The Last of Us' most frightening episode yet proves it doesn't need its Infected

scott shepherd, bella ramsey, the last of us
Last of Us doesn't need Infected to be frighteningHBO

Note: The following article contains discussion of topics including sexual violence and misconduct, and controlling behaviour.

The Last of Us episode eight spoilers also follow.

Many of us have entered into an unhealthy relationship with The Last of Us. However, at this point, the trauma we endure weekly is self-inflicted.

From the minute grandma-Infected started tearing through jugulars in episode one, we knew what we'd signed up for. Unprecedented shock and a whole lot of pain, though perhaps not in the way we'd originally expected.

Forgive the assumption, but for an apocalypse show, it isn't too wild a thought to have imagined Cordyceps running rampant.

Clicker chases down the street at every given opportunity, spores forcing their way through every human orifice, spreading the contagion at an alarming rate... and Bloaters. Lots. More. Bloaters.

When that beast emerged from the ground in episode five, it seemed like The Last of Us creators had literally opened up a world of Cordyceps we couldn't possibly have dreamt up. That these latest Infected would be the most unimaginable threat our protagonists would have to face.

the last of us

Yet The Last of Us did what it always does, allowing the Infected to fall into the background of the story once more. Their presence is more like an undercurrent, bubbling behind the scenes, creating this foreboding, ominous dread that drives people's actions.

Why? Why wouldn't the Infected be the most terrifying villain in an apocalypse show? And if not the Cordyceps, exactly what is it about The Last of Us that leaves our stomachs curled and gnarled in discomfort after every watch?

The show answers that question with episode eight's blood-curdling storyline. Spoiler – there's not an Infected in sight, but you'll wish there had been.

While Joel (Pedro Pascal) lies injured and semi-comatose, Ellie's path crosses with David (Scott Shepherd). David is the elder of a community of survivors, residing in Silver Lake.

However, for a 'teacher turned preacher', David is anything but saintly. Despite his best efforts to befriend Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and lure her into trusting him, pastor David was giving out rancid vibes from the beginning.

troy baker, the last of us

His gentle manipulation of right-hand man James (played by Troy Baker, aka the original Joel) – by way of soft, harmless tones yet assured, loaded orders – was among the first telltale signs that only grow in intensity as the story moves forward.

It turns out the astute among us, Ellie included, were right to be suspicious of David's good guy routine. His conversation with Ellie revealed that the man Joel killed previously at the university was a member of David's community and while he means Ellie no harm, all bets are off on Joel.

Maybe he's just a fan of the old testament, you might argue, the 'eye-for-an-eye' mentality. Why else would he want Joel dead, yet seek to not only spare Ellie's life but also envelope her into his community?

The chilling truth of his intentions soon comes to light – and that's just as damning.

After capturing Ellie and locking her up, pastor Dave begins to unfurl his silver tongue. His manipulation of Ellie is intended to be slow and insidious. It begins with his attempt to break down her defences, to leave her feeling vulnerable and weak by making her feel dependent on him for her safety because without a dying Joel, she's all alone.

scott shepherd, the last of us

Perhaps he would have been able to sway her if it hadn't been for the bloodless, severed ear discarded on the ground that Ellie spots. It is then that she realises Dave and his flock have been eating people to ensure their survival.

"There are only a few of us who know," David confesses, before launching into yet another cleverly-worded speech.

"You think it doesn't shame me?" he pleads. "But what was I supposed to do, let them starve?" His faux humility is touching. Really it is… for those whose brains have been mangled by Cordyceps.

The rest of us with working brain cells can see right through his conniving ways – and again, so can Ellie.

He then approaches things from another calculated angle. The old 'you remind me of me', we are one soul nonsense. He tells Ellie she's a leader, she's smart with a violent heart. Because who else could accept, love and understand a violent heart but another violent heart, right?

He suggests a partnership between the two; he's looking for an equal, a friend – one he sees in Ellie, a 14-year-old child – and agonisingly, we know where this is going.

bella ramsey, the last of us

David concludes his careful speech by helping her to imagine the "life [they] could build" together while suggestively stroking her hand. Thankfully Ellie had the good sense to break his fingers, but the truth is laid bare to see.

He is the thing that goes bump in the night. The thing that makes our stomach clench and curl, at least in this episode. Him, this vile human, not the Infected – and that's the magic of The Last of Us.

Who needs monsters when the capacity of human nature when pushed to the extreme is much more terrifying?

Instead of chasing its protagonist around with the brute Infected, The Last of Us hyper-focuses on what desperation brings out in humans.

The Infected are nothing more than the blunt tools used to scrape away all the things that keep humanity ticking smoothly – showing us the potential the very worst of us can become if left unchecked.

David was probably always evil. His life before Cordyceps placed him in a position of trust. A teacher no less, of children around Ellie's age.

scott shepherd, the last of us

You can almost imagine the old world in which his twisted fantasies were caged by order and law and the prevailing morality of mankind… until it all crumbled underneath the Infected's touch.

Without structure, this is who he became. Without boundaries, he leaned into the very worst of his humanity when catastrophe struck. What makes David even more terrifying is that he buys into his own rhetoric.

"I've always had a violent heart," he tells a caged Ellie, "and I struggled with it for a long time but then the world ended and I was shown the truth. By Cordyceps."

He continues: "What does Cordyceps do? Is it evil? No. It's fruitful. It multiplies. It feeds and protects its children and it secures its future with violence if it must. It loves." Just like him. So really he's just out here doing Cordyceps' work.

His own justifications are scary; just like Cordyceps, he is infectious without even being infected. Like Cordyceps, David spreads his ideals, his belief system, hiding behind religion as he weaponises people's fear against them. He uses their desperation to control them and they're too tired, depleted and dejected to even try to see past his preacher guise.

scott shepherd, the last of us

The rawness of his depravity is later revealed when he attempts to rape Ellie while the building burns around them. What kind of human not only assaults a child, but seizes the 'opportunity' of a fire to do so?

No kind of human. Only a monster, a monster more terrifying than any mindless Clicker. A monster that would have the most timid of us run into the bone-crushing, skull-splitting arms of the nearest Bloater.

This isn't the first instance where The Last of Us has turned the most frightening elements of human nature into villains.

Earlier in season one, Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) stayed true to her 'I'm not a good person' admission by continuing on her hunt for Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard).

Her own violent heart and quest to avenge her brother's death had untold collateral damage, and we can tell you she slept pretty darn sweetly with the thought of Sam and Henry's blood spilling to keep her warm. Right up until her death, that is.

However, it's not just unlikeable people who become the villains of this episode.

In another world, from another vantage point, James is as much a victim as either Ellie or Joel – yet he attempts to have Ellie killed as penance for the loss of his friend who was killed by "madman" Joel.

pedro pascal, bella ramsey, the last of us

In the same breath, Joel saw danger and enemies when the small Silver Lake party raided the university. To him, they were the 'crazy ones', and so he snapped the neck of the man trying to harm them. A father, a friend.

In that instance, from the other side of the fence, it is easy to see why Joel is their villain.

Fear, love, protection and survival squeezed under pressure have become the ingredients for terror in a way no Infected could even match.

Asking the question 'who do we become when tested?' is way more uncomfortable to wrestle with than the clean-cut enemy of the Cordyceps – and that is what makes The Last of Us stand out from most apocalypse shows. Its sparing use of its Infected allows viewers to focus on the true horror. Us.

The Last of Us airs on HBO in the US, and on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW in the UK.

If you've been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information from Rape Crisis England and Wales, who work towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct, on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.

Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.

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