Note: My name is Gene Park. I’m a reporter covering gaming culture for The Washington Post. I’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who has played all the games (more than once).
The famous winter section of the video game version of “The Last of Us” is finally here in the penultimate episode of Craig Mazin’s HBO adaptation.
We open with a shot of a lakeside resort town, and a preacher reading Revelations from the Bible to his flock of extremely sad and tired-looking people. A little girl asks when she’ll be able to bury her father. The preacher, named David, says it’ll have to wait till spring. David speaks to another follower named James outside, played by Troy Baker, who portrayed Joel Miller in the video games. David may seem like a run-of-the-mill preacher, but his interaction with James suggests an insidious side. When David asks James if he’s still “with me,” Baker’s James barely nods his head, letting out a weak “yeah.” Baker’s quiet acting here tells us that James is either scared of David, or beholden to him in a way that feels impossible to escape. The same seems to apply to the rest of David’s flock.
Joel is still recovering from the injury he sustained two episodes ago, and Ellie decides to hunt for food as they’ve been reduced to eating scraps of beef jerky. This entire hunting sequence is lifted from the video game, giving both players and viewers an opportunity to see Ellie awkwardly transition from prey to predator. To her disbelief — and thanks to Joel’s earlier training — she hits a deer. The deer’s corpse is discovered by David and James, who went hunting because their town’s rations are running low.
Before they can take the deer, Ellie holds them at gunpoint and demands they move away. David appears surprised at Ellie’s age — and probably her gender, too — since she was able to sneak up on both men silently. The ensuing negotiation sequence is also lifted line by line from the game, with Ellie attempted to trade for medicine. David asks James to go back to town. James’s face betrays the fact that he disagrees, but he plays along anyway, leaving David and Ellie alone in a nearby house to warm up beside a fire.
Here, David and Ellie get to know each other. In the game, this scene was interrupted by an action sequence with infected zombies. In the show, we instead get some background on David’s faith, and how he became a preacher. He claims to have found God after the world ended, and he left the Pittsburgh quarantine zone with a group of people; they eventually settled thousands of miles away at this location.
Then, David drops the bomb: The men who attacked Joel and Ellie in episode 6 were from his group, and the man who got his neck snapped by Joel was the father of that little girl from the episode’s beginning. James returns with the medicine but holds Ellie at gunpoint. David insists that James lower the gun and give Ellie the medicine. James questions David: Are they really going to let Ellie get away?
“The Last of Us” has been a great stage for acting with faces. Scott Shepherd’s David and Bella Ramsey’s Ellie both do exceptional work here. David’s smirks and wrinkles belie his true intentions, while you can clearly see Ellie’s guard being let down … before it comes right back up after the realization that she’s in trouble. Ellie quickly returns to Joel to inject his injury with penicillin. They snuggle together.
David returns to his town’s makeshift food hall, a former steakhouse, with the deer. His whole flock is quiet and he shoots a glance at James. It’s clear that James excitedly told everyone in town that they found their friend’s killer. David reassures everyone that they’ll seek justice, and then the little girl speaks up: “You should kill them,” she says. David slaps the girl with a vicious backhand, our first overt sign that David lords over these people with abuse and gaslighting. Everyone sits down and eats their meal. James continues to be uncomfortable, for reasons we’ll discover later.
David’s town is a sharp contrast to Tommy’s Jackson, Wyoming haven. In Jackson, where everyone shares everything, children laughed, engaged in art, and there was liquor, active shops and food. They were on the verge of raising hogs for bacon. Meanwhile, under David’s leadership, the children are crying, and the adults’ bodies are wiry from hunger. If Jackson is the picture of success, David’s group is a portrait of a failing society.
Morning comes, and David’s group has tracked Ellie back to the suburb where she and Joel are holed up. Ellie arms Joel with a knife; he still seems out of it and unable to fend for himself. Ellie rides on horseback and fires shots at the group to lure them away from Joel’s hiding place. This attempt fails, as James shoots the horse. James and the rest of David’s men intend to kill Ellie, but David stops them abruptly. He seems to care for Ellie’s well-being to some extent, and insists on bringing her back to town, while leaving some men to hunt for Joel.
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Little do these men know that Joel has recovered, at least a bit. Fans of the game have complained that Joel feels less violent in the show than he was in the games, which makes sense; action games typically have their protagonists kill hundreds of people. But they should be pleased with this episode, in which Joel methodically and carefully dispatches the three men hunting him down. He immediately murders one of the men who was able to find his location.
