Spoilers for the ninth and penultimate episode of HBO’s The Last of Us
The ninth episode of a series is probably a bit late to call it a make-it-or-break-it moment. And yet, much depended on whether and how this penultimate chapter of HBO’s first season of The Last of Us would pull together. Overall, from the horror scenes to the fights against other survivors, what was shown up to this point felt far too tame compared to the game. This was certainly also due to the fact that the series Joel seems to have reached a point in his life where he wants to end his violent past. As good as that is possible, anyway.
What he feels compelled to do in this chapter in order to free Ellie from the violence of David and the Silver Lake people shouldn’t be staged with the usual, softened TV violence that the series has so far avoided. And luckily that didn’t happen. There’s enough blood this time, knives rammed deep in legs, smashed faces and Silver Lake hunters genuinely shaken by Joel’s callousness. In fact, there may even have been a method to the reluctance to date, as the way Joel now gets the crucial information on where to find Ellie hits you all the harder.
It wasn’t Walking Dead territory yet (thankfully!), but it was a turning point and a change in character in Joel’s nature, back to the darkness he was actually trying to turn away from. Even if the situation in which it happens still disguises his terminator mode as a necessary evil. This is not clumsy in the way we get to see the “real” Joel.
By the way, the other, second “real Joel” in episode nine is Silver Lake resident James. Leader David’s right-hand man is played by Troy Baker, known to video gamers as Joel, Booker DeWitt (BioShock Infinite), Nathan Drake’s brother, and literally dozens of other video game characters. I had no idea what to expect from seeing Baker in the flesh, but in his few scenes he plays his heart out. In fact, his performance has been one of the highlights of the series so far. The dialogue with David at the beginning worked out the quiet doubts about the actions of the Silver Lake authorities quite elegantly and with natural facial expressions. That was worth seeing.
As expected, things get much darker throughout the episode as David and his congregation starve and the preacher allegedly resorts to human flesh out of necessity. Not, as he later admits to Ellie, as an exception. But – as you can see in the camp when Joel finds his way to Silver Lake – probably neither for the first nor for the last time. David himself was well acted. Scott Shepard bears no resemblance to the in-game David, but he pulls off the mix of understanding, fatherly leader and ruthless patriarch admirably. At the same time, I felt that the script let him down a bit in his Cordyceps monologue and in his explanation of why he wanted Ellie by his side.
At this point, a strange sexual level comes in, which then culminates in an attempted rape in the later fight. I found that superfluous and clichéd and it ruined a lot of David’s previous character drawing, which initially seemed a bit more differentiated and complex. It’s possible that it’s the episode format again, because this episode also seemed subtly rushed to me, and the end a little too sudden – does nobody else really intervene from the Silver Lake residents? Well, that was pretty exciting, even though I knew what was going to happen. And that aside, I feel like tonality is finally getting a little closer to the game again. Just in time for the grand finale. I can’t wait to see how I feel about this season.