The Last of Us: season 1, episode 8 – When We Are in Need

“I’m a shepherd surrounded by sheep – and all I want is an equal.”


It was back to the main plot for this week’s penultimate ep of The Last of Us, and back to another one of those well-worn post-apocalyptic tropes – the seemingly nice community with a Dark Secret. And it was a Dark Secret that we’ve seen many, many times before.

I’m actually surprised it took the show this long to get round to showing us survivors who’ve resorted to cannibalism – though to be fair, it took The Walking Dead four whole seasons. We have indeed been here before; not just with TWD’s smiling corpse munchers from Terminus, but in pretty much every post-apocalyptic story I’ve ever read. Even if you don’t meet the cannibals, there’s always rumblings about them: “I hear there’s a group in the west who like to eat people”, someone will mutter darkly.

But The Last of Us showrunner Craig Mazin presumably knows what a well-worn trope this is, and it’s not the main focus of this ep’s story. That, as usual, is the characters. Not just the regulars, though there’s plenty for them to do, but another charismatic leader who isn’t what he seems. With Joel laid up for most of the ep, the lion’s share of the action is the twisted relationship between Ellie and the leader of the Silverlake survivors, a seemingly god-fearing preacher type called David.

Scott Shepherd truly impresses as David, a complex character whose motives are never what they seem. On first appearance, he presents himself as a man of faith, trusting in God; talking to Ellie in the cell, he claims this is a pragmatic façade he presents to keep his followers alive. It’s only when violence is unleashed against him that he drops even this pretence to show the snarling, selfish egotist beneath.

And make no mistake, there is violence aplenty this week. Ellie in particular was meting out blades left right and centre, to shocking effect. It’s always more shocking in your ‘zombie’ story when the violence is inflicted on the living; though we only see our heroes kill four people, it makes an impact. It’s not gratuitous though, but serves a theme – the more time she spends with him, the more Ellie is becoming like Joel. Previously, she seemed hesitant even when putting that Infected out of his misery; this week, she’s hacking people’s necks with cleavers and smashing their heads in.

That last, as she finally got the better of the dastardly David, was deliberately shown at great length, but with the camera fixed on Bella Ramsey’s face throughout. It was all the more shocking seeing her fury than the damage she was wreaking. A great performance from Ramsey, and a good directorial choice from Ali Abbasi.

Of course Joel too was meting out violence as soon as he was well enough. This too was shocking, though less so than with Ellie. We’ve previously heard about the Bad Things he’s done, but with the implication that they’re all in the past. This ep, showing his brutal torture and murder of the Silverlake men, showed that he’s still perfectly capable of it. Again, there were shades of grey here – this guy is the hero, but that kind of brutality is hard to square with someone you want to like.

He does of course have a very strong motivation for it. As shown by their heartfelt hug at the end of the ep, Joel really does have a father-daughter relationship with Ellie by now; and that daughter was in danger of being turned into burgers.

The revelation of the community’s cannibalism came almost casually and offhandedly, as if Mazin knew we’d be half-expecting it. Spotting an ear on the floor of her cell, Ellie (who’s presumably equally aware of the trope) immediately put two and two together; while Joel, stumbling across the community food store, found the expected hanging, half-butchered human corpses.

To be fair to the Silverlake community, they were shown as desperately short of food. Unlike the nutters of Terminus in Walking Dead, this was clearly a last, desperate attempt to stay alive. That wintry weather made it immediately reminiscent of one of the most famous instances of real-life cannibalism, the 19th century Donner Party of frontier settlers, who were snowbound in the Sierras over the winter of 1847 and had to eat their dead to survive.

And of course it was David’s decision, something he’d kept from the God-fearing community he mentored. Presumably some others must have been involved – butchering and cooking human beings isn’t a one man job. At the very least, his chief henchman James was definitely aware – and in a nice touch, was played by Troy Baker, the original Joel from the game.

It was here, though, that I felt the script made something of a misstep. I’d expected there to be a revelation of this Dark Secret to the community, possibly prompting a rebellion against David; or, more in keeping with the show’s depressing nature, a reluctant acceptance of the necessity. In the event, we got neither. Ellie’s killing of David seemed to close the matter, and she and Joel rode off into the snowy sunset in a rather abrupt conclusion. What had happened to the rest of the citizens of Silverlake? After about halfway through, they’re never seen again.

I suppose they might be back next week in the season finale. One of the themes of this ep was that of consequences – the Silverlake gang want Joel dead because of his killing of one of their men, presumably one of the raiders at the university. Conversely, Joel wants them dead because of what they’ve done to Ellie. Violence is shown as a never-ending cycle, that needs no Infected to help it along. And once again, I found the story compelling enough that I didn’t miss them, though I suppose some of the game fans might be disappointed at their economical usage.

So, one more ep to go of this first season (I was glad to see HBO has definitely greenlit a second). This penultimate one was far from perfect; I had no problem with revisiting the cannibalism trope, as the show’s schtick throughout has been to take well-worn cliches and treat them thoughtfully as character development. But the rushed, inconclusive ending, and the rather short runtime felt as though they let it down somewhat. Still, if the next ep follows up on those loose ends, I’ll probably judge it better in hindsight.

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