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Last of Us: The Resilience of Love at the End of the World

Joel and Ellie from the Last of Us games walk through an apocalyptic city.
Last of Us Promo Image

Last of Us is an emotionally charged drama, set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a fungal outbreak, that masterfully intertwines elements of horror and heartfelt storytelling. Gabe explains the horrors of the cordyceps fungus that inspired the game and show's villain. They also talk about the brilliant storytelling that has us in our feels. Kat shares ways we can be better before an apocalypse forces our hand. Let's build Disaster Utopias now!

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Last of Us (2023–)

After a global pandemic destroys civilization, a hardened survivor takes charge of a 14-year-old girl who may be humanity's last hope.


Last of Us: Heartbreaking Narratives at the End of the World

by gabe castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

SynopsisThe Last of Us is a gripping adaptation of the acclaimed video game series developed by Naughty Dog. It is an emotionally charged drama, set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a fungal outbreak, that masterfully intertwines elements of horror and heartfelt storytelling. It follows the journey of Joel, a hardened survivor, and Ellie, a young girl who may hold the key to humanity's survival. As they traverse dangerous landscapes and encounter various threats, they form a complex bond that is tested by the harsh realities of their environment and the moral dilemmas they face. 

We begin the series getting to know Joel and his daughter, Sarah. Throughout the beginning, viewers can catch glimpses into the impending doom. In this incredibly regular day, there is a dusting of something evil this way coming. After the end of the world, brought about by a pandemic of disgusting and traumatizing proportions, and the loss of Sarah (and most of the world’s population), we jumped into the future world of 2023. In this future, major cities like Boston have transformed into oppressive quarantine zones ruled by ruthless military regimes. Amidst this bleak landscape, Joel is now a hardened smuggler. His aim, along with partner Tess is to secure the resources needed for a journey westward to locate Joel's brother, Tommy. However, their plans take an unexpected turn when they encounter the Fireflies, a rebel faction led by Marlene. Held captive by the Fireflies is Ellie, a young girl whose significance to humanity's survival becomes increasingly apparent. Reluctantly, Joel agrees to transport Ellie westward, setting in motion a perilous journey fraught with danger and moral ambiguity.

In a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with shattered souls struggling to endure, vengeance drives many who are now haunted by past injustices inflicted upon themselves and their loved ones. Amidst this familiar tale of survival in a shattered world, The Last of Us delves deeper, challenging the essence of humanity and the bonds tethering us to societal norms and responsibilities. It presents a chilling premise that transcends traditional zombie narratives, offering a starkly plausible vision of horror. 

Cordyceps Nightmares

The infection in the show and games mirrors that of a typical zombie outbreak, transforming individuals into instinct-driven creatures compelled to propagate the contagion. However, unlike the speculative nature of many fictional infections, this deadly pathogen is grounded in reality—it's derived from a genuine fungus. We discussed this in our episode about the video games but in case you missed that one, here’s why you should respect nature and fear mushrooms.

The Cordyceps Brain Infection depicted in the show is directly inspired by the real Cordyceps fungus. Directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckman drew their inspiration from a BBC Planet Earth clip, reminiscent of Kat's adamant assertion that any underwater coverage in the series is tantamount to a horror movie. This specific clip showcases the unsettling infection of an ant by the Cordyceps fungus, a biological phenomenon that lingers in the memory long after learning about it in school.

In the clip, we hear Sir David Attenborough as he explains the progression and horror of the parasitic infection. First, the infection occurs. The Zombie Fungus in the Last of Us Is Actually Real A foraging carpenter ant walks through an area of the tropical rain forest floor infested with microscopic spores dropped by a mature fungus. The spore excretes an enzyme that eats through the ant’s exterior shell.

Once infected, fungal cells in the ant's head release chemicals that hijack the insect's central nervous system. The ant will latch onto a tree stem in what is called a Death Grip. After two days, the ant leaves its tree colony and climbs down to a spot where humidity and temperature are optimal for the fungus to grow. The ant crawls onto a stem or the underside of a leaf and bites into its main middle vein so it won’t fall. Then it dies. Here you can see the body of the Cordyceps fungus growing out of its head. The clip shows the haunting progression of the fungus stem extruding from the head, growing and reaching out. This is the fungal growth stage where the fungus eats the ant’s internal organs, using its shell as a protective casing. The fungus’ main stem (the stroma) erupts from the back of the ant’s head and grows. At the peak of infection about 40 to 50 percent of the ant’s body is made up of fungus on the inside.

After about 3 weeks, it will begin releasing spores from the tip that seek to infect other ants and turn them into fungus heads. The mature fungus releases spores from its stroma. The spores fall to the ground, creating a 10-square-feet “killing zone,” which will attack new ants. Sir Attenborough lets us know that the infection is strong and could wipe out entire colonies of ants. This is why if an ant is discovered with the infection, they will be cast out. Even more excitingly, there are thousands of different types of Cordyceps fungi and each focus on one species.

