Following a story detour that felt restrained in its attempts to maintain innocence, The Last of Us jumps right back into the action with its most brutal hour yet. Episode 8 (“When We Are In Need”) is one of the season’s strongest episodes and easily the best of the back half despite the continued feeling that a twelve episode season, rather than a nine episode season, would do this material more justice.
In continuing to explore the show’s central themes, writer Craig Mazin throws faith into the mix, unearthing a twisted new corner of the story world. “Fatherhood” takes on a whole new psychological meaning when you add in the Son and the Holy Spirit, but this moral absolutism can ultimately lead to the same things: hypocrisy, selfishness, and violence.
This episode’s centerpiece is the introduction of Scott Shepherd as David, a preacher and leader of a devout group of families based not far from where Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) are hiding. David is agreeable, understanding, and surprisingly self-aware for a man of God. You, like Ellie around the fire, are absorbed by his presumed humility. However, it isn’t long before his dark side emerges.
David uses his place in the faith to take advantage of other people and act on his own corrupt authority. This is a man who is so desperate to be a “father” to somebody, anybody, that he will resort to whatever it takes to feel that sense of pride. In some ways, he is the inverse of Joel, an actual father who struggles with the same inner conflict but is not yet ready to admit it to himself. David seems quite comfortable in doing just that, to the point that he will literally watch the world burn to assert dominance over a 14-year-old girl. It’s a brilliantly sinister character paired with a beautifully grounded performance from Shepherd that, while impressive, never reaches Hannibal Lector levels of absurdity.
However, if Scott Shepherd is the centerpiece, then Bella Ramsey is the main course. One tries to appreciate a beautiful television show without the need to lean into awards punditry, but it is impossible to watch Ellie’s final moments in this episode especially and not see an Emmy nomination as clear as day. Ramsey goes between countless modes from scene to scene, but it is when she is brought to her lowest moment that the performance shines the brightest.
In a fiery match to the death, Ellie snaps; she eviscerates David with his own butcher’s knife, blood splattering everywhere (including the camera) unendingly. Something deep within Ellie is fully let out in a moment that feels genuinely unhinged, like the artifice of television has completely gone away. It’s a moment that makes Episode 7’s final sequence feel like a cakewalk––though the juxtaposition between two wildly different losses of innocence only makes both episodes stronger in the end. When she leans into Joel’s arms, fully relinquishing any and all defenses in the early onset of serious trauma, Ellie feels forever changed.
Completing this episode’s trifecta of MVPs is one behind the camera. Ali Abbasi, an Iranian filmmaker who made a splash last year with his Oscar-shortlisted thriller Holy Spider, directs the season’s final two episodes. In what is unequivocally the strongest guest director work in the series thus far, Abbasi makes effective use of extreme close-ups and shallow depth of field to make some of the show’s most vulnerable scenes even more intimate.
In collaboration with Pascal’s brilliant restraint and commitment, some of the episode’s most effective moments are simply watching Joel’s eyes react to sounds. The kind of precision you see in these shots is almost miraculous from a production perspective, so selective in its focal range but perfect in conveying Joel’s frantic emotional state. The aforementioned blood on the lens is another beautiful directorial choice, one that gives the frame a whole new physical dimension as we simmer in Ellie’s actions in the burning dining hall. Moment after moment, Abbasi proves to have a strong technical eye that is channeled into conveying the complexities of these characters.
As we claw our way through the season’s home stretch, the stakes have never felt higher, the emotions have never felt deeper, and the themes have never felt clearer. Though it is perhaps a bit too plainly spoken, David illustrates the show’s theme when distilling the methodology of the cordyceps. “It secures its future with violence, if it must.”
We have seen so many different versions of this across the entire first season, but Episode 8’s many different portrayals of this within one single runtime––from Joel’s ruthless takedown of David’s men to David himself seducing Ellie into being his literal partner (ew)––highlight this show’s conceptual and emotional appeal. Despite one episode left to go, Mazin and Druckmann have more than proven this story’s viability in a cinematic format, and we are lucky to be getting more of it in the years to come.