‘The Last of Us’ Episode 8 Review: ‘When We Need’ – Spoilers
The penultimate episode of the season introduces another villain on a brutal journey through the valley of the shadow of death.
(Editor’s note: Included in the following review spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 8, “When We Are In Need”.)
When everyone is trying to save what they can in “The Last of Us,” the only thing that connects everyone is a name. One of the gradual streaks of the series was recognizing when people try to get their own. It’s often about self-preservation, like the kid in ambush from “Please Hold My Hand.” The same tactic is used by a man in the penultimate episode of the season, “When We Need It”. Staring down the barrel of a rifle and pointing at an extremely determined Ellie (Bella Ramsey), someone who has become an expert at staying alive offers a way to continue his streak. He identifies himself as David (Scott Shepherd). And at that moment he was already in the upper hand.
David is the latest in Joel and Ellie’s line of obstacles from the original “The Last of Us,” a ruthless, enigmatic leader who has found a way to make a new world work at his whims. He’s also the latest example of the show showing how this post-cordyceps reality gives people a chance to remake themselves, and that narrative can be the most powerful weapon in the arsenal. You can dissuade an entire raiding population from going near the fort, as Jackson’s people did by spreading ghostly myths about what lies just beyond the “River of Death.” Some rewrite their stories to atone. Others—like this figure hiding from his rigid, zealous followers in a deserted winter resort—give them the opportunity to create a hierarchy in their own image.
“When We Are In Need” takes longer than last week’s “Left Behind,” but the simple-objective spirit remains the same. Instead of Ellie undergoing a flashing experiment in a normal childhood, her and Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) search for food leads her into the path of David and James (Troy Baker, Joel from the original game). After David presents the names and targets, an episode-long game of psychological tug-of-war ensues, with both the leader and the rebel trying to maintain the upper hand.
Dávid begins with the false promise of the community fire, where he details his supposed past and his stated reasons for taking on the faith. Individually, he’s an interesting inverse of the riding party Joel and Ellie encounter outside of Jackson. Those horsemen came as a threat, but then dropped their outlaw cover to reveal the welcoming people beneath. David emerges under the guise of a shy man of God, only to continually withdraw and reveal himself to be a predator at heart.
This assumption reversal isn’t unique to “The Last of Us” at this point. It is also a fruitful way to present another view of what leadership looks like in a society without institutions. Kathleen gave us a glimpse into that life in Kansas City. Here, this new leadership structure is specifically intertwined with someone dangling biblical passages in front of their followers to bolster their credibility. David later describes his affinity for the fungus with its death grip on humanity, but there’s still a nagging vagueness about how much he believes his own preaching. There is a logical and cynical (and most likely) view that the book of Revelation is just a tool to achieve the cult leader’s goal. Shepherd puts JUST enough into these softer, gentler David moments to make you believe that if he stays in power as long as he does, he’s got what he’s delivering.
Creating an apocalyptic leader is as much about shadowing the followers as it is about the person they follow. Even with their dire situation, “When We Are In Need” paints a picture of a group of people who have managed to survive for so long while being virtually deprived of alternatives. Episode writer Craig Mazin doesn’t bother to portray David as a superhuman ball of charisma and confidence. Instead, “When We Are In Need” makes it clear that David is a master at making people believe that their wealth is tied to his well-being. Scanning the followers gathered in the lodge, there is not a satisfied smile or a contented expression on their face. Everyone was miserable, but David left them no alternative. They are stuck in a winter prison and there are no more phone calls.
Even in the final minutes of the episode, when David has every reason to believe that his hours in life are numbered, Shepherd here exercises a haunting and effective restraint. There is an ingrained theatricality to David’s management style that extends to his recruitment tactics. But even the most stereotypical lines that might come across as the blustering declarations of a bloodthirsty strongman (“So hungry for revenge? Get him.”) are instead delivered with the demeanor of a frustrated youth pastor. Shepherd portrays David as someone who isn’t afraid to abuse his followers in any way he chooses, but still maintains the false politeness of someone who doesn’t raise his voice in anger. This extends to his treatment of Ellie in the group’s makeshift cell. Leaving a severed ear inside your eye area is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen by accident. He becomes a more sinister figure when it’s clear that he’d rather lead people to dire conclusions than deliver cannibalistic news.
With Joel and Ellie (and the threats facing them), “The Last of Us” kept the transition going, even during episodes outside of the main timeline. “When We Are In Need” is another case of the series striving for directors to come to the world film community and leave their mark on the series. For most of its run time, “Kin” was able to push through the dread and remind both the characters and the audience that there really is something worth living for. A good part of this deft balance came from what is present in director Jasmila Žbanić’s other work. Here, Ali Abbasi offers something even more direct. Especially when it comes to rescuing Joel, all the injection and recovery sequences create a tension between them created by such closeness. It’s a stark contrast to the initial show, which was often content to be more distant from the plot itself. And like Žbanić, Abbasi is no stranger to confronting dire realities in his own films, including last year’s “Holy Spider,” another tale of a man who commits violence under the guise of divine instructions.
Together, Abbasi and Mazin allowed this ambiguity and distortion of purpose to develop. From the beginning of the episode, as David and his congregation work through anger and grief, the big sign behind him provides the other unspoken half of the episode’s title: “WHEN WE NEED IT, HE PROVIDES IN NEED.” As the hour goes on, that last pronoun seems more and more deliberately vague. David is the kind of leader who confuses his purpose with his privilege and finds a way to make the people gathered around him feel indebted to what he claims to provide. When the group finally tastes the venison stew, Abbasi lets the sound of the first few bites die down, showing everyone’s unique relationship to hunger. Many people attack their meals. David is content to sit in the middle of the room, where everyone can see him, with a bowl visibly full of his portion. He’s first among equals in a way that the episode gradually builds up to until his conceit catches up with him.
The fall begins with a broken finger delivered by Ellie herself. He only reveals his name after he was able to take it from him. Well, revealing his identity is more of a show of strength than a means of peacemaking. A moment later, hovering over his torso with a flesh cleft, he plays his final card by revealing the scar on his forearm. From then on, David’s fate was pretty much sealed, speaking almost became a liability. David gets closer to the more explicit predator he kept reasonably cloaked for most of the episode. If anything, it’s like he’s admitting he’s lost. As Ellie grabs the bard and sends David away for good, Abassi remains focused on him and his reaction. The smoke and flames behind him (and, theoretically, the splash on the lens) wash everything out as he loses himself in a mist of stabbing.
Then a revived Joel emerges, ready to take her out of the burning building. Their traditional roles were reversed. It was usually Ellie who helped Joel find relief and comfort after he was killed to keep them both safe. It’s the other way around now. Overly pretty or not, it’s also more paternal for Joel, who calls Ellie “little girl” as he did his own daughter in his final moments. The lodge presentation scenes are a nice counterbalance to the ugly vision of fatherhood. After weeks of hearing nothing from Henry and Tommy about the nature of fatherhood and family, Joel takes this responsibility in his own way. As the two limp into the mountain horizon, they face the horrors of the finale just as they have since leaving Boston: together.
“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and can be streamed on HBO Max.
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