With Joel incapacitated, Ellie tries to take control as she faces a charismatic new leader on "The Last of Us" -- plus, video game Joel voice actor Troy Baker!
Fans of "The Last of Us" video game series had been waiting all season for this episode, with Joel voice actor Troy Baker finally making his appearance in a familiar role, albeit new for him.
This latest standalone chapter picked up the story with Ellie trying to care for Joel and figure out how to fend for the both of them in the harsh Colorado winter. For all of his training, she's still an overwhelmed kid in an unfamiliar world.
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This week introduced yet another large group that's established a settlement under the guidance and religious leadership of David, played to the hilt by Scott Shepherd. As viewers first meet him, David is leading the group with a Bible reading at a funeral service for a father they'd just lost.
Alas, the winter is hard and provisions are low. It's this struggle for food that brings Ellie into contact with this group, where we also meet David's right hand man James, played by the video game's Joel voice actor, Troy Baker.
With Joel unconscious, Ellie heads out with the rifle to see if she's learned anything from the training he finally gave her. For all that she has played Ellie as a total bada-- teenager with an attitude way bigger than her diminutive frame, Bella Ramsey really leaned into the youth of her character, drawing out a vulnerability and childlike fear that was palpable.
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When she faceplanted trying to chase a rabbit (which was a foolhardy thing to do), she looked so overwhelmed and small in this big, white world. It's in moments like this that she knows there is a reason Joel was sent to protect her. She may think she can take on the whole world, but it's so much bigger than she is, and more dangerous.
Her fear is just as front and center a little later after she shoots a deer and tracks it through the snow. When she arrives, she finds David and James standing over it. They'd been out trying to hunt as well and had stumbled across her kill.
Ellie manages to take control of the situation, but everything from her voice to her body language betrays how frightened she is even when she seemingly has the upper hand. Again, it's so clear how much smaller she is than these two fully-grown men, and how much danger one slip could put her in.
David tells her about their settlement in an attempt to connect with her, leading to a deal where they'll split the deer for the medicine Joel needs to fight off his infection from the attack at the university. That attack, though, would quickly come back to haunt Ellie, too.
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While James is away, David ultimately reveals that the funeral was for a man killed while on a scavenging raid by a man traveling with a young girl. Immediately, Eliie's red flags go up, but so do ours as viewers.
The production team and writers and even the performances have had us on the fence. We've been trained by now to be leery of everyone, but David has presented himself as a reasonable man and leader. We've seen decent and kind people already, like the settlement Tommy is in. Could this be another?
But the reveal that one of the three men who attacked Joel and Ellie unprovoked at the university was one of their men immediately left us even more uncertain. Was his behavior an anomaly, or was this seemingly sweet town hiding a more sinister level of behavior? At least Melanie Lynskey's rebels were blatantly violent and awful!
When James returns with the medicine, he wants to kill Ellie right away for her proximity to their man's death, but David forces him to let her go. Again, Ellie's youthfulness betrays her as they are easily able to track her through the snow back to the neighborhood she and Joel are holed up in.
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Before that, though, we got our first real indication that David is not all he presents himself as. When they return to their community with the deer carcass and tell them about Ellie, the young daughter of the man killed says they should kill both of them.
Without a moment's hesitation, David walks up and smacks her across the face so hard she falls to the ground. Even more significant, no one -- including the girl's own mother -- reacts at all. "The truth is you always had a father. And you will show him respect when he's speaking," David said.
As the group is fed a pittance, it's pointedly shown that not only is David served by hand, he's given a significantly larger portion of food, which he eats in front of everyone. Suddenly, religious leader is turning hard into cult leader.
Scott Shepherd did a masterful job of playing that slightly sinister undertone from his very first scene, leaving us a little wary of him, but unsure why we felt that way. From this moment, though, his duality from charismatic and compassionate leader to dangerously controlling sociopath came into focus.
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When the group from the settlement arrives in the neighborhood, Ellie leaves Joel with a knife and pleads with him to defend himself, while she attempts to lead them away from him on their horse, which had been chilling in the garage. Credit where credit is due, the girl is brave.
Unfortunately, she's outgunned and outmatched by six grown men. One of them manages to shoot the horse out from under her, and before David can arrive on the scene, the men prepare to kill her. It's again a testament to his power in the group that he can stop them with a word, which he does.
When next we see Ellie, she's in a cage inside of a kitchen inside of the steakhouse of the resort David and his people call home. David tries to charming, charismatic leader approach, but Ellie is far too jaded in this world to just fall for that. She also knows how he and his men hunted her, and were ready to kill her.
And then, she happens to see something on the floor that changes everything. It's a human ear. David and James and a few others have resorted to cannibalism to keep their flock fed -- with most of the faithful having no idea what they're eating.
David can almost be believed when he expresses his reluctance and remorse that they were forced into this way of life, but she's not buying that either. You can simply choose not to do that, damn the consequences.
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It then becomes clear why she's not already roasting in a stew pot. David tells Ellie he sees something of himself in her. "I've always had a violent heart," he says, believing that her shooting his men is proof she's cut from the same cloth.
