess fails to detonate the explosives around her, she will eventually grow into a monster and infect other people – from someone trying to save humanity by smuggling Ellie, to someone who will betray it.
Another possible meaning is relevant to Tess’s relationship with Joel. Before she dies, Tess tells Joel that she never asked him to feel the way she felt (meaning return her love). The zombie kiss is a grotesque inversion of what Tess seemed to want from Joel: intimacy, closeness, unity. But this closeness comes at a price: a loss of both her identity and humanity.
There is a final interpretation, one that is less charitable. The kiss is clearly non-consensual, a stark fictionalization of rape culture and the kind of brutal behavior that so many people suffer from, even in our current non-apocalypse. (You can read this as thoughtful criticism or thoughtless reproduction.) And maybe the showrunners, who are men, didn’t consider whether it could be cruel or send a weird message to one of the most prominent female characters of all time. subjecting the show (so far). to an even worse fate than she suffered in the game, and in a more lurid way.
These different interpretations can, of course, overlap. Meaning is messy, and you can choose to believe several at once. I would also warn that there probably isn’t any Turn right interpretation, even though Mazin and Druckmann may have a preference. A good way to think about these metrics is like stops on a subway line. You have your destiny, other people have theirs, and at some point you can get back on the line and go elsewhere. And if Mazin and Druckmann, for example, later in the season choose to murder other female characters with abandon and in similarly grotesque ways, you can hitchhike from one interpretation to the next.
If you try to parse the meaning of the kiss, the question arises of how to watch TV. In the case of ‘The Last of Us’, I think there are broadly two types of viewers. There are people who go into the fiction of the show and very clearly interpret the things that happen on screen as a story. Then there are those who watch the show and see it as the product of hundreds of people’s work, and see the events as the result of the creators’ choices. 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 franchise has been around for nearly 10 years, many people instinctively find themselves in the latter camp, having seen Druckmann in particular elevate from random game director to minor celebrity within video game culture. And my first reaction (ick!) leaned in that direction as well. Why, I wondered, did these two creators choose what was only one more disgusting televised death for Tess? Spending a bit more time with the scene as I worked on my recap of the episode – and trying to think about it on its own terms – I think the way the show plays the scene is the second interpretation, the one that revolves around Joel and Tess’s relationship. The whole episode is about their dynamic and how Tess and Joel differ in their relationship to Ellie.
With that twist, the scene reads as more than just a brutality. And yet I can’t help but be disappointed. The search for a deeper meaning was fun insofar as it takes a few hours, but the apparently correct interpretation is not Which revealing or interesting, which is why it feels like blushing at first glance only a gruesome, vaguely sexualized death of an important female character.
We already knew that Tess wanted more from Joel than she got. We already to get the horrors of this apocalypse. But that aside, for all its looks and gruffness, the show is light on meaningful characterization. That’s what makes it so hard to settle for an interpretation – and reading the scene as grossness in itself so easy.