The Last of Us Recap: The Hunger Club

The Last of Us

When We Are In Need
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

The Last of Us

When We Are In Need
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Photo: HBO

It’s hard to end an episode on a bleaker note than it begins when it opens with images of snow blowing in across a frozen lake and a voice-over reciting a verse from the biblical book of Revelation, but somehow “When We Are In Need,” pulls it off. The penultimate episode of the first season of The Last of Us exposes our heroes to yet another community’s solution to the problem of living in a cordyceps-infected world, but instead of the dystopia and chaos of previous encounters (and, of course, the shining beacon of the Jackson commune), they find a pure horror show. The residents of Silver Lake live in terror and despair, albeit terror and despair disguised as faith. And, by the episode’s end, it’s impossible to tell where their fear ends and their belief begins.

It doesn’t seem that way at first. Until a mid-episode tipping point, “When We Are In Need” performs a brilliant balancing act, one accomplished largely via the performance of Scott Shepherd, the latest in a string of remarkable guest stars who show up to take over an episode or two. Shepherd plays David, the leader of the town of Silver Lake (though we’ll learn later that the word “town” isn’t quite accurate). A soft-spoken man of God who seems like the real deal, he presides over his small flock in a converted steakhouse, and he’s clearly used to dealing with difficult times.

And times are quite difficult in Silver Lake. The purpose of the gathering that opens the episode is to mourn the loss of one of their own and, if possible, comfort the departed’s wife and weeping child. David holds their attention with words of comfort even when comfort is in short supply. The ground is too cold to bury the body. It will have to wait until spring. Speaking to his downcast chief lieutenant, James (Troy Baker), outside brings even more disturbing news: They’ve got maybe a week of rations left, and the hunting prospects look dim. What’s more, David’s starting to wonder if James has lost faith. James tries to reassure him that’s not the case but can only muster limited enthusiasm.

It’s not clear at this point where Silver Lake lies or what it has to do with Joel and Ellie, who remain holed up in their suburban Colorado home. Joel no longer seems to be knocking at death’s door, but death’s door is certainly in the same neighborhood as Joel at the moment, and Ellie knows it. Stepping outside nervously, perhaps wondering if they really shook the attackers they met on campus, she decides to hunt for food but trips before she can even get off a shot at a passing rabbit. Undeterred, Ellie fares much better with an impressive-looking buck, delivering a fatal wound, though one that doesn’t take him out immediately. Before she can track down her prey, others find it: David and James.

When Ellie catches up with them, she ably manages the situation as if she’s been conducting standoffs all her life. She doesn’t want to hurt them, but she doesn’t trust them, and she wants what’s hers. David gently tries to defuse the situation, first telling her he’s from a large group of hungry people — Ellie counters with an unconvincing bluff that she’s coming from a similar situation — then reasonably points out that she won’t be able to drag the buck back on her own. Maybe they can strike a bargain?

The magic word is “medicine.” Ellie needs antibiotics, and David has them back at his place. She’s unwilling to follow David back to his people, but she agrees to let James go back while she holds David at gunpoint, a bargain agreeable to all parties (even if James is looking for a sign that he should do something else). Besides, it gives David a chance to talk to Ellie.

Talking is what he does best. He’s kind and charismatic, and as they sit by the fire, he offers Ellie, who’s refrained from telling David her name, a place in his group that she wastes no time refusing, saying, “You’re inviting me to your hunger club? Thanks,” before asking David if he’s the leader of “some weird cult thing.” David shrugs it off as he explains, yes, he is a preacher in a tone that suggests he knows she has a lot of preconceptions about what that means, and he’s prepared to short-circuit them.

For starters, Ellie can’t believe anyone can believe in God after the end of the world. “I actually started believing after the world ended,” he counters, and Ellie’s resistance appears to melt a bit. At the very least, she’s willing to listen to his story. Pre-cordyceps, he taught math. After the fall of the Pittsburgh QZ, he assembled a flock and made a pilgrimage west, settling down and then moving on when raiders showed up to harass them. But his followers grew, and David attributes this to divine grace. “I believe everything happens for a reason,” David says, and though Ellie smirks, he offers proof in the form of a story.

