Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 8 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!
Despite all its sustained brilliance, The Last of Us has been missing something: a truly nasty villain. The infected, Kathleen, FEDRA, and the Fireflies have all either come and gone or operated on the periphery. With ‘When We Are in Need’, the penultimate episode of the first season, that all changes. And while a new foil for Joel and Ellie to bounce off is undoubtedly this entry’s greatest strength, it also highlights the time – or lack thereof – the HBO series has left to play with.
Enter David (Scott Shepherd), a teacher-turned-preacher who is hiding a dirty secret. From the opening scene, which sees the mild-mannered leader delivering a sermon to his close-knit group of followers, you can’t take your eyes off him. All quiet menace and sickly-sweet charm, Shepherd delivers a performance that bursts into the show like a force of nature, uprooting everything in its wake.
Among those in his sights is, inevitably, Joel and Ellie. Word has gotten out that one of David’s men was killed by a man traveling with a child – which we saw for ourselves back in the sixth episode. With his right-hand man James (Troy Baker, who gets a real chance to showcase his live-action talents for those only familiar with his game work) in tow, David encounters Ellie while she’s out hunting for a stricken Joel.
The episode’s two best scenes, then, arrive relatively early. In them, Ellie – complete with hilariously overblown ‘grown up’ voice – sticks up David and James. The real magic lies in the preacher disarming Ellie, both literally and figuratively, without her realizing. With her guard down, he delivers a skin-crawlingly pitch perfect monologue about how "everything happens for a reason." The old maxim that the best villains believe they’re doing the right thing rings true here; David sells every word as if it’s the same gospel truth from the Bible he carries around in his pocket.
What makes him such a good villain, though, is just how quickly he can turn. There’s a smile one minute and, after Ellie gets captured, more of the darkness is teased out. These moments are few and far between, which makes beats like David striking a girl and using the c-word to describe Ellie all the more shocking.
Joel, rage in fatherly form, comes looking for Ellie. First, he methodically takes down one of David’s survivors, then tortures two more. It calls into focus whether we’re meant to question his brutality – Joel also killed a father, lest we forget – and, yet, these scenes feel too far removed from the show’s measured tone up until now.
The problem is we’re cheering Joel on the warpath in the same way we would an action hero. If it’s a response that’s meant to make us feel uncomfortable, that’s not made abundantly clear. Maybe David was a little too good at being the bad guy – and the show sure did need a ‘win’ after weeks of unrelenting bleakness – but that satisfaction of Joel channeling Liam Neeson in Taken is a little out of step with everything that’s come before it.
'When We Are in Need' concludes in a blaze of fire and fury. Having found out David’s people-eating secret and rejecting his plea to be together, Ellie escapes, kills James, and eventually slaughters David as a building burns around them. While some of the impact of Ellie’s outburst is negated by her effectively killing someone already in Kansas City, it marks another loss of innocence for Bella Ramsey’s teenager on the show.
The cold shoulder
In truth, this episode feels like the first real victim of trying to expand on the game(s) while simultaneously squeezing everything into an arbitrary episode count. Take David and James’s dynamic: there’s history there, but much of it is relegated to barbed veils and uncertain looks. David is also the sort of figure you needed more time with to help the twisted impact of his true desires land when the other shoe – or should that be foot, given his flesh-eating proclivities – drops.
For the first time, the final 15 minutes is lessened by it being, effectively, a remake of the original 2013 video game. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a 1:1 adaptation, it all felt a little by-the-numbers and crammed in when there was definitely more story to tell.
Still, it’s another sickening twist of the knife from The Last of Us. Ellie has gone through her darkest hour and, though she made it to the other side, she might be forever changed by her chance encounter with David – a villain who deserved a two-parter to really deliver on his full potential.
The Last of Us streams Sundays on HBO and HBO Max and Mondays in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. For more from the HBO series, check out our guide to the major Last of Us episode 7 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus. Discover when the next episode is dropping with our Last of Us release schedule.