This piece contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 8. If you haven’t watched yet then check out our spoiler-free Season 1 review here.
It’s hardly been an easy ride for the courier and his cargo. Over the season Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) have been hunted by both humans and infected, lost loved ones, and barely scraped together enough trust to keep each other alive in the harsh world ravaged by the Cordyceps virus. But in Episode 8 they face down against the worst monster yet. And in classic post-apocalyptic horror tradition, it’s not the frightening, lumbering, infected creature that you expect.
One of the reasons that stories about the end of the world are so enticing to storytellers and viewers alike is because they allow us to imagine a society outside of the constraints of what we know for better or for worse. How would we react to such a situation? Would the world shut down? Would humans come together to look after each other? Or would they turn on each other? Could we build something better? Or are we doomed to become our worst selves? It’s these questions that keep us coming back to these kinds of stories. This week, The Last of Us broaches cannibalism and the violence of those who turn to it in response to the end of the world. It’s one of the last true human taboos and one of the most recurring dystopian tropes.
Gamers have been expecting the arrival of David (Scott Shepard) and his followers for some time now. But even those unfamiliar with the source material likely sensed that something wasn’t right when the episode began in the hub of a secluded religious group quickly running out of food. After the daughter of a recently deceased member asks when her father can be buried, excuses are quickly made. The weather is too frigid for that to be possible, the snow has frozen the ground. But don’t worry, they promise her, they’ll bury him in the spring. Of course, anyone who’s watched The Walking Dead or read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road knows that there’s something more sinister afoot. As Ellie realizes later, David and his crew have been eating people and feeding them to their ever-dwindling community that has no idea.
Aside from the literal horror of butchering people and eating them, cannibalism represents something more existential in stories like these. Specifically in zombie horror, cannibalism becomes a channel for the human to become monstrous. After all, in a society destroyed by flesh-eating creatures, what could be worse than not being infected and choosing to eat people anyway? Interestingly, The Last of Us leans into what we previously saw in The Walking Dead, presenting the colony of cannibals as people who see themselves as bastions of civilization in an otherwise destroyed world. In The Walking Dead that presented itself as a successful, safe, and welcoming sanctuary that fed those who found it. Here it’s David acting as lord and savior of his tribe, a “man of God” who does what he has to in order to save those who follow him.
Shepard brings a nightmarish coldness to the role of David, a pretense of civility that hides the grim truth: he enjoys killing. He has always had what he describes to Ellie as “a violent heart,” something he claims to see in her. But there is a huge difference in the violence that David enacts and that of both Ellie and Joel. The latter arguably do horrible things to survive, or — as we see in the explosion of brutality from the pair in this episode — in retaliation to horrors enacted on them or the ones they care about. But for David it’s clear that his argument of survival is just an excuse for him to slaughter and eat people while he manipulates those in his flock. It’s that which makes David The Last of Us’ most nightmarish monster yet (don’t worry, we’ll get to his predatory behavior toward Ellie in a moment). Unlike the infected, he’s fully in control of his capacities. He isn’t driven by vengeful anger like Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey). He’s not truly protecting those around him as eating human flesh is known to make people incredibly ill, and he hasn’t given those eating it a choice. Instead, he’s a man driven by violence, power, and the thrill it gives him.
David all but admits this to Ellie when he creepily attempts to lure her into some kind of relationship with him, asking her to imagine the world they could create if she helped him lead the tribe in their cannibalistic ways. His apparent attraction and attempt to groom Ellie adds another layer to his awful acts. Just before she kills him, he crawls on top of her and espouses his “love” for her as something she should embrace and not be afraid of. It’s perhaps this that makes characters like David the most terrifying threats in post-apocalyptic stories. What if when the end of the world came, the worst of us and not the best thrived?
Rosie Knight is a contributing freelancer for covering everything from anime to comic books to kaiju to kids movies to horror flicks. She has over half a decade of experience in entertainment journalism with bylines at Nerdist, Den of Geek, Polygon, and more.