His people have been experiencing a rough winter, leading them to cast a wider net in the search for food, which can be dangerous. In fact, they recently lost a member, a father with a mourning child who had the misfortune of encountering a “crazy man” traveling with a “little girl.” And at that moment, Ellie realizes David isn’t quite who he seems to be. It won’t be the last such moment before “When We Are In Need” ends.

The episode (written by Craig Mazin and directed, like next week’s finale, by Ali Abbasi) stages David’s turn so well it’s easy, like, Ellie, to start to trust him, at least a little. Maybe he is what he’s saying, and even if Ellie doesn’t believe in God, she does believe in a world in which people still care for one another. She’s seen it in Jackson, and, more immediately, she’s felt it with Joel. But even if good people remain in the world, it’s now clear David isn’t one of them. Even worse, this revelation is accompanied by the arrival of James, who gets the drop on her. Nonetheless, David, over James’s objections, lets Ellie walk away from their second standoff and even her take the medicine with her (though she has to leave the deer behind). He even offers, for the second time, to let Ellie join them. This seems to be an issue of some importance to David.

Ellie won’t be taking him up on the offer, at least not right away. She returns to Joel, who’s still in a stupor, takes her best guess about how to give him penicillin, and hopes it works. They’re in dire straits, but things aren’t much better back at Silver Lake, either, where supplies are running low, and one of David’s lieutenants brings a tub of what he hesitantly calls “venison” to the kitchen. The meat goes into the stew, and the stew goes to David’s followers. But even with the promise of going to bed with full bellies, they seem a bit underwhelmed when their leader arrives toting Ellie’s buck.

In the scene that follows, what looked ambiguous before becomes clear: If they began following David out of reverence, that crossed over into fear long ago. Now that fear is starting to curdle into doubt with the rumor that David found the girl accompanying the killer and let her go. David promises he’ll mete out justice tomorrow, but when Hannah, the daughter of the man Joel killed, angrily says David should kill both of them, he responds with a vicious backhand before reminding her she needs to respect him as her “father” even if her actual father is no longer with them. After David takes his seat, everyone eats with gusto.

In spite of the doubt he seems to have inspired, David sets out to make good on his promise the next day, and it doesn’t take long for him and his gang of followers to find the neighborhood in which Ellie and Joel are hiding. David has specific orders: He wants Joel dead but wants Ellie alive so she can join him at Silver Lake. For James, this is a problem. She’s another mouth to feed, and though she’ll likely die on her own, “maybe,” James says, “that’s God’s will.” David’s silent reply suggests that he’s the one in touch with God’s will, not James, and James lowers his eyes in deference.

Meanwhile, Ellie has no intention of being taken alive or letting them find Joel. After giving Joel a knife and telling him her plans, she sets off on horseback as a decoy to lure them away. It doesn’t work for long, and after James takes out Ellie’s horse (RIP) he comes this close to killing Ellie against David’s wishes (but with the encouragement of some other followers). David’s hold on the group might be loosening, but when he shows up to prevent Ellie’s murder, it’s clear he still wields it for now. With Ellie in his arms, he tells them if they’re so hungry for vengeance they should “deliver it.”

That’s easier said than done. Through some combination of penicillin, adrenaline, and good narrative timing, Joel is able to rouse himself from his sickbed when he hears an invader outside, taking him out in a stealth attack. The others are even less lucky. After capturing a pair of David’s men, Joel sets about interrogating them in a scene that appears to offer a glimpse of the Joel of years before: single-minded, merciless, and not shy about killing others to save himself and those he loves. Confident that he’s extracted accurate information through torture, he leaves no one behind and sets off for Silver Lake. (In the process, he’s learned that it isn’t so much a town as a resort. It’s a phony place in more ways than one.)

