[Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us Season 1, Episode 8, “When We Are In Need.”]
Like the blood-speckled teenage protagonist at the end of the latest installment of The Last of Us, it's understandable for the audience to be a bit traumatized about the events of "When We Are in Need," the penultimate episode of Season 1. In a story where danger — from both mushroom monsters and regular people alike — lurks everywhere, nothing has felt quite so nauseatingly threatening as what Ellie endures at the hands of that cannibal preacher. As a story device, it's what had to be done to get Ellie – and Joel — to the next phase of their quest. All the show had to do was become a bit more ordinary to pull it off.
The complicated and evolving reluctant-father/untamed-daughter dynamic between Joel and Ellie has been the driving force of the overall arc of The Last of Us, even as the show has curiously found more and more detours to follow that have put Joel and Ellie's relationship in the background. We spent an episode with Frank and Bill, another one exploring the power dynamics in Kansas City, and another one flashing back to Ellie and Riley's food court romance. These episodes have all been great, and creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have found ways to subtly thread in character development for Joel and Ellie that has pushed their relationship along even when that relationship was back-burnered. It's mostly on the back burner this week as well, as Joel spends the majority of this episode either half-conscious from his (healing) puncture wound or violently trying to ascertain Ellie's whereabouts. Ellie, meanwhile, ends up in a whole lot of danger.
We find out that Ellie and Joel have been convalescing near the town of Silver Lake, Colorado, in which resides a small community of survivors. But unlike the group in Jackson, Wyoming, we met a few weeks ago, these poor souls are not doing well. We encounter them gathered in an old steakhouse, conducting a memorial service for one of their own. David (Scott Shepherd) reads a passage from Revelation, and it's not too long before we realize he's the leader of what looks to be a particularly beaten-down group of survivors. Food is short and winter is really wintering out there. The weeping daughter of the man being eulogized asks when they can bury her dad. One look at shifty-eyed David as he pauses over his response says there's more than just a sad memorial going on here.
A couple episodes ago, I wrote about how happy I was to see The Last of Us sidestep some of the cliches of post-apocalyptic TV when it came to survival communities. I may have spoken too soon. "When We Are in Need" hits some of the tried and true tropes of the genre, starting with what we eventually realize is a cannibal cult in Silver Lake. (That most of the residents don't realize they're consuming human meat will not deter me from using the term "cannibal cult," as the aesthetic and descriptive pleasures speak for themselves.)
It's not that these tropes aren't executed well. For one thing, this episode (as well as next week's season finale) is directed Ali Abbassi, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker whose last two movies — the enigmatic Border and the tense Holy Spider — won prizes at Cannes. Here, Abassi ratchets up the tension incredibly well. Scott Shepherd also gives a well-modulated yet ultimately terrifying performance as David. Shepherd is a character actor whom you may have seen on True Detective or The Young Pope. Recently, he's worked with the likes of Kelly Reichart and Martin Scorsese. As David, he walks the line between plausibly reasonable and potentially monstrous until it finally comes time to show his cards.
In The Last of Us video game, David functions as a kind of level boss that Ellie has to defeat to move on in the game. He's the monster that comes next on the journey. This hour of television is mostly about Ellie, as it was last week, when we flashed back to her before this cross-continental gauntlet, on a date with her crush, riding the carousel to the soft strains of The Cure. Maybe we needed to get that flashback on the books so that we'd know the (relative) teenage innocence we were about to lose in this episode. It's not like Ellie hasn't been through a crapload of violence already this season; the Clicker attack in Kansas City alone would leave a permanent scar on even the most flinty of souls. That ordeal is seemingly deemed insufficient by virtue of the fact that she has to go through hell this week.
Ellie's first encounter with David is rife with tension. She's shakily trying to hold her ground over a deer that she shot but David and his people desperately need. She agrees to barter for medicine that Joel needs to stave off infection. She and David seem to be approaching a truce as they wait for the medicine to get delivered from the town. The fear at first seems to be that this cult leader might lure Ellie into his web, but that's not it. And when David reveals that the man he was eulogizing in the opening scene was the man Joel killed on the college campus, the floor drops out.
After a bit of raggedy plotting in which David allows Ellie to run away with the medicine only to immediately gather a hunting party to go off and pursue her — Joel needs the medicine in order to recover and eventually re-join the story, but Ellie also needs to be captured in order to advance the plot — Ellie ends up captured by David's people. She's locked up in a cell and is about to get carved up and served in a stew to the vacant-eyed souls of Silver Lake. She's able to buy herself some time by showing her little fungus mark and momentarily scaring David and his henchman James (played by Troy Baker, who voiced Joel in the video game) enough for her to take a hacksaw to James' jugular and escape. That, ultimately, isn't enough, and as Ellie sets fire to that steakhouse, David attacks her and is about to rape her. When Ellie is finally able to fend him off, she savagely, almost inhumanly, ends him.
Ellie emerges from the — probably too literal — fires of her hellish ordeal with a blood-spattered face, barely able to recognize Joel when he finds her. It seems pretty clear what TLOU creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann were trying to set up here. That Joel ultimately doesn't save her, and Ellie has to save herself is a big part of it. In many ways, Ellie defeating David is a triumph for our teen heroine, though there's something undeniably icky about putting her character through a violent near-rape in order to prove she's on Joel's level of badass.
It also feels like an attempt to have Ellie's experience mirror the brutality of what we've repeatedly heard Joel had been like in the early years of the plague. He's haunted by what he did, necessary as he believes it was. Ellie will surely be haunted by this too, not just what almost happened to her, but what she had to do to escape it. She runs out of that burning steakhouse barely human, screaming incoherently, and when Joel is finally able to calm her, she doesn't speak. This is by far the most paternal Joel has ever appeared in this relationship. He even calls her "baby girl" and wraps her in a blanket, taking her away to safety. As a mile marker on the road towards wherever Joel and Ellie are headed, it's understandable why this episode happened. But was it necessary to put Ellie through this specifically?
The answer to that begins with: what's "necessary" in fiction? It's a story; this is the one Mazin and Druckmann are telling. It's definitely a story that succumbs to the temptation of the Murder Girl, the simplistic incongruity of a young girl becoming a savage killer that we've seen in everything from Game of Thrones to Barry to Kick Ass. It's not a particularly sophisticated trope, and while The Last of Us isn't glib about what Ellie becomes in those final minutes of the episode, there is still obviously a great deal of base-level satisfaction in watching her hatchet a cannibalistic child rapist to death.
This was a tense and exciting hour of television, and it ends with Joel and Ellie emotionally bound to each other as they've never been before. It's also the most this show has seemed like typical post-apocalyptic programming this whole season. Maybe an episode like this is the price you pay to the genre gods to cross into the next level of wherever things are going. We can hope that Ellie and Joel don't have to pay too much more, but it's seeming less and less likely anyone gets out of this landscape un-scarred.
New episodes of The Last of Us air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and stream on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.