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Can ‘The Last of Us’ Cordyceps Fungus Really Infect Humans?  

Note: This contains mild spoilers from The Last of Us season premiere on HBO.

So, great, do we really need to start worrying about our portobellos and shiitakes now, too?

The Last of Us got underway Sunday night with an eerie cold open prologue that’s set on a talk show in 1963. An epidemiologist (played by the wonderful John Hannah, of The Mummy and Spartacus fame) gives a dire warning to an incredulous host (Silicon Valley’s Joshua Max Brener) about the looming fungal threat. Hannah explains that certain fungi can infect and control its animal hosts and that humans could be next if such deadly spores were to evolve — say, due to climate change — to survive in a just slightly warmer climate.

“If the world were to get slightly warmer, then there is reason to evolve,” he said. “Candida, ergot, Cordyceps, Aspergillosis — any one of them could be capable of burrowing into our brains and taking control of not millions of us, but billions. Billions of puppets with poison minds… and there are no treatments for this, no preventatives. They don’t exist, it’s not even possible to make them.”

We asked showrunner Craig Mazin, who also made HBO’s riveting Chernobyl, just how much of Hannah’s foreboding speech was based on actual science.

“It’s real — it’s real to the extent that everything he says that fungus do, they do,” Mazin says. “And they currently do it and have been doing it forever. There are some remarkable documentaries that you can watch that are quite terrifying. Now his warning — what if they evolve and get into us? — from a purely scientific point of view, would they do exactly to us what they do to ants? I don’t think so. I doubt it. On the other hand, he’s right — LSD and psilocybin do come from fungus. What I told John was, ‘What we’re doing in this scene is telling people this has always been here.’”

Mazin said the scene made him think of a similar concern he had while making Chernobyl.

“What was so chilling to me was that [the Chernobyl nuclear plant] blew up that night, but it could have blown up a week before or it could have blown up a month before,” he said. “Which means that right now, there’s something that’s just waiting to blow up — you just don’t know about it. It was so upsetting to say to people, ‘We knew about this, it’s been there, now we’re gonna show you the night it finally happens.’ Not suddenly, but finally.”

On an entirely different premiere episode topic, we also asked about the inspired song choice in the show’s final moments to use Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” noting it seemed rather perfect: one of the few ’80s hits that hasn’t been overplayed, and felt both foreboding and darkly comic.

“My wife has an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s music,” Mazin said. “And I was like, ‘OK, Melissa, this is what I need.’ And I literally said all the things you just said. I need it to be a song that I kind of know but I haven’t heard in a long time. One that hasn’t been beaten to death. And I needed it to have context. I needed to be meaningful. I needed to have be foreboding, and ideally, without being super on the nose, give me a comment. I needed to start a particular way so we can show that radio turning on. And then she was like: ‘Never Let Me Down Again.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Read  ’s recent cover story going behind the scenes of The Last of Us with Mazin, showrunner Neil Druckmann and stars Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal: “We Put All of Ourselves Into This.”

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