This post contains spoilers for “The Last Of Us” episode eight as well as the video game source material.
When I think of the game version of “The Last Of Us,” I tend to immediately think of two things: first, the story’s stellar, still-talked-about ending, which elevates it from a great game to a genre-transcending masterpiece. Second, it’s the most harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moment, which comes in one of its final chapters.
It’s the scene in which Ellie, alone but far from powerless without Joel, faces off against a violent cannibalistic creep named David. The face-off between the two at an abandoned winter resort is one of the hardest, scariest, and most intense parts of the game, the kind of gameplay that inspires held breaths and surprised shrieks. Though the TV show speeds Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and David’s (Scott Shepherd) showdown up a bit, it still delivers on the horror and intensity that comes from a game of cat-and-mouse with stakes that couldn’t feel higher.
In Naughty Dog’s 2013 game, the threat of David is twofold. As a man, he feels more disturbing and dangerous than any infected; he’s a cannibal, a cult leader, and a would-be rapist. The colony at the resort represents a side of mankind that Ellie has been mercifully protected from so far. The Kansas City crowd (Pittsburgh in the show) was ruthless, but David and his ilk don’t seem to have many ties left to humanity. He uses the classic man-in-charge line about protecting what’s his as an excuse to inflict violence and force his will upon others, and while the group’s cannibalism was borne of desperation, he still seems eager to take advantage of society’s broken-down boundaries.
The resort scene is scream-inducingly scary
But David and Ellie’s showdown is also scary for reasons that have little to do with his character and everything to do with the relentless gameplay. In the game, David (played by Nolan North) attacks Ellie (Ashley Johnson) when she’s headed out the resort door, lunging on-screen in a jump scare that sets the tone for the frantic, climactic moments to come. Much of “The Last Of Us” involves stealth gameplay that requires gamers to sneak around without detection, but the lodge scene adds a harrowing layer to that mission as players controlling Ellie must lunge forward during perfectly-timed moments to stab at David or attempt to steal his keys. It doesn’t help that the villain has an erratic pace, making him likely to suddenly round a corner and see Ellie. A fast-burning fire that clogs the restaurant area with smoke feels like an added ticking clock on the scene.
Without the scream-inducing experience of being the person in charge of Ellie’s fate, the HBO show has to work overtime to make the resort scene as terrifying as it was in the game. The adaptation succeeds in large part due to Shepherd’s and Ramsey’s performances: the pair may only have a couple of minutes to play bloody hide-and-seek on screen, but they make the most of it. Shepherd is deeply unnerving as a version of David who embodies dark patriarchal authority; when he keeps hunting Ellie even as the fire winds its way through the building, it feels in line with the actions of the type of sick man who would feel “humiliated” by a teenager rejecting his advances. “You don’t know how good I am!” he screams, which isn’t a thing good men usually have to yell at cowering girls.
Mankind’s potential for darkness
Ramsey matches Shepherd beat for beat: Ellie remains calm in the face of danger before evolving into a spitting mad force of nature. Her poker face surely makes the sequence scarier for anyone who hasn’t played the games, as it’s hard to tell what plan she has, if any. The show has trained us to acknowledge that anyone can die at any time, and that this world doesn’t keep kids safe. When Ellie eyes David’s machete while he admits — in a stomach-churning moment that likely sends her into action — that he wants to keep her and “teach” her, it feels perfectly possible that this show could end her journey in some senseless way right here and now.
Thankfully, Ellie escapes, although the nail beds of viewers on the edge of their seats may not be so lucky. This isn’t the first terrifying moment in “The Last Of Us” and, with the second season already greenlit, it surely won’t be the last. But on the path to the first season finale, Ellie and David’s showdown remains a singularly nerve-wracking chapter of a horror story that never flinches away from the darkest depths of humankind.
“The Last of Us” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO and HBO Max.