In an interview with Game Informer, The Inspirations for The Last of Us, creators Straley and Druckman were inspired not by the gruesome video but rather by Sir David Attenborough explaining that the more numerous the species, the more likely it was to become infected. So they asked themselves, “What if this thing jumped to humans?” Yeah, what if?!

The terrifying thing about the Cordyceps fungi is how it evolves to best suit each of its specific intended targets. The different types and the results of the infection can be oddly beautiful, the carcuses of its prey blooming with new life. Others are simply horrific. There’s one type that’s specific for tarantulas and if you’re listening please look it up, it’s called Cordyceps ignota. This one sprouts several buds from its victim and doesn’t aim to spread but simply kills its prey. Just for giggles.

Fortunately, there's reassuring news: the likelihood of a Cordyceps fungus infection affecting humans is low. Currently, no known species of Cordyceps target humans or any mammals. While it's theoretically possible for such an evolution to occur, it would likely take thousands of years. Given our collective experience navigating respiratory pandemics over recent years, there's little doubt that humanity possesses the capability to contain and mitigate the spread of such an infection, if it were to arise. Additionally, there's speculation about the potential impact of medicinal drugs containing Cordyceps on the evolutionary timeline, possibly accelerating any such process.

Heartbreaking Narratives at the End of the World

The show adaptation, though brilliantly featuring the horrors of the cordycep-infested hellscape of our potential future, focuses on the complexities of the human condition. There is a thread of perseverance and community in each episode, we see it in the slow development of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Both of these people, who’ve known so much harm and hurt intimately, are still hardwired to give and receive care. The show is a mix of the overarching narrative, watching Joel and Ellie’s relationship build as they confront the gritty, unkind world while trying to maintain a semblance of hope. Sprinkled throughout, we’re offered more in depth looks into relationships, stories, and characters that could easily stand alone. These stories expand upon the world Druckman weaved together, fleshing out the depth of the dark future. These stories are found in the games, offered through subtle details - a found body, a left note, a broken piece of dialogue. The show allowed Druckman to be overt with his message, to tell the story we’d had to piece together, now made full and complete. 

The reception to the third episode of the show has been polarizing, with some gamers accusing the creators of pushing an agenda and fabricating storylines. However, many viewers appreciated the depth and emotional resonance of this episode. It offered a poignant exploration of Bill and Frank's backstory, shedding light on their characters in a way that resonated with audiences. Moreover, it provided a refreshing departure from the often bleak and nihilistic endings typical of apocalyptic media, offering a truly beautiful alternative conclusion that left a lasting impact.

In a later episode we are introduced to Kathleen who emerges as a formidable leader within the resistance, her demeanor hardened by the relentless trials of a fractured America. Shaped by profound pain and repeated betrayals, she adopts a ruthless approach to survival, navigating the harsh realities of this dystopian world with fierce determination. Melanie Linsky plays Kathleen and her calm, soft approach to a vicious leader effectively displays the ways trauma and oppression can warp a well-intentioned, kind human into a machine for perceived justice. In this episode, we’re also introduced to Henry and Sam, a pair of brothers trying to survive being hunted by Kathleen and her troops. The episode ends in one of the many emotionally heartbreaking moments of the series. These moments highlight the complex new world that, now devoid of our creature comforts and societal protections, leaves us alone and in constant fight or flight. 

The show is a love letter to the games, featuring visuals from the game and even the score is produced by the same person. The show embodied the essence of the games, the themes and intention, not getting caught up in the necessary violence, tension, and monsters needed for an effective game. In fact, we don’t see much of the games titular villains, clickers, bloaters and other infected. Only revealing themselves in key moments that intentionally drive the narrative forward. Because at the end of the world, in whatever apocalypse finds us, it is not the monsters that will haunt us but ourselves, the people we will need to build onto ourselves like a plate of armor. Our savior won’t be a monster slayer, but the perseverance of care and community, of disaster utopias, and a resilience anchored by our human need to love and be loved.  


Last of Us: Can We Save the World Before the Apocalypse?

by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Do we need a viral apocalypse to change society, or can we do that before it’s too late? 

