This piece contains spoilers for The Last of Us series as well as the game that inspired it. If you want to get a spoiler-free feel for the show check out our The Last of Us Season 1 review now!
Two episodes in, HBO’s The Last of Us revealed its first significant change from the games, and it has to do with how the cordyceps infection can seemingly spread. Spores are out — presumably too vague and non-threatening on-screen. Instead, we get tendrils, whose menace certainly appears more horrifying and cinematic.
While we’re still early into the season, The Last of Us’ Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have stuck pretty closely to the 2013 video game’s original opening. Any changes we do see on screen have to do with minimizing the number of gunfights and expanding the world outside of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), whether that’s exploring more of Sarah’s (Nico Parker) perspective on Outbreak Day, or tracing the origins of the cordyceps infection to Indonesia.
But the show’s creators confirmed one major change with this week’s episode, namely that we won’t see spores as a major infectious threat to Joel. Instead, Clickers sprout terrifying tendrils that simulate the way mushrooms communicate with each other through a root-like network.
The Last of Us Episode 2: TV Show vs Game Comparison
There’s a practical reason for the change, which is that using spores in the show would mean big-name stars like Pedro Pascal would be forced to wear a gasmask every other scene. While this works on The Mandalorian thanks to his cool helmet, a lot of the tension would be lost in The Last of Us.
Tendrils are also way more menacing, visually speaking.
“It’s disturbing and it’s violative. I think it’s very primal in the way it invades your own body,” says showrunner Craig Mazin in an interview with Variety about the decision to swap spores for tendrils, particularly in the final scene where Tess receives what can only be described as the world’s worst goodbye kiss.
“Because we’re cruel to the characters we love so much, it felt like she [Tess] knows she’s done for,” The Last of Us game writer Neil Druckmann, who directed the episode, says. “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.”
The parasitic visuals of the cordyceps infection is unlike any other we’ve seen so far in the zombie genre. The most popular vector so far has been the bite, which allows creators to revel in the gore and violence of a zombie apocalypse. But tendrils? The idea of something growing inside you and taking you over from within? That’s new and as a visual, it’s vile, and disgusting, but certainly eye-catching.
The tendril imagery isn’t new to The Last of Us. Druckmann cites concept art from the game’s production (which was included in the official 2013 art book) that shows Clickers sprouting horrible roots from their bodies.
Strictly speaking, the spores in the original game weren’t really a factor gameplay-wise. While characters would note the presence of spores in certain areas and put on gas masks, there was no real mechanic tied to either of these, like needing to change your gas mask’s filter, or possibly taking damage to the mask itself. Instead, the spore was more effective as imagery. The specks of dust drifting in the sunlight is a core visual for The Last of Us game, and wading through the dark haze made for the game’s tensest, most beautiful moments.
It’s hard to say what’s actually scarier to encounter in real life. While a network of contagious tendrils growing from the bodies and mouths of horrifying zombie-like creatures is certainly a terrifying sight, what about the possibility of encountering something harder to see but just as deadly?
Spores, as an infectious organism, are kind of like a gas leak in your home. By the time you notice them, it might already be too late. I don’t check for mold in my home (maybe I should) but I’ve definitely woken up at night to make sure my stove is off.
Ultimately, the spores vs. tendrils debate is a matter of preference. It’s obvious that the team at HBO believes in the core of The Last of Us’ story (or as Mazin says, the greatest video game story ever told). The Joel and Ellie dynamic is ripped straight from the games because that’s what worked best for them. Since that groundwork already exists, it translates to TV without issue.
If we see any changes from the source material in this adaptation, it will likely be similar to the shift away from spores, something that expands upon the foundations laid down by The Last of Us video game, rather than altering its canon.
Matt T.M. Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. You can reach him @lawoftd.