Enlarge / He looks nice… (credit: HBO)
New episodes of The Last of Us are premiering on HBO every Sunday night, and Ars’ Kyle Orland (who’s played the games) and Andrew Cunningham (who hasn’t) will be talking about them here every Monday morning. While these recaps don’t delve into every single plot point of the episode, there are obviously heavy spoilers contained within, so go watch the episode first if you want to go in fresh.
: Up until now, for the most part, I think the Last of Us
TV show has done a good job fleshing out the game’s story without really ruining the key moments. That didn’t really happen with this episode.
In the games, we get a quick cut from the events of episode 6 to Ellie hunting wild game in the snow. As we take direct control of Ellie for the first time, we don’t even know if the unseen Joel is alive or dead.
We also don’t know anything about the mild-mannered stranger named David that Ellie stumbles upon while hunting. He even seems like a plausible Joel replacement at points during the early, amenable parts of their in-game team-up.
Seeing everything from Ellie’s perspective really heightens the tension and mystery of David’s whole arc, and I feel like the show kind of ruined that pacing here.
: Even with no knowledge of how this plays out in the game, I agree that this episode felt super rushed and uneven in a way that makes me more frustrated about last week’s flashback episode
. Not that last week’s episode was bad at all! But this arc clearly wanted another episode to breathe, like the Kansas City arc got
. Instead we have to cram all this stuff into a single hour.
David suffers the most. It’s like the show needed to stuff him full of red flags to make sure that viewers really didn’t like him or feel bad for him, but it also makes him into a cartoon character in a show where most of the antagonists have already been a little flat.
Kyle: The whole preacher subplot is completely new to the show, as far as I can tell, as is David’s baffling vision of a violent teenager as a partner in leading the flock. I can see why they wanted to give his turn to cannibalism some grounding, but yeah, it’s another situation where the red flags are a little too overt.
: Yeah, in a TV show, there are some places where I am more willing and able to suspend disbelief—like when Joel goes from laid-out-on-his-back-delirious-with-infection to full-on Rambo-killing-spree in the space of 45 minutes. A more realistic recovery would take a long time to show and to watch! Bo-ring!
But I did not believe for even one fraction of one second that Ellie was in any danger of joining up with this creepy fundamentalist/mushroom cultist/child-hitter/cannibal guy, and it makes it weirder that the last sequence between them is framed as this big emotional showdown.
And also… this community had a lot of other people in it? Where did they go? A more organic and satisfying version might have had David’s own community seeing what a creep he is and turning on him, rather than a big dramatic one-on-one confrontation between David and Ellie in the world’s most flammable restaurant. It doesn’t sound like that’s how it goes in the games, but it also sounds like the character is just handled fundamentally differently.
: Not getting any resolution to what happens to this community of people that have now had their cult leader violently killed does seem like a pretty big dangling plot thread.
Here’s my main question for someone going in fresh: Did you ever feel like David was potentially just a nice guy and someone that Ellie could justifiably trust and/or let down her guard in front of? I feel like the game went to great pains to push the player in that direction for a while before the heel turn, and it just didn’t work for me here. Then again, I knew some of David’s dark secrets from the get-go…
: I don’t think the audience is meant to believe that David could be a good guy at any point. The scene where you meet him is too full of meaningful looks and ominous pauses, and obvious fear on the part of the other people in the community.
The first scene where David and Ellie meet, on the other hand—I could see it! David (played by Scott Shepherd, a fairly prolific character actor who has one of those “what have I seen him in?” faces) has a certain reassuring avuncular charisma to him. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen too many Bad Guy markers from him, even before you find out that he’s been reading To Serve Man.
Kyle: Where this episode does follow the games pretty closely is in leaning more toward the “torture porn” side of the equation than any part of the story so far. Not that there hasn’t been plenty of violence previously, but seeing Joel torture and kill two prisoners without any remorse and Ellie’s own almost-chopping-and-revenge really takes it to a new level. It also makes you look at both characters in a disturbing new light, I think.
: Joel is clearly being driven both by his dawning acceptance of Ellie-as-daughter figure (his “baby girl” when they finally meet back up is extremely loaded) and his established trust-no-one views of life post-apocalypse. But that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to watch. This is a dated reference, but I was reminded of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, from the War On Terror-era show 24
. Sure, he tortures people, and sure, he seems just a hair too enthusiastic about it, but he gets results!!
And you’re right that Ellie’s butchering of David at the end of the episode goes on just a bit too long for comfort. I’m just not sure what to make of it. Surely Ellie has been traumatized as much as she could possibly need to be for story purposes. It’s not as though David was close enough to her to really betray her. Between the two of them, Joel and Ellie do enough violence this episode to sour their tearful reunion a bit. Which is not really where I wanted to be heading into the season finale of a show I have otherwise mostly liked.
Kyle: There’s definitely a certain “War on Terror” mindset that creeps into the narrative from decades past, for sure.
Andrew: That was where society ended, something the show occasionally references but doesn’t pick at too much. We’ve had one 9/11 reference and one Pearl Jam album with a lot of anti-Bush stuff on it, so presumably the US had invaded Iraq six months before society fell apart.
Kyle: Now I’m wondering if Osama bin Laden’s cave hideout was relatively safe from the Infected. Depends how much cordyceps-infused flour they imported, I guess?
Andrew: It does kind of make me want to see more about how the world outside the US is handling the apocalypse. Maybe we would have, back in the old days of 22-episode seasons.
: Which gets into what I think has become a pretty big pacing problem with the show. In the games, new characters would pop in and stick around for a while, and you never knew precisely when they would pop out again (usually with a violent death). Here, the structure means the pattern of “here’s a new character, they will be dead by the end of this episode (or maybe the next one)” has become way too obvious…
All that death has been building toward the big finale, though. Without getting too spoilery, I wonder if you even remember what Joel and Ellie are trekking for/toward at this point, and if you have any big predictions for the final episode?
: They still have to get her magic blood out to some Firefly-affiliated scientists! The only thing I’m confident enough to assert is that they’re finally going to get where they’re going, and the scientists are going to end up being weirdo creeps who aren’t totally on the level.
I would love to be pleasantly surprised! Maybe the show has settled into this predictable rhythm to make it especially mind-blowing next week when all the scientists end up being super chill and professional.
: Not to set your expectations too high, but the conclusion of The Last of Us Part One
is what raises it to the level of “All Time Great” game
for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing this team of actors and producers tackle it.
Andrew: It’s too late, you’ve set my expectations too high! If I don’t like the finale, it’ll be all your fault.