The Last of Us S1E8 Recap: “When We Are in Need” — Little Pieces

David and Ellie talk by the fire while they wait for James in The Last of Us S1E8
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for The Last of Us S1E8, “When We Are in Need” (written by Craig Mazin and directed by Ali Abbasi)

What are the little things you remember about your favorite television show? The little pieces that just stick with you long after the memories of each episode’s plot and structure fade away. Are they lines of dialogue? A character’s expression? An unexpected twist? What about something that rips you to the core emotionally? Every television show I have ever loved has these little pieces. They have these moments that bury themselves in your brain (and, usually, your heart) and live there forever. We may still have more than two seasons left of The Last of Us, but I can already reasonably predict that the eighth episode of this first season  (“When We Are in Need”) contains one of those moments.

Here’s an example. I’ll never forget where I was when we were left hanging from a cliff when Jack and Locke peered into the hatch in the last few moments of LOST’s first season. Many friends and members of my family were hunkered down at my sister-in-law’s parents’ house after evacuating Houston because of Hurricane Rita in September 2005. Someone brought the first season of LOST on DVD and I had never seen the show before. With one eye on the Weather Channel, we binged that first season over a few days. After peeling myself off their downstairs couch after those couple of days, I was hooked. Not just hooked on LOST, but on television which forced me to think, theorize, and consider.

Little pieces that will be with me forever.

I watched “When We Are in Need” on Thursday in a Starbucks while my son was in tennis practice. That Starbucks has likely become the new couch-at-the-sister-in-law’s-parents’-house. Those poor people sitting near me. I think I audibly gasped four times. And at the one moment from this episode I am sure I will never forget, I’m quite certain I was sobbing. But more on that in a bit.

David talks to Ellie about his community
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The plot and structure of Episode 8 are convincingly similar to the original game, and they both come at a pivotal point. When you reach this specific part of the game, Joel has been badly injured at the former Fireflies station and the gameplayer switches from the perspective of Joel to that of Ellie. In our show, the format of the episode follows the same mechanics. Joel’s wound was sewn up in Episode 7, but he is still badly injured and in need of medicine. As our story gets going in this new episode, Ellie takes off on her own in search of medicine and food.

She finds herself in a forest using all of the skills Joel taught her during their time together on the road. Ellie has learned to track animals, hunt them, leave a trail she can follow back, and fire a rifle. These abilities combined with what we know she learned about a night’s watch in Episode 6 put a definitive end to any notion that Ellie is “just cargo” anymore. At a minimum, Joel sees Ellie as a protégé, but the more likely story is that he sees her as much, much more.

But even with these newfound skills, we still fear what peril awaits her when she is forced to journey off on her own. It’s not too long after she hunts and kills a deer that these fears are realized. The moment that gameplayers have anticipated with equal parts fear and excitement arrives. Ellie is greeted by David and James, two strangers who seem to want to help her, but who both hide sinister secrets underneath their warm smiles and winter coats.

David preaches to his people before they try to go find food
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

David (played by the magnificent character actor Scott Shepherd) and James (played by Troy Baker, who voiced Joel in the video game) are senior members of a religious cult who also have some dark cannibalistic secrets. David and Joel have hidden these secrets from the majority of their town even as they continue to find a way to come up with food despite their supply running out. The out-in-the-open secret in the town, however, is that they are bloodthirsty in a different kind of way. It turns out a man who was traveling with a small girl killed a member of their community (who was also a husband and father) and the town wants revenge. The connection here is a bit murky, but we are led to presume this is the man Joel killed as he was injured when they fled the University of Eastern Colorado.

When David and James come across Ellie, who has just killed a deer in the forest, it’s a bit of a surprise that they want to make a deal with her. They will exchange penicillin and syringes for half of her deer. Apparently, they are only selective cannibals and don’t really want to develop too much of a taste for it. But Ellie’s decision to trust them and trade for medicine is the first domino to fall in a series of events that leads to a horrific scenario for Ellie.

In the quiet moments they have before James returns with medicine, David begins to quote from Chapter 1 of the New Cult Leaders’ Handbook. It starts with the always-appealing “there’s room for you in our group if you want,” followed by the inevitable, “I’m a decent man just trying to take care of the people who rely on me,” culminating in “everything happens for a reason, and I can prove it to you.” Jim Jones would be so proud. Ellie is too smart to believe any of that stuff so David decides to confess why it was God’s plan that they ran into each other. It turns out that David knows Ellie is traveling with the man that killed the member of their community. The same man they are hunting. God will provide.

Ellie gives medicine to Joel that she got from David
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

David lets Ellie go with the medicine, and it’s not hard to see that he has larger ambitions than killing Ellie on his mind. Ellie is able to run back and begin to give Joel what he needs, along with one of the most tender moments of the season when Ellie puts her head on Joel’s chest as if to say “please protect me from everything that’s out there.” But with the same feet that allow her to sprint back to Joel and administer the medicine, she also leaves a trail that David, James, and their hunters can track the next day.

Sandwiched in between the tender moment between Joel and Ellie and the emotional reunion that is to eventually come are some of the more horrific and graphic scenes of this entire show. These moments, eagerly awaited by gameplayers, are meant to reflect not only what someone in this type of world will do to stay alive, but also what someone will do to protect someone they love.

Joel is healthy enough to capture two of David’s men, and he brutally tortures them to get information about where they have taken Ellie. He then mercilessly kills them when they no longer serve a purpose. Ellie is locked in a cage and becomes aware of the cannibalism after she discovers a human ear. She is afraid they will cut her up into “little pieces” now that she knows their truth. Ellie breaks David’s fingers and sends a meat cleaver through James’ neck to escape. And after one last cult recruiting pitch from David (“You don’t know how good I am! You don’t know what I can give you!”), Ellie takes out every last bit of rage she ever had on David when she stabs him 22 times.

James hunts for Ellie and Joel
Photograph by Liane Hentscher/HBO

The imagery around Ellie as she ends David’s life is both striking and appropriate. The building she and David are in is burning. As David’s body is surrounded by flames, it becomes clear he never really was a man of God, but truly the devil. As Ellie escapes from the flames of her captive hell into the pure white show outside, Joel, her true savior, has arrived to protect her and redeem her.

The little piece of this show that I will remember forever is not the “little pieces” that Ellie was afraid of, but rather their embrace when they reunite. Joel, finally recovered, looks at her with love for the first time. He holds Ellie and calls her “baby girl,” the same name he called his daughter, Sarah, in Episode 1 as she lay dying in his arms. At that very moment, Joel embraces Ellie with his left arm, showing us the watch that Sarah gave him on his birthday more than 20 years ago. This a clear sign that, yes, it is time for Joel to love again and let someone in again.

There is still one more episode to go in this season and much more to do in a short amount of time. But Joel’s journey can now be called complete. He can’t bring Sarah back, but he can be a father again. These two strangers have now become family.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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