THE LAST OF US: When We Are in Need

Posted on March 05, 2023

The Last of Us puts Joel and Ellie through their most grueling episode yet and dispenses completely with its well established morally gray outlook by serving up the series’ first real villain and giving him the kind of cathartically violent sendoff that’ll make you question your own moral code for cheering so loudly. It also pulled back somewhat on its commitment to an easily adopted sense of realism by turning Joel and Ellie into the kind of supernatural destructive forces that can weather just about any attack and leave entire communities in ruins in their wake. The results were surprisingly emotionally engaging. We literally gasped, screamed and cried our way through it.

We open in beleaguered Silver Lake, Colorado and the reading of scripture, which is almost never a good sign in any apocalypse story. There is a community of what look to be extremely beaten down people here, gathering at a former ski lodge that is now part community center, part church. Under a large sheet with  the words “WHEN WE ARE IN NEED HE WILL PROVIDE” scrawled on it, a preacher named David instructs his flock with promises of paradise and eternity and the end of all death and tears, smack in the middle of rampant death and sorrow. It was ever thus. “When can we bury him?” a young crying girl asks him. He tells her that the ground is too cold to dig but that they’ll bury her father in the spring. Later, he confers with his right hand man James, who tells him they only have at best about a week’s rations of “venison, elk, rabbit.” David accuses him of losing faith in him. After admitting that the last six months have been hard on the community, he assures David he’s still with him, although it’s said in the weakest way possible. So we’ve established a starving, isolated religious commune that’s coming apart at the seams and they all have guns. Sounds neat.

Back in the basement of the house they were in last episode, Ellie is tending to an unconscious Joel. She got the bleeding under control by stitching up the wound, but it’s oozing pus. She hungrily scarfs down a few scraps of food and reluctantly leaves the last piece on his chest. She leaves him, takes his rifle and heads to the nearby woods to hunt. After face-planting in the snow while chasing a rabbit, Ellie spots a deer. Joel’s limited shooting lessons must have paid off on some level because she shoots it on her first try. She does not, however, kill it immediately. It lumbers off into the snow, only to die at the feet of David and James. She adopts a tough girl voice when she comes upon them, but it isn’t quite as effective as she probably hoped. She refers to James as “buddy boy,” which sounds hilarious coming out of her mouth. James and David respect the rifle she has pointed at them, but David in particular adopts a soothingly condescending tone with her. He tells her they’re from a larger group and they’re very hungry. She says that she’s also from a larger group, not very convincingly. They offer a trade and she asks if they have medicine for infections. David sends James back to get some penicillin. It’s safe to say that guys who become leaders of religious communes in the apocalypse are pretty good at manipulating people in desperate situations. Eventually, he has Ellie bonding with him over a fire as they trade stories. He says he honestly means her no harm and that she’s welcome to join their group. “I’m a decent man,” he says, which is not a thing decent men tend to say, “just trying to take care of the people who rely on me.”  He tells her that he and his group fled the Pittsburgh QZ “when it fell, back in ’17,” and they eventually wound up in Colorado. He says that everything happens for a reason and then drops the bomb that one of his flock was killed recently by a crazy man who was traveling with a little girl. James arrives, but David tells him to lower his gun and give her the penicillin. She grabs it and runs off.

Back at Holy Hunger Compound, a big tray of meat arrives in the kitchen. It is announced rather hilariously ominously to be “venison.” We guess there was supposed to be a fakeout with this, but we weren’t surprised when David and James showed up after this scene with the deer Ellie shot. We thought it was pretty obvious what was going on with this crowd nearly from the beginning. Isolated, starving religious freaks? Please. It’s practically a given that they’re eating people. Sorry, little girl. We can’t bury your dad in the Spring because he’s the Tuesday Special. Speaking of which, when David announces that they’ve found the girl traveling with the man who killed one of their own, she pipes up and declares they they should kill both of them. He slaps her across the face, declares himself her new father and demands she show him respect when he’s speaking. He’s been ominous since his introduction, but the heel turn comes suddenly. David is the show’s first real villain and if we’re being honest, there’s not a thing about him that’s nuanced or original. Apocalypse tales have seen plenty of religious mania, cannibalism and sexual predators in them, but at least this one benefits from a great performance by Scott Shepherd. Establishing his control over the flock, he sits down to eat with them, to the nearly overwhelmingly loud clinking of cutlery on china as everyone chows down on one of their own.