One piece of the Last of Us that is really fascinating is the climate disasters that facilitated the rise of the Cordyceps fungus. As Gabe unpacked the unlikeliness of a Cordycep based apocalypse, there is something to nature reclaiming the societies that we have built and shoving us into a more isolated and primitive shell of what we once were. In it’s purest form, the show and game act as a warning, both to what humans are capable of under all encompassing threats of death, as well as what nature is capable of to protect itself from our impacts. We know that nature, and other living things are just that, alive, but humans, especially those drenched in western culture, detach themselves from the significance of that reality. That nature is alive just as we are. It just uses other means to protect itself. In an article titled: "The Last of Us" is an almost-perfect metaphor for climate change, but it gets one thing wrong | Salon they say: “The show trades immersive action for evocative drama and somehow doesn't stumble over itself, a testament to the show's creators Craig Mazin, of "Chernobyl" fame, and Neil Druckmann, the mind behind the video game. The duo are clearly aware of the game's broader implications. Mazin recently told Wired, "I think the thread underneath ["The Last of Us"] is: You don't want to be too successful on planet Earth." Mazin added: "I'm not an anti-progress, back-to-the-Stone-Age guy. But we must regulate ourselves or something will come and regulate us against our will." The cordycep fungus is not necessarily the earth rising to defeat humanity in a The Happening like scenario, but it is the unseen consequence of human impacts on our climate. 

That in raising the temperature of our planet, we facilitated the evolution of fungus to survive in the bodies of mammals. Unlike the show however, we are likely to see much slower impacts of Climate change damage. Not making headlines until it is impossible to ignore, and at a point where it’s already too late. The biggest danger of the climate crisis is because we’re facing ripple effects right now, but the real damage won’t be seen until future generations as the planet continues to seek ways to cleanse itself of it’s “human parasite”. 

The institutions that hold the power in our societies are not accounting for what the future of society will become. They are largely detached from the true impacts of climate change, or simply don’t care about what will happen to the younger generations and humanity as a whole when they leave this earth. Fossil Fuels, unrenewable resources, and over consumption are literally killing our planet, heating it and transforming what life will be in the future. It can be really overwhelming when looking at the climate crisis, not as an individual action by individual people, but instead- largely motivated by the systems that perpetuate this damage at an almost unfathomable scale. How we as individual people, motivated by those around us and our connections, have so much less power to change the systems than the governmental structures themselves. In looking at it this way, the fireflies and uprisings seem to be something we may need as a pre-apocalypse response, rather than a post. 

Climate Change and the Increase of Pandemics

Climate change is a critical factor in the increasing spread of infectious diseases globally. Again, not resulting in a Last of Us equivalent apocalypse, but definitely resulting in mass losses of life for many of our most vulnerable. The gradual shifts in weather patterns, melting glaciers, and habitat destruction are not only altering ecosystems but also promoting the transmission of pathogens to new regions and hosts. As extreme weather and altered seasons become the norm, the interconnectedness between climate change and public health becomes more evident, demanding urgent systemic changes to prevent further crises. Systemic change that under capitalism likely will struggle to take off without swift and determined action. And I say that specifically because of the lack of profitability in recycling, and true climate reform. 

The changing climate conditions expand the range and activity periods of disease vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks. Warmer, shorter winters and longer summers create favorable environments for these vectors to thrive and spread diseases like malaria, Lyme disease, and babesiosis(a disease of cattle and other livestock, transmitted by the bite of ticks. It affects the red blood cells and causes the passing of red or blackish urine.). For instance, malaria-transmitting mosquitoes are moving northward due to increased temperatures and altered rainfall patterns, leading to higher transmission rates in previously unaffected areas like Florida and Texas. Specifically within people who had not left the United States. Similarly, tick-borne diseases are now occurring in winter and in regions farther north and west than in the past. This expansion not only increases the incidence of these diseases but also introduces them to populations with little to no immunity or preparedness, exacerbating public health challenges.

Moreover, the phenomenon of zoonotic transfer, where diseases jump from animals to humans, is intensifying due to habitat destruction and climate change. Deforestation and the loss of natural habitats force wildlife to move closer to human settlements, increasing the likelihood of zoonotic diseases such as Nipah virus(WHO: Nipah virus (NiV) is a zoonotic virus (it is transmitted from animals to humans) and can also be transmitted through contaminated food or directly between people. In infected people, it causes a range of illnesses from asymptomatic (subclinical) infection to acute respiratory illness and fatal encephalitis. The virus can also cause severe disease in animals such as pigs, resulting in significant economic losses for farmers.), plague, and hantavirus(CDC: Hantaviruses can infect and cause serious disease in people worldwide. People get hantavirus from contact with rodents like rats and mice, especially when exposed to their urine, droppings, and saliva. It can also spread through a bite or scratch by a rodent, but this is rare.

Hantaviruses cause two syndromes. Hantaviruses found in the Western Hemisphere, including here in the U.S., can cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS). The most common hantavirus that causes HPS in the U.S. is spread by the deer mouse.

Hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS) is a group of clinically similar illnesses caused by hantaviruses found mostly in Europe and Asia. However, Seoul virus, a type of hantavirus that causes HFRS, is found worldwide, including in the United States.). The Nipah virus outbreak, for example, was linked to deforestation in Indonesia that displaced fruit bats, which then transmitted the virus to pigs and subsequently to humans. The Nipah virus (NiV), with a fatality rate of 40% to 75%, serves as a stark example. As climate change accelerates, these zoonotic transfers are becoming more frequent, highlighting the need for integrated approaches to wildlife conservation and public health.

In addition to vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, climate change also influences the spread of fungal and waterborne infections. Fungal infections like Valley fever(CDC: Valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) is a lung infection), caused by Coccidioides fungi, are appearing in new areas due to changing environmental conditions. Previously confined to hot, dry regions, Valley fever has recently been diagnosed as far north as Washington State. Waterborne diseases such as E. coli and Vibrio are becoming more common as rising sea levels and increased coastal flooding create conducive environments for these pathogens. These shifts underline the importance of robust disease surveillance systems and the need for healthcare professionals to adapt to emerging health threats driven by climate change.

The economic and social impacts of climate-induced disease spread are profound, further complicating global health and stability. Declining agriculture due to changing weather patterns threatens food security (specifically health food security), leading to starvation and economic instability. This, in turn, weakens immune systems and increases susceptibility to infectious diseases, creating a vicious cycle of health deterioration and economic hardship. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how interconnected these issues are, with climate change likely playing a role in the virus's spread and impact. The financial motivations under capitalism often deprioritize public health measures and climate action, exacerbating these crises.

In conclusion, the connection between climate change and the spread of infectious diseases is clear and alarming. The expansion of disease vectors, increased zoonotic transfers, and the spread of fungal and waterborne pathogens are all exacerbated by changing environmental conditions. Addressing this issue requires comprehensive strategies that include stronger disease surveillance, better training for healthcare professionals, and robust public policies aimed at mitigating climate change and protecting public health. As we navigate these challenges, it is crucial to recognize the urgent need for systemic change to safeguard our future against the escalating threat of climate-induced diseases.

How does one help prevent this kind of future?

Like anything else, it’s no good to get people all depressed and overwhelmed by the climate crisis. We can’t fix a thing we think is unfixable. It starts with deconstructing colonization, capitalism, and our hierarchical social structures. This is why the issues taking place currently matter so much. Saving our planet and each other is so much more complicated than any one individual action. It is a collective of actions, a collective of people working together and building community that will heal this wound. Educating ourselves, and doing whatever we can to educate each other. Creating the structures for a disaster utopia before the disaster. 

All of the horrifying things in the world right now, all connect back to climate protection. Acting as a mycelium network. Standing up for people and places like Palestine, the Congo, Sudan and what’s happening in New Caledonia are essential pieces of solving the larger problem in play. Supporting and listening to Indigenous populations. Why? Because structures and systems that perpetuate colonial control over areas, destroy land, and humans for profit, which facilitates climate harm. When the system prioritizes profit over life, life is the cost of these systems existing. The only way we can stop the big bads, the people making the most harm happen actively, is by dismantling these systems from being able to system. Boycotting the companies that are causing this harm, and taking the power back from them. For example Kellogs, Apple, HP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Fast Fashion Brands Google; Dell; Microsoft; Samsung and Tesla among others can only continue to damage the climate if they receive our dollars. By continuing to divest from them, we are forcing their hand. We’re making the harm not profitable anymore. An example of this is the Starbucks boycott, which has been working. They are scrambling. Showing companies that we will not stand for them perpetuating harm is a big piece of destroying their power. Us prioritizing each other, over convenience can make us as deadly to these companies, as the Cordycep fungus was in the show. We can do that before the climate crisis gets worse, and we can do that before the apocalypse. We don’t need an apocalypse, or rather we shouldn’t, in order to care for each other. 

So when looking at media like this, when seeing how people respond to it, oftentimes people side emotionally with the underdog. The revolutionary fighting against the system of oppression. It’s so easy for us to see how wrong these oppressive structures are in the media when they feel further away from reality. They make us feel inspired to stand up for what is right, the ethical and moral dilemmas have less personal trauma attached to it.. But there is an issue with presenting these stories as some fantastical dystopian future world because villains like FEDRA are our system right now. The atrocities enacted in these post-apocalypse dystopian futures, are based on realities that have already taken place. They are what is being done in places like Palestine, the Congo, among many others. They are our history, and our present and without recognizing that and standing up for these things in real time, we will repeat it until there is nothing left. We will facilitate a world where the Last of Us is all we have. 

For actionable next steps please see the following resources:



Brands that support Palestine: 

Creators to follow to learn and educate yourself

Who to follow on instagram: (This list comes from Palestine Political Resources List)




















Things you can read: 


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