This article contains spoilers through The Last of Us episode 2.
The first episode of The Last of Us, HBO’s TV adaptation of the beloved video game of the same name, raised a big question for its audience to ponder. What, exactly, was the cordyceps fungus?
A quick Google search of the unfortunately real fungus (and subsequent Google image search revealing it commandeering tiny ant bodies) was enough to answer that. But still some major mysteries about the infection lingered in the context of The Last of Us. How exactly did the cordyceps mutate to inhabit human bodies? And more importantly: what was the original source of what would become a worldwide mushroomy pandemic?
As if The Last of Us anticipated these queries in advance, episode 2 of the series answers at least one of those questions right from the get go. Like the show’s first episode, “Infected” opens with an ominous flashback. Instead of going all the way back to the 1960s, however, this episode time travels to Sept. 24, 2003 – just 48 hours before the events of the series pick up with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Sarah’s (Nico Parker) last day of relative normalcy.
The episode opens in a noodle shop in Jakarta, Indonesia where the Indonesian government tracks down Ibu Ratna, professor of mycology (the study of fungi) at the University of Indonesia. The government takes Ibu to a hospital facility to examine a curious sample in a microscope.
“This is ophiocordyceps. Why did you use chloral to prepare the slide?” Ibu asks.
“Because that is the preparation used for samples taken from a human,” a military figure answers.
“Cordyceps cannot survive in humans.”
Well…it did. And just like that humanity is basically over. We know that thanks to the events of episode 1 (and the very premise of the show). It’s also something that Ibu catches onto pretty quickly. If the sample wasn’t enough to convince her, examining a cadaver that’s clearly infected by cordyceps does. Shortly after witnessing the flowery patterns emerging from a human bite wound on the corpse’s calf, Ibu reports that there is no medicine for this. There is no vaccine. The only “treatment” possible to is to bomb the city of Jakarta into oblivion.
Ultimately this scene reveals that the cordyceps infection began in Jakarta. That’s an interesting little tidbit but why should the viewer care exactly? Regardless of where the infection was first observed, the end result was always going to be the same: near total annihilation of the human race. It’s certainly not Indonesia’s fault that this all happened. As we just witnessed with the COVID-19 pandemic in our own world, the World Health Organization advises against naming viruses or conditions after the place they were first discovered as it’s not always a guarantee that’s where they truly originated and doing so can only contribute to some ugly xenophobia.
In the case of The Last of Us, however, the cordyceps’ jump to human bodies first being observed in Jakarta is hugely significant to the plot. You see, Jakarta just happens to be home to the largest flour mill in the world and Indonesia is a leading global exporter of flour and wheat. The Last of Us episode 2 acknowledges this fact when the military reveals to Ibu Ratna that the first infected individuals were discovered at a “flour and grain factory on the west side of the city.” Unfortunately, the government has no idea who first bit their specimen and 14 total workers have gone missing from that same factory.
Just as was the case in The Last of Us video game continuity, it is clear that on the TV series the cordyceps fungus made its way into the global food supply before anyone could even notice what was happening. This isn’t like a slow-moving zombie virus where one infected monster infects another, setting off a chain reaction across the globe. This was a mass event of near simultaneous infection.
Of course, not every single person in the world was infected because not every single person consumed flour product in late September 2003. That leads us into one of The Last of Us‘s most clever bit of background storytelling yet. As first noticed and reported by Tik Tok-er Hidden TV Details, Joel and Sarah don’t join the ranks of the cordyceps-infected on Sept. 26 simply because they don’t eat any bread.
Episode 1’s script comes up with several fascinating little contrivances to keep Joel and Sarah away from tainted grain. For starters, Joel is following the low-carb Atkins diet (which was popular in the early 2000s and was the “keto” of its day) and therefore rejects their neighbors’ offer of a biscuit. Joel and Sarah note that they don’t have any pancake mix to make for breakfast. Sarah politely turns down an oatmeal raisin cookie. And later on, Joel’s forgetting of a birthday cake actually saves both their lives (at least until the dickhead feds kill Sarah). That very same episode also features a news report in the background that warns of concerning developments in Jakarta just to set up this second episode reveal.
Who ever would have guessed that Dr. Robert Atkins would be the ultimate hero of a mushroom apocalypse? R.I.P. low-carb king.