SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from Episode 2 of “The Last of Us,” now streaming on HBO Max.
The latest episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us” has unleashed a terrifying creature that would make even the Demogorgon from “Stranger Things” squirm.
The monstrous, infected clickers made their TV debut in Episode 2 of “The Last of Us,” which is appropriately titled “Infected.” These shambling creatures have become so infected by the cordyceps fungus that mushroom stalks have burst through their faces and rendered them blind, forcing them to make spine-chilling clicking noises as a form of echolocation to catch their prey.
In the original “Last of Us” video game — released for PlayStation 3 in 2013 — facing a clicker unprepared meant almost certain death. A player must stealthily sneak around the monsters, or blast several gunshots directly at their overgrown skulls to take them down. In Sunday night’s episode, Joel (Pedro Pascal), Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Tess (Anna Torv) have trouble defeating just two of the monsters, and, as fans of the video game already knew, the confrontation results in Tess’ death.
“Infected” adapts several early levels from the game, in which Joel, Ellie and Tess must sneak through bomb-shelled streets, a flooded hotel and an abandoned museum to drop off Ellie with Firefly rebels. After Tess is bitten by a clicker, she hides her fatal injury until they reach the Capitol building rendezvous point. But instead of finding Firefly soldiers, all that’s waiting for the trio are infected corpses. In one final act of heroism, Tess urges Joel to take Ellie onward to find a cordyceps cure using Ellie’s immunity.
As infected humans surge toward Tess, she stands perfectly still and attempts to ignite a cache of gasoline with a lighter. In a shocking departure from the video game, an infected male walks up to Tess, with spindly, fungal tendrils reaching from his mouth, and plants a disgusting kiss on her, just as the lighter sparks and causes a fiery explosion.
In another surprising expansion from the “Last of Us” game, the episode starts with a flashback to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2003, where a mycologist discovers one of the first people to die from cordyceps. It’s the first time “The Last of Us” has peeled back a bit of the mystery behind the fungus’ origins, while providing a new, if brief, perspective on how the rest of the world was affected by the outbreak.
Creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann talked through the flashback to Variety, as well as that grotesque clicker kiss, replacing the cordyceps spores with fungus tendrils and more from Episode 2.
How did you decide to open with this flashback to Jakarta?
Craig Mazin: It started with a conversation that Neil and I were having early on, where I would ask him some of my patented, annoying questions. One of them was “What’s going on in the rest of the world?” One of the things that Neil always talks about is how in the game your perspective is really connected completely to either Joel or Ellie, depending on who you’re moving with your controller. We don’t have that, so then the question is, “What does the rest of the world look like?” Initially, we were going to have much more of an international view of things, but I think where we went was to just talk about where it started, and ground people in the science of it as best we could.
Neil Druckmann: We wanted to make it very character-driven, so it was focusing on this one scientist, and the dread and the realization when she understands that we’re fucked.
What other international elements were there?
Mazin: We had a montage that we were going to talk about doing that we didn’t, but I actually don’t want to say too much about it because, you know — things could go well and we might get to reuse some of those pages.
Will we ever see the origins of the fungus, or will it always be kept a mystery?
Druckmann: Everything we saw in the game was from three characters’ perspective — [Joel’s daughter] Sarah, Joel and Ellie, that’s it. Here, we have the ability leave those characters and show some other stuff, but it was always important to never say, “OK, here is patient zero, the exact origin.” A lot of it is based on hints. Craig would come to me with his millions of questions, like “How did this thing spread?” We had one hint in the game, in the newspaper you pick up as Sarah, where it implies that there were contaminated products. We talked about: How would this spread? Where would it start? We’re revealing more and more from the first episode, where we gave hints of things that would have turned out very different for the Millers had they made those pancakes. Now, we get to see a bit more of how this thing started.
People noticed in the first episode that Joel and Sarah avoided eating foods with flour in them, like the birthday cake, pancakes and the neighbor’s biscuits. Jakarta also has one of the world’s largest flour mills, which seems to connect the fungus spread with the contaminated flour. Is that theory correct?
