HBO’s The Last of Us has given fans a terrifying new possibility when it comes to world-ending events. Forget zombie outbreaks and viral pandemics, the most devastating destroyer comes might come in the form of a fungus that infects human brains and turns bodies into flesh-covered puppets.
The Cordyceps strain is an actual breed of fungi that does exactly what the ominous-sounding doctor describes in the show’s season premiere. That first episode of The Last of Us gave us a 60s-era talk-show primer to how the Cordyceps Brain Infection could happen — by fungus mutating to survive rising temperatures caused by climate change. While it’s a bit more complicated than that in real life, on the show, it quickly becomes a horrifying reality.
And, thanks to episode two’s “Infected,” we now know exactly how the infection started.
In the premiere episode, the show teased the origins of the infection — which technically isn’t a virus since it’s fungal in nature — early on. As Sarah, Joel, and Tommy were having breakfast, sans pancakes since Joel forgot to buy a box mix, a radio report was detailing chaos in the city. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment was primarily a chance for Sarah to school the adults on their less-than-stellar geography knowledge but it also teased how the pandemic had already taken root overseas.
When episode two opens, creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann dive further into the mythology of their imagined apocalypse. We meet an elderly woman having lunch in a cafe before she’s picked up by government officials and taken to a lab. She’s a scientist, a renowned one thanks to her work with different types of fungal infections, and she’s presented a slide that shows the Cordyceps strain infecting human cells. Naturally, she’s a bit skeptical because fungus can’t survive in temperatures as high as our natural operating ones. But Cordyceps has evolved and she quickly discovers just how disastrous that mutation is for mankind when she examines the corpse of a woman infected with the fungus.
After splitting open the bit site on the woman’s leg only to find fungal spores have built a nest underneath her skin. She then goes to pry living tentacles out of the victim’s mouth, ones that move as if in search of a new host to latch onto. It’s all disgusting, blood-curling stuff, but it gets worse when the doctor is asked for her help in creating a cure, or a preventative to fight the spread. Because it has spread.
The woman on the morgue table was just one of many workers in the city’s biggest flour mill that were bitten. According to the authorities, a woman came to work, began acting erratically, bit four co-workers, and had to be put down by police. When the people she bit started exhibiting symptoms, they too were executed, but one might have gotten away before the military’s quarantine efforts could bear fruit. After that incident, 14 more workers were unaccounted for, causing officials to suspect they too had been infected somehow.
Unfortunately for Jakarta, which now seems like ground zero of the CBI pandemic, the doctor gives a grim prognosis. There’s no cure, no vaccine for a fungal infection like this. Their best chance? To bomb the city and everyone in it. We now know those explosive containment protocols were too little too late, but it’s a chilling scene made all the more tragic because, unlike in the video games, the show dedicated plenty of time to let it play out.