HBO's The Last Of Us Quietly Reveals Just How Narrowly Joel Escaped The Cordyceps Outbreak

This post contains spoilers for HBO's "The Last of Us" and the video game series of the same name.

HBO's "The Last of Us," which might just be one of the most captivating video adaptations of all time, opened its season premiere with a 30-minute prologue expanding Joel's (Pedro Pascal) and Sarah's (Nico Parker) story on the day of the outbreak. This added exposition contributed heavily to their dynamic and managed to intensify the tragedy of Sarah's death, which acts as a catalyst for Joel's journey from that point on. Since episode 1 was released, eagle-eyed fans deduced theories as to how the Cordyceps outbreak truly began and why Joel and Sarah managed to evade infection right up till all hell broke loose. Turns out, these theories are spot-on, as confirmed in episode 3 of the show.

Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann make several changes to the source material, but these augmentations have worked exclusively in favor of the adaptation so far. For instance, the absence of spores has been swapped out with the presence of a fungal hive mind, wherein the death of one infected immediately alerts others in the vicinity. The fact that the infected work in tandem using a neural network of their own is terrifying, adding heightened tension to scenes in which Joel and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) navigate cramped spaces. Similarly, the showrunners also make significant changes to the nature of the fungal outbreak, while heavily hinting at how Joel narrowly escaped infection before the outbreak hits his neighborhood. 

Here's how Mazin and Druckmann laid out the perfect breadcrumb trail to subtly (and gradually) reveal how Joel managed to survive the outbreak. 

A narrow escape from deadly mutations

Episode 1 of "The Last of Us" opens with Sarah making breakfast for Joel, saying that they would have to settle for eggs instead of birthday pancakes, as they're out of pancake mix. While this little moment seems innocuous at first, the episode steadily lingers on a string of events that hint at why Joel and Sarah do not get infected. Then on, the Adlers offer the duo freshly-baked biscuits — which the elderly Mrs. Adler is seen eating in that scene — but Joel refuses as he claims he's on the Atkins diet. Later, Sarah does not ingest the cookies she helps the Adlers make, as they have raisins in them, while Joel forgets the birthday cake that he had promised to his daughter when he gets home.

In all of these instances, flour is the key ingredient used in all of these foodstuffs, which Joel and Sarah do not ingest, either by choice or a stroke of luck. Episode 2 expands on this idea by situating the origins of the outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, wherein the first reported cases of the infected are factory workers who worked in flour mills. Moreover, mycologist Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim) pointedly notes that flour is a "perfect substrate" for the fungal outbreak, as it is the ideal carrier for accelerated mass infection.

Keeping this key information in mind, the events of the prologue make perfect sense. As the duo luckily ran out of pancake mix, did not ingest any cookies/biscuits, and Joel forgot to get a birthday cake, they managed to not get infected via foodstuffs with contaminated flour. As Mrs. Adler was strictly eating biscuits all day, she was the first to get infected, and hence passed it on rather viciously to the rest of her family. (It should be noted that the showrunners have directly addressed and confirmed all of this, too.)

Corruption of basic foodstuffs destabilized the world

The contamination of flour, along with other food-grains, promptly led to the sudden dismantling of human civilization the moment the outbreak spread. As the common folk were unaware of the fungal mutation, these food-grains were allowed to mass circulate in markets and used in everyday consumption, providing very little reaction-time to the severity of the situation. In episode 3 of the show, Joel explains the origins of the Cordyceps outbreak to Ellie and confirms that foodgrains were the primary carriers of the infection when the outbreak first happened in 2003.

As prefaced by the scientists in the pre-prologue of the season premiere, Cordyceps underwent mutation due to global warming and evolved to the point of being able to survive in humans. Post-mutation, these fungal cells found their way into basic food ingredients like flour and sugar, which are staples in almost every culture around the world. While listing foodstuffs that were predominantly contaminated, Joel mentions cookies, bread, cereal, and pancake mix. Joel also specifies that the more one ingested these products, the more infected one got, which adds further clarity to the accelerating symptoms exhibited by Mrs. Adler, who had become rabid by the time the outbreak hit.

While the games allude to contaminated crops in South America as the catalyst for the outbreak, the show fleshes out the outbreak's origin in a way that makes it more terrifying. The resonance is obviously amplified in a post-pandemic world, as the Cordyceps outbreak does not seem as dystopian/outlandish as it would have been a few years back. "The Last of Us" succeeds in capturing the essence of a post-apocalyptic world with two characters that serve as our emotional tether, while contextualizing it in a way that feels timely, relevant, and genuinely horrifying.