The Last of Us Season One Episode 8
“When We Are in Need” Review
Central to any post-apocalyptic narrative is an exploration of morality, and what happens when society’s shared assumptions and practices are thrown to the metaphorical (and sometimes very real) wolves. The best of these – from Dawn of the Dead to Mad Max: Fury Road and Children of Men, among many others – use the breakdown of society and its many communities as both action and metaphor, providing rich subtext for the inquisitive, reflective, and often violent realizations these works of art come to. “When We Are in Need”, The Last of Us‘ penultimate freshman offering, is another attempt by HBO’s hit series to offer its own examination of morality – and unfortunately, is the most one-dimensional, illogical episode of the series, offering a cartoonish, weightless antagonist as a primer for the series’ most brutal rejection of humanity yet.
“When We Are in Need” – written by co-creator Craig Mazin – opens with an introduction to a community in Silver Lake, led by preacher David (Scott Shepard) and his presumed second-in-command James (Troy Baker, who played Joel in the video games). As he preaches from the Book of Revelations, The Last of Us lays out the stakes of an isolated community facing their own extinction, as they’re running out of food in the middle of a harsh winter.
From here, The Last of Us immediately begins to throw logic to the wind for the sake of offering what it thinks is a fascinating morality play; once Ellie runs into David and James while hunting in the woods for food, “When We Are In Need,” the episode quickly becomes about what’s going on in Silver Lake, and what kind of leader David is trying to be for his people (though if they just had someone from their group killed… why would they send their #1 and #2 out on a hunt? Not really a major point, but indicative of a trend).
That leader, The Last of Us wants to think, is someone conflicted by their sense of duty, and possibly clouded by their position of existential influence; like Midnight Mass, “When We Are in Need” is an explores life or death through the lens of a shattered soul – but instead of doing the legwork to build a compelling, complex character struggling with the necessary demons of leadership in TLOU‘s world, “When We Are in Need” throws out the series most one-dimensional character yet, a sneering, doe-eyed snake who, from the first scene he appears in, is given an air of distrust by both writer and director (Ali Abbasi), making it clear from the beginning that all is not as it seems – and also, that its attempts at presenting conflicts of morality lack ambiguity (kind of a critical component if that’s what kind of story you are going to tell, no?).
The transparent setup makes the execution feel rather sloppy; David is not just an imposter, but a deluded religious zealot with a “violent heart” (his words), who is fine with eating people, physically abusing women to show his power… and when the opportunity presents itself, raping children. Like The Last of Us‘ other attempts at nuance, David is a remarkably thin character, one whose moral quandry seems rather idiotic when we just saw a teenager hunt and kill a wild animal with relative ease.
(Notice how only three people out of the entire town went hunting, suggesting this is just a lazy group of people who expect everything to be hand-fed to them. The attempts at “worldbuilding” with this community are laughable, at best).
The Last of Us is clearly trying to juxtapose David and Joel here; what does it mean to “do what you need to do for survive” when you’re the leader of a community? But instead of offering us a human with real moral conflicts, David is just a monster with literal devil flames shooting out of his eyeballs, leering through each moment and monologue with all the textual subtlety of a popup book written for a three year old. There is no balance, no internal conflict to consider here; David is pure evil, which is both a lazy reflection on religious zealousy, and a story that frankly adds nothing to the story or the journey of its main characters – there’s no comparing Joel, a character capable of compassion, with David’s rantings and decision-making.
We’ve already seen Ellie have to kill a child, and violently lose the first girl she ever kissed: the result, where Ellie hacks David and James to death with a cleaver, is not as illuminating as it might seem, since the line’s already been crossed with her character. It doesn’t really work as a driving factor for her character, either: the last 15 minutes are just reinforcing previous episodes’ resolutions with a more blunt, violent series of visuals, which does nothing to enhance the supposed core stories of its characters, or the desolate nature of the world around it.
The only answer The Last of Us seems to have for anything is either barbarism or outright narrative manipulation, a world where everything is always, and immediately, too good to be true. There is nothing in this episode to break that very obvious pattern; so while the images of David standing behind his burning resort is certainly evocative, it is evocative in a way that feels simplistic and safe, leaning into the most obvious, superficial conclusions it could reach about its supposedly deep, dimensional exploration of the human psyche, what breaks it – and of course, what holds it together.
There are definitely individual moments I enjoyed, especially in the first half, where Nadim Carlsen’s cinematography elevates a quiet first half hour, with some truly evocative images of Ellie trying to navigate survival, both offensive and defensive, on her first solo hunt. But by the time Joel’s magical recovery occurs and he proceeds to torture and slew a group of David’s men in the final ten minutes (killing them even after there was really no reason to – bashing in a dude’s head with a steel pipe after he told you the information you wanted seems a bit harsh?), The Last of Us makes clear it is throwing nuance to the wind, in favor of some indulgent, superficial brooding on the nature of good vs. evil – or I guess in the case of Joel and David, evil and more evil?
It’s not entirely clear what “When We Are in Need” is trying to say that other episodes haven’t already done, a violent interlude with no bearing on the overall narrative except “Ellie did a super violence” because a guy was trying to rape her in a house that was on fire (in case it wasn’t clear enough he was a Bad Guy). I thought Kathleen would be the nadir of The Last of Us and the storytelling around antagonists; turns out giving more time to define its baddies does not necessarily make it better.
A physically broken Joel and a mentally devastated Ellie limping off into the woods at the episode’s conclusion is a fitting image for the experience of enduring eight hours of this series; everyone is worse for wear, nobody feels good about themselves, and the only thing to look forward to is the dulling of pain as time scars over the wounds. Like David’s leadership, “When We Are in Need” is not an episode of television looking to inspire an audience – or, as a series, aspire to anything beyond its own subsistence, to ensure that it hits the big beats of the video game without leaving room for any of the smaller, in between moments that would make some of these stories feel more dimensional, or in the very least, more consequential.
The only surprise of “When We Are in Need” is how willing The Last of Us is willing to repeat itself over and over, treating theme like Ellie treats David’s face with her cleaver. It screams at bloodcurdling volume at the audience as its only measure of “this is emotional and meaningful”, and then asks us to revel in its gloriously horrific resolutions.
Harrowing? Yes. Predictable? Absolutely. Satisfying? Though many fans may revel in the depiction of The Last of Us‘s most despicable monster, it feels like low-hanging fruit for a series that’s just a little bit high on its own supply. It lacks texture, from the faceless mob of mealy-mouthed townspeople (who are thoroughly invisible, save for two scenes) to the show’s pretty one-sided view of religion, humanity, and how the two mix together in this world – which makes “When We Are in Need” feel rigid, hollow, and underwhelming in its conclusions, especially as a loud, expressive penultimate episode of the series.