“Fungi seem harmless enough. Many species know otherwise.”
According to The Last of Us, it’s not a viral pandemic we should fear for the end of the world as we know it, it’s a fungal one. And in the HBO adaptation, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann kick off the anticipated series with an extra introduction to the game’s context to really hammer this mushroom foe home alongside the idea that disasters don’t just happen overnight, somebody always sees them coming.
The first episode opens with a scene that establishes the possibility of the apocalyptic Cordyceps fungus as a much more deadly a threat to humanity than a viral pandemic — negating a reality long-established in the zombie survival post-apocalypse genre, and one that comes a little too close to home offscreen. It’s a scene that’s not present in the game; the cause of the Infected is explained through the game’s opening credits news coverage montage and through various dialogue in cutscenes.
In the TV show’s opening scene, set in 1968, epidemiologist Dr. Neuman (played by John Hannah) speaks on an interview show about the prospect of a viral pandemic. Surprising the show’s host (Josh Brener), Neuman says the threat doesn’t keep him up at night. “No, mankind has been at war with the virus from the start. Sometimes millions of people die as in an actual war, but in the end, we always win,” he says. Instead, Neuman pushes fungi as a bigger global threat than bacteria and viruses, which generates bemusement from the audience.
“Fungi seem harmless enough. Many species know otherwise, because there are some fungi who seek not to kill, but to control,” says Neuman, offering examples including Cordyceps, with its ability to infect and control an ant’s circulatory system, bending it to its will. “Viruses can make us ill but fungi can alter our very minds,” he says.
Neuman’s joined on the show by the more skeptical Dr. Schoenheiss (played by Christopher Heyerdahl), who explains that fungal infection of this kind, though real, is not present in humans. And it’s in this moment, the show declares the real cause of the eventual spread of Cordyceps infections to us: climate change.
“True, fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees,” says Neuman. “Currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to withstand higher temperatures. But what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer? Now there is reason to evolve. One gene mutates…and any one of them could become capable of burrowing into our brains and taking control not of millions of us but billions of us. Billions of puppets with poisoned minds permanently fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every last human alive by any means necessary.”
Is the opening scene of ‘The Last of Us’ in the game?
The opening scene of The Last of Us is a creation purely for the show — the game instead begins in Austin, Texas with the character of Joel Miller’s daughter, Sarah, which the series expands upon post-opening credits. The idea of this foreboding interview came from director Mazin, who spoke about the scene on HBO’s official podcast for The Last of Us. Speaking with host and original Joel Miller voice actor Troy Baker, Mazin unpacked the cold open and how he had pitched two ideas for it to his fellow showrunner, The Last of Us creator Druckmann.
For the first option, Mazin pitched a scene inspired by a shocking clip from David Attenborough’s BBC series Planet Earth demonstrating how the Cordyceps fungus takes control of an ant’s brain. You can watch it below, but be warned.
“It’s quite horrifying and it tells you everything you need to know,” said Mazin. “So what we decided to do was make our own little video like that, which is interesting but not necessarily compelling. It was a bit of an intellectual argument.”
“You’re being kind, it was kind of boring,” interjected Druckmann, also appearing on the podcast.
“It was a little boring to watch,” agreed Mazin, “and it was a little bit like we’re in social studies class.”
The director then explained he’d written another opening that channelled the interview style of late 1960s TV program The Dick Cavett Show, which is the scene that ends up in the series. Starting the series this way has the simultaneous effect of keeping fans of the game on their toes and giving important context to newcomers to The Last of Us. Plus, it intensifies scenes years later in 2003 in Texas with our protagonist Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), and the looming presence of this threat in their everyday lives.
Credit: Shane Harvey/HBO
“As a fan, it catches you off guard and already signals to you: everything you think you know about this, you don’t know about,” Druckmann said on the podcast. “It achieved what we were trying to achieve with that other opening in a much more effective, dramatised way that starts giving you clues or theories of ‘maybe this is how it started’. We’re not saying definitively, but this is a pretty good theory.”
The opening scene of HBO’s The Last of Us establishes a longer timeline.
The opening scene being set decades before the global infection of Cordyceps, Mazin explains, is also vital for establishing the elongated timeframe of the outbreak, as relative to our own experience of knowing of a looming disaster — again, hello climate change but also Mazin’s previous project, HBO’s Chernobyl — and putting our head in the sand.
“One of the things that the opening does is place everything also within the context of a longer time span,” said Mazin. “That’s a very Chernobyl thing that I’m obsessed with, the idea that we know things, we all agree that they’re going to happen, and then we pretend they’re not.”
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Beyond establishing context for these scenes, Mazin and Druckmann spoke about the importance of the opening scene to declare fungi as the real threat to humanity, instead of capitalising off the very real pain experienced by a world among the deadly COVID pandemic.
“There was also a chance to address the elephant in the global room, which is we all just went through a viral pandemic,” said Mazin. “I thought it was important to say to people, we are not a show that’s asking you to share some of your own personal horror about the viral pandemic with us. We’re not drafting off of it. We’re here to tell you there’s actually something much worse, that viral pandemics will happen again. They have happened before. There will be millions of people who will die again. This is part of the natural cycle of the planet.
“But what has not happened yet, is a fungal pandemic. And if it does, we’re not making that up, it’s going to be terrible and possibly unrecoverable because fungi are far more complicated and far more integrated into the life and death cycle of the earth than viruses are.”
The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max with new episodes airing weekly on HBO.