Ellie awakens to find herself caged, under David’s gaze. David pleads with her to tell him her name, but Ellie refuses. David tries to work his magic, aiming to convince Ellie to join his group. He gaslights her, suggesting she has no other choice.
We switch back to Joel’s perspective as he incapacitates two more men looking for him. Here we have a mirror image of his episode 6 stickup with the Native American couple. In that scene, Joel was a bit more gentle. Here, we see the full extent of Joel’s “interrogation” methods. It’s just torture; this is yet another scene lifted straight from the game. This is the moment where it becomes crystal clear to the audience that Joel isn’t exactly a wholesome father. He murders both men — despite their cooperation. One has to wonder whether this outburst of violence comes from Joel realizing that he has been unable to protect Ellie, yet again.
We cut back to Ellie realizing that David’s group has been eating human flesh after she notices an ear — and other chunks of human flesh — on the floor. David claims its out of desperation and poor decision-making. Ellie interrogates David about his motivations. David said it was cordyceps, not God, that helped him teach the ways of the world. The fungal infection isn’t “evil,” he says; it is simply nature doing its job. This inspired David to take an “any means necessary” approach to surviving, which includes holding a “violent heart.”
David entreats Ellie to join him in leading the group. It feels like a warped mirror image of the FEDRA officer praising Ellie’s knack for “leadership.” He places his hand gently on Ellie’s, his pedophilic intentions laid bare. Ellie touches back — a deeply discomforting moment — before we realize Ellie is lulling David into a false sense of security. She breaks his finger and tries to take his keys but fails. David gives up on changing Ellie’s mind and leaves. Ellie realizes she’s got no way out of this.
While Joel heads toward the town in search of Ellie, David and James return to chop Ellie up into “tiny little pieces.” In another scene lifted from the game, Ellie’s fast thinking leads her to finally declare to strangers that she’s infected. It’s an admission so shocking it keeps the men from killing her, especially since Ellie was able to take a bite out of David while trying to escape. Distracted by how “real” her infection looks, James gets a butcher knife to the neck as Ellie escapes into the steakhouse.
With the doors locked, Ellie grabs a piece of burning wood to set fire to the steakhouse. David and Ellie play a fatal game of cat and mouse, a gameplay sequence taken straight from the game. The show mimics the gameplay of Ellie sneaking around silently and arming herself to attack David. David’s lines are also straight from the game, including: “No one who’s infected fights this hard to stay alive.” David then says that he’ll play as Ellie’s “father.” You can sense the outrage and disgust build up within Ramsey’s performance as she lashes out at David with a steak knife. She lands a stab, causing David to drop his machete.
David climbs on top of Ellie and clearly intends to sexually assault her. Ellie screams in terror, but she’s able to grab David’s machete and turns it on him. Ramsey’s Ellie loses herself completely as she stabs David dozens of times. Ellie’s face, and the camera, is doused in blood. Ramsey’s scream reminds the audience that she was once Lady Mormont of “Game of Thrones,” and if there were any doubts about her casting, Ramsey’s performance in this episode should finally erase them.
Ellie leaves the burning building in a daze, covered in blood. Joel finds her but Ellie screams in retaliation as she’s still in a primal mode of survival. Joel assures her — “It’s me” — and embraces her completely. He calls her “baby girl,” the same term of affection he held for Sarah. With Joel’s acceptance of Ellie as his daughter complete, the two walk off into the winter haze and the episode ends.
Some notes and observations:
- It was only implied in the game that David was some sort of cult leader. His pedophilia was just hinted at. Moments before his death in the show, however, Scott Shepherd’s David is clearly about to unzip his pants — a horrifying action that was not in the game. While he was easy to hate in the game, he is unforgivably detestable in the show, all while seeming more benevolent early in the episode.
- Troy Baker is clearly a talented actor, but his Southern drawl here sounds a bit close to the original Joel from the game. For veterans of the game, it’ll be amusing to hear the voice of Joel come from a completely different character.
- It’s also important to note that when Ellie kills David, in the game her stabbing is interrupted by Joel. In the show, Ellie is able to freely maul David’s body without Joel stopping her. It’s obvious that this decision was made to further reinforce that Ellie did not need Joel to “save” or “protect” her — not even from her own declining mental health. Ellie’s rage is displayed unabated and without a filter.