This entry contains spoilers for the eighth episode, “The Last Of Us”, as well as the video game source material.
When I think of The Last Of Us version of the game, I tend to immediately think of two things: first, the story’s stellar ending, which is still talked about, elevates it from a great game to a masterpiece that transcends the genre. Secondly, it’s the most heartbreaking moment on the edge of the seat that occurs in one of the final chapters.
This is the scene where Ellie, alone but far from helpless without Joel, comes face to face with a brutal cannibal named David. The duel between them in an abandoned winter resort is one of the most difficult, scariest and most intense parts of the game, the kind of gameplay that inspires held breaths and cries of surprise. While the TV show steps up the clash between Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and David (Scott Shepherd) a bit, it still delivers the horror and intensity that comes from a game of cat and mouse with stakes that couldn’t be higher.
In Naughty Dog’s 2013 game, David’s threat is twofold. As a man, he feels more disturbing and dangerous than any infected; he is a cannibal, cult leader, and would-be rapist. The resort colony represents a side of humanity from which Ellie has been mercifully protected. The Kansas City (Pittsburgh) mob has been ruthless, but David and his ilk don’t seem to have much connection to humanity. He uses the classic commander line of protecting what is his as an excuse to inflict violence and impose his will on others, and while the group’s cannibalism was out of desperation, he still seems eager to take advantage of society’s broken boundaries.
The resort scene is horrific, scream-inducing
But David and Ellie’s clash is also terrifying for reasons that have little to do with his character and everything to do with relentless gameplay. In the game, David (played by Nolan North) attacks Ellie (Ashley Johnson) as she exits the resort, throwing himself onto the screen in a terrifying leap that sets the tone for the frantic climactic moments to come. Much of “The Last Of Us” involves stealth gameplay that requires players to sneak around without being detected, but the box scene adds a harrowing layer to the mission as players controlling Ellie must lunge forward at perfectly timed moments to stab David or try steal his keys. It doesn’t help that the villain has a chaotic pace, possibly making him suddenly turn a corner and see Ellie. The fast-burning fire that clogs the restaurant with smoke seems to be an extra ticking clock on the stage.
Without the scream-inducing experience of being the person responsible for Ellie’s fate, the HBO series has to work overtime to make the resort scene as terrifying as it is in the game. The adaptation succeeds in large part thanks to Shepherd and Ramsey’s performances: the pair may only have a few minutes of gory hide-and-seek on-screen, but they make the most of it. Shepherd is deeply disturbing as a version of David who embodies dark patriarchal authority; as he continues to hunt Ellie, even as fire writhes through the building, it seems consistent with the actions of a sick man who would feel “humiliated” by a teenager rejecting his advances. “You don’t know how good I am!” he screams, which is usually not the kind of thing good men have to shout at cringing girls.
Humanity’s potential for darkness
Ramsey matches Shepherd’s rhythm for rhythm: Ellie stays calm in the face of danger before transforming into a spitting, maddening force of nature. Her poker face certainly makes the sequence scarier for anyone who hasn’t played the games, as it’s hard to tell what plan she has, if any. The program taught us to admit that anyone can die at any time and that this world is not safe for children. When Ellie looks at David’s machete while he admits – the moment her stomach twists that presumably sends her into action – that he wants to keep it and “teach” it, it seems entirely possible that this show could end her journey in some senseless way, right here and now.
Fortunately, Ellie escapes, although viewers on the edge of their seats may not be so lucky. This isn’t the first scary moment in ‘The Last Of Us’, and with season two already greenlit, it’s sure not to be the last. But en route to the Season 1 finale, Ellie and David’s showdown remains a singularly nerve-wracking horror chapter that never shrinks from the darkest depths of humanity.
The Last of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO and HBO Max.