REVIEW: ‘The Last of Us’ Separates Shepherd From Sheep

The latest episode of HBO’s The Last of Us implies there are two types of people in the apocalypse – natural-born leaders and those that follow them. Or, as the Machiavellian cannibal preacher David explains it, fearless shepherds and their simple sheep. This week’s installment of Craig Mazin‘s acclaimed video game adaptation is almost entirely about one thing: proving Bella Ramsey‘s Ellie is among the former, and giving her the most traumatic fulfillment of the status it possibly can. Trapped for the first time without Pedro Pascal‘s Joel, a lone Ellie is forced to fight her way out of an overwhelmingly sticky situation, and the resulting hour of television is a striking look at the immense brutality of a world gone mad.

Titled When We Are In Need, the eighth episode of The Last of Us is another incredible chapter in Ellie’s long developmental journey. Thus far, throughout her travels, Ellie has been consistently warned about the horrors of humanity, and the far more monstrous consequences their actions have when compared to the Infected. Even so, she has continually underestimated the threat of people, often willing to engage in risky interactions that Joel would not. Until this point, it’s served as a sign of her age. A childlike innocence obtained from a youth behind protected walls. When We Are In Need, however, aims to break that innocence, and it does so with sickening barbarity and some pretty bleak implications.

If the first half of the season was about solidifying the importance of Ellie’s relationship with Joel, then the second half has been about the validation of her capabilities as an individual. She is a survivor, and she will do anything to survive. Not only that, but she’ll do anything she can to make sure the people she loves survive too. This makes her a force, and one not so easily reckoned with. It’s an attribute that almost everyone she’s come across has been able to see. FEDRA military officers, Storm Reid‘s Riley, Merle Dandridge‘s Marlene, Anna Torv‘s Tess, Rutina Wesley‘s Maria, and now Scott Shepherd‘s David have all found themselves impressed by – and afraid of – what Ellie can do. The only real question has been whether or not Ellie can see her potential herself, having always been able to mask it behind the protection of others.

When We Are In Need does an excellent job of giving Ellie’s demons a shocking coming-out party, effectively shattering any illusions she may have had about the post-apocalyptic world and the people living in it. The slow building of tension between her and David is a masterful way of making her ultimate, violent breakdown feel more jarring and impactful. Had the episode taken the same route as the game, with Ellie slaughtering most of David’s forces before their climactic showdown, the viciousness of her eventual pyrrhic victory would have been undercut by each of the numerous preceding kills. Instead, viewers are made to watch in horror as Ellie unreservedly chops a man to pieces, tragically revealing herself to be exactly what said man thought she was. It’s a disturbing moment of triumph that promises to haunt the show, and its audience, going forward.

On the other side of the same clever coin, allowing Joel to take the role of “resort slasher” role from Ellie helps reaffirm his dark side to the audience, who may have been growing too accustomed to his warm, paternal tendencies the last few weeks. Joel is not an altruistic person, a defining trait that the series had begun to stray away from in recent episodes. Reminding viewers of this also has the effect of mirroring his actions with Ellie’s. A man too far gone, and a daughter on the verge of joining him. Again, these characters and the relationship between them define The Last of Us in every way, and it’s rather admirable how Mazin and franchise creator Neil Druckmann can so expertly keep finding ways to make this apparent.

Ingeniously, however, Joel is not the only character used to reflect Ellie in the episode. David, played to sadistic perfection by the aptly named Shepherd, is essentially another warning for her future. A self-proclaimed shepherd, he correctly points out that Ellie is dangerous, and is likely to one day become a leader herself. His downfall, aside from being an obviously terrible human, is not realizing the intensity of Ellie’s attachment to Joel, who she is already modeling herself after. While there are likely very few timelines in which Ellie ever joins David’s legacy, his commitment to doing whatever he deems necessary to survive and keep his followers alive – admittedly, through cannibalism – is not something foreign to Ellie. Their conflict, and his demise, is a brilliantly disgusting way for the story to tackle Ellie’s growth, and hint at where she could end up down the line.

With only one episode left, it will be interesting to see how the themes introduced and continued in When We Are In Need play out. The established ending of the original game, on which this first season is based, seems logical when considering what’s been set up here, but there’s still time for the series to pull off a surprise and give viewers something they aren’t expecting.

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