Mazin: I think it’s pretty explicit.
Druckmann: Yeah, we pretty much said yes.
Mazin: When she talks about where these people worked and what was going on in that factory — yeah, it’s pretty clear that’s what’s going on. We liked the idea of that science, and we try as best we can to make sure that our research all connects. [The mycologist] asks where it happened, and the guy says a flour factory on the west side of the city. We are absolutely talking about — there is the world’s largest flour mill in Jakarta — so that’s a fine theory and I think people should keep running with it.
Another one of the departures from the game are the cordyceps tendrils. Where did that idea come from?
Druckmann: It started with Craig hating zombies — I’m kidding. But we had talked about how we’re in a genre that’s popular, and there are a lot of different versions of stories of an outbreak. We did our best to find what’s unique about our story and world. For our clickers, we lifted them from the game, and kept them as is. But for the more recently infected, we had a lot of conversations about what else can we do with the vector other than bites. We looked at concept art where there’s this implication of the fungus growing under the skin. What if that was the thing? It’s not so much about the bite, they just need these tendrils to go from one host to another and that’s how the infection spreads.
Mazin: If you listen carefully, the word “spores” is mentioned. I don’t necessarily know if we’re going to see any spores this time around, but to say that our world is devoid of them would not be accurate. We don’t quite know yet: That’s part of the fun of adaptation, and leaving these blurry edges of the map for our characters to discover as the adventure continues.
Were you expecting a such a spores backlash from fans?
Druckmann: I’ve learned to expect backlash from sneezing. I think it speaks to the kind of fans that we have, who are so protective and love the world and these characters so much that anything they see as a deviation, without the full context of what it means, they assume the worst and push back on it. I think that addition is something worthwhile. It’s actually one of those additions where I’m like, “Oh man, I wish we had it for the game. I wish we had thought of it years ago, because I love it so much.”
Mazin: That’s all right if people are upset by it — I don’t blame them. Everybody dreams of working on something where the fan engagement is to this level, where people will argue about these things or feel passionate about them. I do feel sometimes, if you just see how it goes, I think you’ll be OK. A lot of that has happened, but there will also definitely be people who are like, “You fucked up,” and I get it. We definitely will not make everyone happy, I know that much.
What kind of direction did you give the clicker actors with their movements and voices?
Druckmann: We had recordings from the game and looked at the movements. We worked with Barrie and Sarah Gower, who have the best prosthetic team in the world, to study the game and do a version that’s not only trying to replicate something that has all this crazy, beautiful detail, but also making sure the person inside the prosthetic can move freely and twitch and mosey about a space in a way that’s very unique to this parasite. We look for movement actors that can replicate that movement, and we are very lucky that we found some actors that adore the game. When we saw Sam, our lead clicker, in a video, I remember this person moving like a clicker from the game. Not only that, I heard clicking sounds, as if they used a sound from the game as they’re doing it. But no, he was making the sounds of the clicker and then the video ends and he holds up a copy of the game and he says how he’s been a fan for so long. That’s another example of how we were surrounded by people who are just fans of the material and wanted to do it justice. As far as direction, it was treating them like animals in a way, something that’s very primal and instinctive and give them direction like “chase,” “capture” because the thing that they’re doing is trying to spread the infection further.
Where did that clicker kiss come from?
Mazin: We were doing early research on how fungus appears in reality, and we had a really good template for what it looked like in the game. We wanted to go further and say, “OK, what are the different forms and functions?” I found this image that an artist had created of somebody that had become subsumed by fungus and in their mouth there were mushrooms. We were already talking about tendrils coming out and we were asking these philosophical questions, “Why are infected people violent? If the point is to spread the fungus, why do they need to be violent?” We landed on that they don’t. They’re violent because we resist, but what if you don’t? What does it look like if you just stand perfectly still and let them do this to you?