As Joel goes about this awful business, an imprisoned Ellie finds herself on the receiving end of David’s continued effort to bring her to his cause. He’s abandoned his softness but not his gift for crafting an argument. He, David argues, can protect Ellie, and Joel no longer can. It’s a hard sell, but any persuasive power it might have had dissipates when Ellie makes a horrifying discovery: a human ear lying on the floor of the kitchen.

It’s hard to come back when you’ve been unmasked as a cannibal, but David tries anyway. He did what he did out of desperation and to feed those who trusted him. And though she hates it, Ellie can see he has a point. Maybe she would have done the same if she had to. David suggests as much, saying he senses a kindred spirit in Ellie, who’s “a natural leader, smart, and violent.” There’s no lie there. Ellie coveted a gun before she ever fired one, and though she didn’t kill David and James when she could have, it’s only because she didn’t think she had to.

Then he goes on. “You have a violent heart, and I should know,” he says before revealing that his true awakening came not from God but from cordyceps, which allowed him to embrace his propensity for violence. Cordyceps isn’t evil, he tells her, “It’s fruitful. It multiples. It feeds and protects its children. And it secures its future with violence if it must. It loves.” It’s a hard truth that he feels Ellie, unlike the others, can handle. She doesn’t need fairy tales like God to get by. She’s sufficient unto herself.

It’s worth pausing here to think about Ellie. David’s self-portrait starts to diverge from the Ellie we know but maybe not the person Ellie will become. She might never be David, bending followers to her will through a combination of persuasion and force, but there’s a possible future in which Ellie’s capacity for compassion and mercy fully falls away, when others become a means to an end. What’s more, the cordyceps way of thinking doesn’t sound that different from Joel’s.

That future might even arrive sooner than expected. As David approaches her makeshift cell, Ellie becomes the manipulator, luring him toward her with the possibility she might take him up on his offer to join him, even rule beside him. (Though the creepy sexual undertones never come to the surface, they’re hard to ignore.) But when he gets too close, Ellie responds with an act of violence he can’t admire. She finally feels comfortable revealing what he’s been withholding, saying, “Tell them Ellie is the little girl that broke your fucking finger.”

David doesn’t have much time to share this information. As David and James prepare to turn her into dinner, she’s able to stall them by revealing she’s been infected, and soon, she suggests, David will be soon. Then the episode turns into a fiery bloodbath. Ellie takes out James and then struggles with David as the steakhouse burns. “The fighting is the part I like the most,” he tells her as he pins her to the ground, his final mask having fallen away. When all seems lost, Ellie gets the upper hand and slashes David, then keeps slashing him long after he’s been silenced.

Ellie makes her escape, finds Joel, and the two limp away, leaning on each other for support. She might have a violent heart, but there’s more to it than violence alone.

Infectious Bites

• Phew. That was a rough one, right? And the finale is still ahead of us. But maybe Ellie and Joel will reach their destination and live happily ever after once Firefly scientists extract the cure. It could happen.

• James was played by Troy Baker, who primarily works (a lot) as a voice actor in animation and video games. Among his most famous characters: Joel Miller in The Last of Us. It’s a shame the two Joels don’t have any scenes together, but that might have been too cute.

• Joel is saved by penicillin, which is derived from a fungus, so they’re not all bad. (And, if you subscribe to David’s worldview, words like “good” and “bad” don’t really apply anyway.)

• The fate of the other Silver Lake residents remains a bit of a loose thread. Are there any men left? Did Joel and Ellie just leave a bunch of women and children to fend for themselves? And, if so, does that prove David’s point?

• The episode’s title comes from the banner hanging in the Silver Lake steakhouse reading “When We Are In Need He Shall Provide.” The wording seems intentionally unclear on whether “He” is God or David. It’s also, despite appearances, not a Bible verse, though it’s not far removed from Philippians 4:19: “God will give us what we need out of His unlimited riches.”

The Last of Us Recap: The Hunger Club