[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 8, “When We Are in Need.”]
If everyone on “The Last of Us” is trying to salvage what they can, the one thing that links everyone is a name. One of the gradual throughlines of the series has been the recognition of when people try to bring out their own. Often it’s in self-preservation, like the ambush kid from “Please Hold to My Hand.” It’s the same tactic used by a man here in the season’s second-to-last episode “When We Are in Need.” Staring down the barrel of a rifle and an ultra-determined Ellie (Bella Ramsey) pointing it, someone who’s become an expert at staying alive offers up a way to continue his streak. He identifies himself as David (Scott Shepherd). And in that moment, he’s already gained the upper hand.
David is the latest in a line of Joel and Ellie’s obstacles taken from the original “The Last of Us” game, a ruthless, enigmatic leader who’s found a way to bend a new world to his whims. He’s also the latest example of the show illustrating how this post-cordyceps reality is a chance for people to remake themselves, and a narrative can be the most powerful weapon in an arsenal. It can dissuade an entire raider population from going near your stronghold, as the people of Jackson did by spreading spooky myths about what lies just beyond the “River of Death.” Some people rewrite their stories as a means to atone. Others — like this figure with a group of rigid, zealous followers hiding out at an abandoned winter resort — use it as a chance to make a hierarchy in their own image.
“When We Are in Need” takes place over a longer time period than last week’s “Left Behind,” but the simple-objective spirit remains the same. Instead of Ellie making her way through a flickering attempt at a normal childhood, her search for food for her and Joel (Pedro Pascal) leads her into the path of David and James (Troy Baker, the original game’s Joel). Once David makes that introduction of names and purposes, so begins an episode-long game of psychological tug-of-war, with leader and rebel both trying to maintain an advantage.
David begins with the false promise of a communal fire, where he details his supposed past and his stated reasons for embracing a life of faith. As an individual, he’s an interesting inverse of the horseback party that Joel and Ellie meet outside of Jackson. Those riders arrived as a threat but then dropped their outlaw veneer to show the welcoming people underneath. David pops up under the guise of a timid man of God, only to steadily pull back and show himself to be a predator at heart.
That assumption-flipping isn’t just a “The Last of Us” hallmark at this point. It’s also a fruitful way to present another view of what leadership looks like in an institution-less society. Kathleen offered one glimpse of that life in Kansas City. Here, this new leadership structure is intertwined more explicitly with someone dangling Bible passages in front of followers to bolster his credentials. David later describes his affinity for the fungus with its death grip on humanity, but there’s still a tantalizing vagueness about how much he believes his own preaching. There’s a logical and cynical (and most likely) view that his Revelation verses are just a means to a cult-leader end. Shepherd puts JUST enough into those softer, gentler David moments to make you believe that by staying in power as long as he has, he’s also bought into what he’s been supplying.
Crafting a doomsday leader is just as much about shading in the followers as it is the person they’re following. Even with their dire situation, “When We Are in Need” paints the picture of a group of people who have managed to survive this long while being effectively stripped of alternatives. Episode writer Craig Mazin isn’t as concerned with showing David as a superhuman ball of charisma and confidence. Instead, “When We Are in Need” makes clear that David is more a master at making people believe their fortunes are tied to his well-being. Panning across the followers gathered at the lodge, there aren’t contented smiles or satisfied beaming expressions. Everyone is miserable, but David has left them with no alternatives. They’re trapped in a wintery prison with no phone call left.
Even in the episode’s final minutes, when David has every reason to believe that his hours alive are numbered, Shepherd is exercising some eerie and effective restraint here. There’s an ingrained theatricality in David’s leadership style that goes all the way to his recruitment tactics. But even the most stereotypical lines that could come across as booming declarations from a bloodthirsty strongman (“You’re so hungry for vengeance? Deliver it.”) are instead delivered with the demeanor of disappointed youth pastor. Shepherd plays David as a man unafraid to abuse his followers in ways of his choosing, but still maintaining the faux civility of someone who doesn’t raise his voice in anger. That extends to his treatment of Ellie in the group’s makeshift cell. Leaving a severed ear within her eyeline is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen by accident. He becomes a more sinister figure when it’s clear he’d rather lead people to horrific conclusions rather than be the bearer of cannibalistic news.
It’s through Joel and Ellie (and the threats they face) that “The Last of Us” has maintained a throughline, even during the episodes that veer off the main timeline. “When We Are in Need” is another case of the show looking to the global film community for directors to come and make their own imprint on the series. “Kin” was able to cut through the dread for most of its runtime and remind both characters and audiences that there actually is something worth surviving for. A good portion of that deft balance came from what’s present in director Jasmila Žbanić’s other work. Here, Ali Abbasi is offering something even more immediate. Particularly when it comes to saving Joel, all of those injection and recovery sequences have a tension to them that’s brought about by being so close. It’s a stark contrast from the show in the early going that was often content at having more of a remove from the action itself. And like Žbanić, Abbasi is no stranger to confronting horrific realities in his own films, including last year’s acclaimed “Holy Spider,” another tale about a man acting out violence under the guise of divine directives.
Together, Abbasi and Mazin let that ambiguity and a warped sense of purpose thrive. From the top of the episode, as David and his congregation are working through anger and grief, the big sign behind him gives the other unspoken half of the episode’s title: “WHEN WE ARE IN NEED, HE SHALL PROVIDE.” The longer the hour goes on, that last pronoun feels more and more intentionally vague. David is the kind of leader who conflates his purpose with his privilege, finding ways to make the gathered people around him feel indebted to what he claims to provide. When the group finally gets their taste of deer meat stew, Abbasi lets the sound of those first few bites linger, showing everyone’s distinct relationship to hunger. Many people attack their meal. David is content to sit at the heart of the room where all can see, with a bowl seemingly overflowing with his portion. He’s the first among equals, in ways the episode gradually spools out until his hubris does him in.
The beginning of that downfall comes with a broken finger, delivered by Ellie herself. It’s only after she’s been able to take that away from him that she reveals her name. Now, revealing her identity is a show of force rather than a means of peacemaking. Not much later, with a meat cleaver hovering over her torso, she plays her last card by showing the scar on her forearm. From then on, with David’s fate pretty much sealed, talking almost becomes a liability. David moves closer to the more explicit predator he’s kept reasonably cloaked for most of the episode. If anything, it feels like an admission that he’s lost. As Ellie grabs the cleaver and dispatches David once and for all, Abassi keeps the focus on her and her reaction. The smoke and flames behind her (and the theoretically splatter on the lens) wash everything out as she loses herself in a haze of stabbing.
And then she emerges to find a revived Joel, ready to take her away from the burning building. Their traditional roles have been flipped. Ellie has usually been the one to help Joel find some relief and comfort after he’s killed to keep them both safe. Now, it’s the other way around. Whether or not it’s too fine a point on it, this is also Joel at his most paternal, calling Ellie “baby girl” as he did his own daughter in her final moments. It’s a neat counterbalance to the ugly vision of fatherliness the scenes at the lodge show. After weeks of hearing from Henry and Tommy about the nature of fatherhood and family, this is Joel embracing that responsibility in his own way. As the two limp off into the mountain horizon, they’re facing whatever horrors the finale has in store the same way they have since they left Boston: together.
“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.