Then, to up the creep factor even more, he starts hinting at the idea of them leading this community together. He even implies that with her help, he might avoid making decisions like, you know eating people. Again, with Shepherd's performance, the creepy sexual undertone is clearly evident.
Ellie is 14 year old. He may not know exactly how old she is, but he knows she's very young, so you're looking at child bride cult fanaticism here, and a perversion that includes violence, cannibalism, and now child predator tendencies.
To her credit, Ellie never stops trying. She lures him closer by caressing his hand only to break his finger and attempt to snatch the keys from him to free herself. Once again, she proves easily overpowered as he slams her face into the bars, knocking her back.
At this point, David has clearly given up on Ellie being malleable enough for his desires, so he brings in James to go the stew route anyway. In a last ditch effort, which we've seen her use before, Ellie tells them about her cordyceps infection.
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The confusion and distraction is just long enough for her to get her hands on a butcher's cleaver and slam it into James' throat, killing him almost instantly. She then winds up on the run and hiding in the steakhouse from David. She also throws a torch at him on one point, setting the curtains ablaze.
It's telling that despite this being the central hub of his community, David looks at the fire (still possibly manageable at this point) and ignores it, obsessed and driven into a rage at this point by Ellie having killed another of his men -- but probably more at her rejection of him.
The truth of it comes out as he taunts her while she's hiding from him in the restaurant. "No one likes being humilated, Ellie. You don't know how good I am," he says. You don't know what I could have given you, if you had just let me."
Ellie briefly gets the upper hand as he tells her he's decided to keep her alive and teach her. She manages to slam the cleaver into his gut, but he again overpowers her, straddling and sitting on her so he can be creepy again.
"The fighting is the part I like the most. Don't be afraid, there's no fear in love," he says.
Throughout all of this after Ellie's capture, Joel was taking care of his own business. He managed to get himself off of the mattress just as the first of David's men breached the basement where he'd been recouping.
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He choked the man out in time to take down a second one. After a brief interrogation, he found out where they had taken Ellie and how to get to it before killing both men. He then made his way out of the house and killed the rest of them.
This was a strong parallel sequence to Ellie's capture and struggles to ever gain the upper hand, because even in a weakened state and not the killer he once was, Joel was having little trouble wreaking vengeance on everyone, while Ellie found herself overpowered and helpless again and again -- though she never stopped fighting.
Joel made it all the way to the resort where he discovered Ellie's bag and the remnants of their horse in a building. There, he also revealed the secret truth of the place when he saw three headless human bodies hanging like animal meat.
The stage was set for a dramatic rescue by Joel at the last minute. The steakhouse was in flames, so there was probably no doubt where Ellie was at this point. But that's not what happened.
Despite all of her struggles throughout the episode to get and keep control of her own agency, Ellie's rage finally overflowed and she managed to grab the blade she'd dropped when David mounted her and she just attacked.
It was a difficult scene to watch as Ellie unleashed perhaps years of frustration and outrage at being constantly overpowered and controlled by other people out to hurt her, at being unable to defend herself, betrayed by her size and age when her heart is clearly that of a lion.
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It was also a moment of such pain and anguish and trauma unleashed in a vicious attack that will more than likely haunt her for some time. She made her own way out of the building only to immediately be accosted by someone.
When she turned, there was temporarily no recognition in her haunted eyes that it was Joel. He was maybe too late to save her from David, but he was still there. "It's okay, baby girl," he said, puling her bloody face into an embrace. "I got you."
In that moment, any pretense that he wasn't going to let her into his heart was gone. Both Pedro Pascal and Ramsey were phenomenal in this small scene. Ramsey was a tour de force throughout the episode, playing so many different complicated character moments, but the shock and vulnerability in this final scene was heartbreaking.
As the episode closed and they walked off, ready for their final adventure of this season, we did find ourselves scratching our heads about where the rest of the community's residents were? There were families and children there, so we don't want to think Joel was keeping himself busy by killing everyone.
But their central meeting and eating place was on fire and no one came running? Or perhaps we're to believe they're all at the front of the building, whereas Elie slipped out the back.
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We know it's based on a video game where the action has to keep moving, but it has been interesting watching these threats rise and fall within an episode or two at the most this season. All of these dangers are clearly just to inform and develop the main characters, but it can still be jarring to have these incredible guest stars come and go so quickly and an almost complete reset several times before moving onto the next chapter.
It's not a criticism as the central characters are growing and developing in response to each of these encounters. It's reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" in that way as well as so many other quest adventures. This one might take the lead, though, in how many of the people they encounter wind up dead.
Until we got to the episode where Joel and Tommy were reunited, everyone they'd encountered on the road wound up dead by the time they moved on (or were dead already in the case of Bill and Frank). It takes confidence in your protagonists to be willing to dispatch all your good villains like that as it too often becomes a writer's crutch to keep them alive too long and maybe even try to rehabilitate them.
It's time for the final adventure of "The Last of Us" Season 1. Will Ellie make it to the FIreflies? Will her blood be the cure? Or will all hell break loose -- again. The season finale airs next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.