Joel’s emotional pain and reticence mean he’s not the type to indulge in flowery talk. With Tess, however, he takes his stoic nature to unnecessary extremes. The two are clearly close – in-game they have a friendly, slightly flirtatious dynamic reminiscent of amicable ex-boyfriends. Therein lies the tragedy.
The show’s version of Tess is said to harbor (possibly unrequited) feelings towards Joel, and she dies without ever getting a shred of closure about it. Joel just doesn’t have anything to say to her, even though it’s obvious this is the last time they’ll see each other. As a result, Tess spends her final moments utterly horrified and without a kind word from Joel to cling to as she pushes through her final act of heroism. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and Torv sells Tess’ borderline primal terrors with subtle expressions and movements that still make it very clear what she’s going through.
Tess’ final scene reflects the lack of true intimacy between her and Joel in a chilling way. After Joel just stares at her and rushes off without saying goodbye, one of the infected walks up to her and gives her an unsettlingly intimate “kiss,” its tendrils of cordyceps grabbing her throat. It’s pretty scary in the final moments — especially since the show really stretches the old “lighter malfunction” trope as Tess struggles to stay composed. The message here is pretty clear; At this point in the story, Joel’s social skills suck so much that even violent mushroom zombies are more romantic than him.