Then we landed on this nightmare fuel. It’s disturbing and it’s violative. I think it’s very primal in the way it invades your own body. To use an overused word, it’s triggering. It’s remarkable combination of Neil’s direction, Anna Torv’s acting when there isn’t obviously anything there and our visual effects department doing this gorgeous work to make it all come together and feel real and terrible.
Druckmann: Part of it was the deviation from the game, where Tess is killed by soldiers. We had a long conversation about what’s more thematically appropriate for this episode, which is called “Infected” and is about the threat of the outside. We’ve left the quarantine zone and that led to this other version where she’s giving an opening to escape to Joel and Ellie by blowing up a bunch of infected. Because we’re cruel to the characters we love so much, it felt like she knows she’s done for, and then the lighter doesn’t work, and we take her all the way to the edge of horror before we finally give her an out.
What other differences did you want to introduce to these clickers that weren’t in the game?
Druckmann: The other thing that came from our conversations is the network of infected that you see in this episode. They’re connected, and it’s scarier when it feels like they’re working as a unit than as individuals. Touching one could trigger ones that are miles away to come after you. That makes the world even scarier. I always tell Craig, “You son of a bitch, it’s one of those things that would make amazing gameplay. I wish we had that in the game.”
Mazin: Shoulda hired me, Neil.
What were you most excited to get to do in the show that you didn’t have in the game?
Druckmann: The one that shows up very late in the season is Ellie’s mom. I had written a short story after we had shipped the game already. It was supposed to be an animated short, but it fell apart and didn’t come to be. There was a moment where we almost made it as DLC, but it fell apart. In our conversations, I brought it up to Craig and he was immediately excited by it, or as he would say “activated.” We brought it to life in the most beautiful, poetic way, which is Ashley Johnson playing Ellie’s mom and she was the original actor for Ellie.
Between Tess and Joel, who’s calling the shots in the relationship? Joel is our main character, but it seems like Tess is really the one in charge.
Druckmann: I saw a lot of people point out that Joel’s the little spoon.
Mazin: He is the little spoon. I don’t know if it’s about who calls the shots as much as it is about when it came to Ellie, Tess was the one she looked up to. Tess was the one she connected to. Joel was not somebody she had an instinctive connection with. There are these weird, instinctive moments where she turns to Joel, but her admiration is with Tess. Watch who she talks to, who she’s standing next to, who she walks beside, and part of that was to propose this alternate storyline where it’s not Tess who meets her demise, it’s Joel. And then the show is about Tess and Ellie. That’s maybe the story that Ellie is imagining in her mind, which makes what happens all the more tragic and frustrating. Joel doesn’t want her, and she doesn’t want him. What they don’t know and what we know is they are two magnets that were destined to click together and form this inseparable and, at times, dangerous bond.
I loved the reference to Ellie not being able to swim in the hotel. Will we see her learn to swim this season?
Mazin: There’s an entire episode where we take her from floating to doggy-paddling. It’s really boring, guys. It’s 60 solid minutes of just swimming lessons. How great would that be if we just did it? Fuck it, we’re doing it.
Druckmann: Now someone’s going to be disappointed that we’re not doing it.
Mazin: Our general philosophy about Easter eggs is we never really do things just to be like, “Hey, fans, look over here.” There’s always some interesting reason for it, or it contributes to a character relationship. In that instance, we wanted to draw a connection to the way Ellie had been weirdly sheltered. It’s more, here’s a kid who has never been in a pool because they don’t exist. Because she can’t leave the quarantine zone, she can’t swim in the ocean either. It’s how strange their lives are growing up in this new world. Throughout this episode, Joel starts to figure out what Ellie does and doesn’t know, and she starts to talk about what she does and doesn’t know. That’s an interesting thing for Joel to experience because he doesn’t have a kid of his own in this new world.
What about the “Curtis and Viper” DVD from the premiere?
Druckmann: I guess when there’s an opportunity to blend the two worlds of the game and the show, we jump at it. It’s like, “OK, we want to watch a movie. What’s the movie they would watch? Oh, we could make a connection to “The Last of Us Part II” in this instance. We don’t dwell on them too much, but it’s there for fans. They have a deeper connection because of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.