The impossible has occurred: HBO has released a good episode of The Last of Us. After weeks of subpar writing, bad acting, and bloated filler, the writers have managed to cobble together an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. Whether or not this is merely a case of a broken clock striking true twice a day, this episode proves that HBO is capable of writing a good episode of this series, which implies its predecessors were intentionally substantially inferior to this week’s “When We Are in Need.”
The defining feature of “When We Are in Need,” and its redeeming aspect, is its villain. David was already one of the most compelling and intimidating antagonists in the video game, and he’s brought to life beautifully by Scott Shepherd, a competent actor who delivers the best performance of this season, bar none. Shepherd perfectly fills the role of an antagonist that the audience loves to hate. He is vile, intimidating, and infuriating, with an unmatched creep factor. If only Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal could deliver performances half as good, this episode might have been great. As it stands, both lead actors drag down the quality of “When We Are in Need” substantially, leaving Shepherd to pick up the dead weight.
Even without Shepherd’s performance, this is the first episode of the season that has a relatively tight script with acceptable dialogue. Everyone’s decisions track in a logical manner based on their established characteristics, and there are no gaping plot holes that eradicate immersion. There are plenty of nitpicky issues built on contrivances and luck, which is a staple of average television. Bloat is very much a factor in “When We Are in Need,” just like the previous episodes, but to nowhere near the same degree. Instead of being an episode that should have only lasted 15 minutes, this hour-long chapter could be whittled down to 45 minutes pretty easily. That is a far cry better, resulting from a much tighter script.
“When We Are in Need” also cuts out the majority of the action, like the rest of the season. It still appears as if the writers are allergic to an action sequence taking longer than 10 seconds. This episode was heralded as one of the most action-packed of the season. While that is technically true, three 10-second fight sequences do not qualify as “action-packed.” The zombies were also entirely cut from this section of the game. For a zombie action-horror series, there has been startlingly little action, only a couple of episodes with zombies, and absolutely no horror whatsoever. This episode might be decently written with an incredible performance, but it still fails to be what this show should be based on how it was advertised. Bearing that in mind, “When We Are in Need” is still an overall net negative to the quality of this show; it is still not The Last of Us, despite it being superior to its brethren.
“When We Are in Need” sees Ellie endeavoring to take care of the comatose Joel by hunting and searching for medical supplies. After successfully killing a deer, she comes across a group of survivors interested in her kill. This group is not what it seems, as its leader David is a pedophile and a cannibal, intent on Ellie as his next victim one way or another. Ellie manages to free herself from captivity before killing David to save her life. “When We Are in Need” is, without a doubt, the most accurate episode of this season so far. It does not merely show the occasional line of dialogue or set similarity. It adapts the characters as they were portrayed in the game. When adapting a game like The Last of Us, getting the characters right is the top priority. This show finally adapts a character accurately with David. Additionally, the story beats follow those of the source material nearly entirely. That cannot be said for any of its predecessors, except for “Left Behind,” which is not derived from the original game.
The biggest deviation from the source material comes by way of David’s group. Their development in the video game was rather shrouded, allowing the revelation that they were cannibals to be the basis of the players’ knowledge of them. However, the TV show decided to make David a preacher and the group an uber-Christian extremist cult-like establishment. While this change is decently implemented, the motivation for it is highly suspect. An audience member can’t fail to question the reasoning behind having the good guys live in a communist utopia and the villains be alt-right, redneck, hillbilly, Christian pedophiles. It’s a highly concerning change from the source material that drifts dangerously into vitriolic propaganda. Some audience members may be unaffected by this change, while others may see it as a deal breaker on the show. Overall, the change doesn’t benefit the story all that much. Having David be a charismatic leader forced to resort to cannibalism is more than enough to justify all the events. Adding in the Christian element doesn’t aid anyone’s development and only serves to alienate much of the audience. It was a mistake.
“When We Are in Need” is easily the best episode of the season. If this were another, more competent show, and this episode was the worst addition to it, that show would be great. As it stands, a decent episode mired amongst the garbage that has been the rest of the season does not redeem The Last of Us. It is still a poorly written and poorly acted series that has no idea what its priority should be in adapting the all-time great video game. Its lead characters are still either grating on the senses or non-entities. A show cannot survive on an incredible one-off villain to balance out its horrendous leads. “When We Are in Need” is a singular departure from the rest of the season and is not good enough to justify the audience sludging through the drudge of this season to experience David alone.