Back in the empty suburbs, Ellie administers the second shot of penicillin, feeds the horse some snow and ponders the hopelessness of her situation. Bella Ramsey is wonderful at conveying her despair and low-grade panic. She discovers the hunting party from the commune clearly looking for her and rushes off to tell a nearly comatose Joel that she’s going to lead them away from him, but “if anyone makes it down here, you fucking kill them, you got it?” She fires at the guys and tries to lead them away on her horse, but James shoots it out from under her. Given that they’ve scored a deer and a horse off of them in the space of a day, you’d think they’d just leave them be and call it equal. They even got a meal out of the guy Joel killed. Unfortunately, that’s not how mustache-twirling villains tend to do things, so once he prevented James from killing her, David takes the dazed Ellie back to the compound and locks her up. He orders the men to find Joel and “deliver vengeance” on him. This is where the story starts straining credulity a little more than a mushroom zombie show can take, because not only does one of the guys immediately enter the one house out of an entire community of them that Joel is hiding in, but he spends several minutes suspiciously scoping the place out for no good reason. We suppose you could argue that tracks in the snow led him there, but you have to work to come to that conclusion. Anyway, he finds the basement door that Ellie tried to camouflage and heads directly to Joel. The penicillin must have been truly blessed by whatever cannibal god they’re all praying to over there, because an admittedly weakened Joel was up and about, recovering nicely from his fatal, infected gut wound and able to take the guy out with Ellie’s knife. We suppose there’s a certain gamer logic to a character who can just spring up from near death and kill a guy. Besides, we really can’t get all huffy about Joel’s sudden turn toward Batman-ism. There’s no denying it’s incredibly satisfying to watch after the shit he and Ellie have been through, not to mention the exquisite (if unlikely) tension leading up to that moment. The show tends to obscure or look away from moments of violence (including the one at the climax of this episode), but director Ali Abbasi really wanted you to watch that guy’s face go rictus as he died. In fact, we think you could argue that there’s a point being made about Joel’s approach to violence vs. Ellie’s in this episode when you look at how each of their vengeance scenes were shot. Joel’s lingers on the violence and pain he deals out. Ellie’s focuses entirely on her own emotional state.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back in the meat locker cage, Ellie wakes up and David offers her a place in their community if she’ll just promise not to be a naughty girl or whatever. She tells him to go fuck himself, but you knew she would. In suburban hell, a couple of more guys from the hunting party figure out that somethings kind of iffy about Joel’s house and he knocks them both out before they even get to the door. After tying them up and torturing them, he stabs one of them in the knee and gets him to admit that Ellie’s alive and in Silver Lake. He calls one of them “buddy boy,” but you had to already know that’s where Ellie picked up the phrase. As we’ve said before, she’s a sponge and Joel’s an ocean to her. He kills him while the other one screams his protestations. It’s a shockingly brutal scene, made more so because it ends with Joel bludgeoning the other guy to death. Remember way back in episode two when Tess told Ellie that she and Joel weren’t good people? Or in episode 6 when he and Tommy wrestled with how many murders they committed? However horrifying this scene may be, the ground work has been extremely well placed. We think the show has made it extremely clear that Joel and Ellie can’t move through the world without facing destruction and subsequently destroying other people and communities in return, much like the player characters in any game would. Even if Joel delivers a sickening amount of violence on people, it’s always because he’s been placed in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Just as it happened in Kansas City, he has an entire armed community looking for him because he killed one of their own, who attacked him first. It’s normal to be squeamish about the violence, but  let’s face it, you were cheering just a little, knowing that Joel was on his way to save Ellie.

But of course Ellie’s pretty capable of saving herself, it would seem. She figures out why she’s locked in a meat locker when she sees a human ear on the floor and has a moment of bracing moral clarity. “Judge you? You’re eating people, you sick fuck!” David attempts to justify it and claims that eating people shames him. From there, he just goes full-on, final act villain. He starts by flattering her and telling her that he sees himself in her; a natural born leader with a violent heart. He claims to have learned the truth from cordyceps itself. “It’s fruitful, it multiplies. It feeds and protects its children, and it secures its future through violence if it must. It loves.” He says he’s telling her this because she can handle it the way the others can’t. He says that everyone else around him is looking for a father and that she’s “beyond all that,” which is a pretty clear indication that, his claims to the contrary, he doesn’t know her at all. The one thing Ellie wants more than anything in the world is to be with Joel. David says he sees her as his equal, but you know he’ll be slapping her to the floor the first time she says something he doesn’t like. He promises her that he can get his men to leave Joel alone and spins a tale of her co-leading the compound with him. “Imagine the life we could build,” he says as he creepily puts his hand over hers. Of course she wasn’t buying his shit for a second and she breaks his finger before he slams her face into the bars and calls her a little cunt. When he runs out, she yells, “Tell them that Ellie is the little girl who BROKE YOUR FUCKING FINGER!” It’s hard not to love that little psycho.

Super-Joel makes it to Silver Lake, even though he’s starving, recovering from an infected gut wound, and there’s a snowstorm going on. Conveniently (there’s a lot of that this episode) he breaks into the first building he sees and discovers a bunch of decapitated human bodies on meat hooks. David and James drag a screaming Ellie out of her cage and onto the butcher table. Before he can bring the cleaver down on her head, she tells him she’s infected “and now so are you.” When they roll up her sleeve, they’re momentarily taken aback long enough for Ellie to bury the cleaver in James’ neck, run out, and set the lodge on fire. David rips the mask off at this point and launches into a typical villain monologue. “You don’t know how good I am!” he cries. Ellie stabs him and he throws her to the floor, dropping his cleaver. He beats her and attempts to rape her because the story was always going to wind up here. “I thought you already knew, the fighting is the part that I like the most.” Bella Ramsey is excruciating in this scene. It is impossible not to cheer when she literally pulverizes him. We don’t get to see the violence Ellie visits upon David. The focus is entirely on her rage as she buries the cleaver in him over and over again.

She stumbles outside and into the arms of her would-be savior and actual father. The looks on Pedro Pascal’s face as Joel realizes what happened to her and on Bella Ramsey’s face as Ellie recognizes the only face in the world she wants to see is pure heartbreak. “It’s okay, baby girl,” he says to her as he holds her. The last words he said to Sarah as she lay dying in his arms was “Come on, baby girl” over and over again. He puts his jacket on her and they limp off into the snow together, leaving evil, and at least a half-dozen dead bodies, behind them. What remains the most amazing thing about The Last of Us is how it can take some of the most cliched story tropes of the genre and still manage to spin out an incredibly emotional tale.

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