The Last of Us episode eight’s pure horror proves there are far scarier things than ‘the Z-word’

After its flashback interlude, the hit HBO series returns with a shocking penultimate episode. It’s a testament to the show’s true appeal, Annabel Nugent writes, that its most terrifying instalment features zero zombies

Monday 06 March 2023 16:20 GMT
Scott Shepherd is chilling as David in episode eight of ‘The Last of Us’
Scott Shepherd is chilling as David in episode eight of ‘The Last of Us’ (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

The Last of Us has been called many things since it began airing eight weeks ago: heart-wrenching, exhilarating, groundbreaking, even. But one thing it is not, is scary. To categorise HBO’s TV adaptation of the hit video game as a horror would be a stretch. Tearful, tender moments far outweigh those of spine-tingling suspense, both in frequency and gravitas. But in its latest episode, The Last of Us finally veered into the horror genre that its zombie label appeared to promise – only there wasn’t a clicker in sight (sorry, Ben Shapiro). Only a rejected man with a God complex.

The episode begins with Ellie (Bella Ramsay at her best) tending to an incapacitated Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he recovers from a serious stab wound. The two are hiding out in the basement of an abandoned house, but food is short. When Ellie goes out to hunt (and snags a deer on her first try), she comes across David (Scott Shepherd), the leader of a religious community that turns out to be straight from a nightmare. For one thing, they’re cannibals.

Food hasn’t exactly been a concern so far in The Last of Us. Against all odds, there always seems to be a can of disgusting-looking grub kicking about, and so seeing David’s group reckon with starvation is really the first we see of this element of post-cordyceps life. Crucially, though, cannibalism here isn’t portrayed salaciously. Rather, it’s a shameful secret harboured by as few people as possible – most in the community don’t know they’re being served human flesh for dinner most nights. It’s evil, yes, but it’s depicted as a necessary evil – and that’s what makes it so chilling. It makes you question whether you’d resort to it, too. Even as the group wolf down their stew, consisting of what they’ve been told is venison, you get the sense that they know the truth. But hey, ignorance is bliss. Or at least, a survival tactic. By the time the show does get graphic, it doesn’t feel gratuitous. It feels earned. When Joel, in search of Ellie, stumbles across the community’s makeshift abattoir, the headless corpses, blotchy and blue and strung up by their feet, are more terrifying than any Infected we’ve seen. Bloater, included.

Much of the episode’s impact rests on David’s shoulders. Shepherd is the latest brilliant guest star to steal scenes. As a preacher, he leads his congregation with a soft voice and, as it turns out, a heavy hand. Cults are a dime a dozen on screen lately, but the series distinguishes itself again by refusing to succumb to the appeal of extremes. There are no blood rituals, no pentagrams or Kool-Aid. David is, for all intents and purposes, a regular man. Only one with a great deal of charisma and a talent for manipulation. We’re well into the episode by the time his good guy mask begins to slip, and it’s worth the wait. The Last of Us shows that it pays to take time. Things take a (further) turn for the worse when David captures Ellie and tries to convince her to join him, and rule the congregation beside him. There are sinister, sexual undertones to his invitation as he holds her hand through the cage he has locked her in. It is what’s left unspoken between them that makes the scene infinitely more alarming than if he were a zombie frothing at the mouth.

The action concludes within an appropriately fiery hellscape. Ellie – about to have her arm lopped off with a cleaver – manages to escape the chopping block by the skin of her teeth. But the exit is locked, and in her efforts to take down David, she starts a fire in a wooden cabin. I can’t recall a moment in The Last of Us when I was more on edge than watching Ellie try to evade him. In the final moments, the show’s creators make an powerful decision to have the camera zoom in on Ellie’s face as she repeatedly takes an axe to David’s head, after he tries to rape her. We never see his face, but we know it’s inevitably mangled by the third blow. And yet more horrifying still is the image of Ellie as she becomes increasingly splattered with blood, forced to let go of those last vestiges of childhood innocence she had been holding onto.The Last of Us knows when to let loose – and equally as important, when to hold back. And as with any good horror moment, after this, nothing will be the same again.

The finale of ‘The Last of Us’ airs on Monday 13 March on Sky Atlantic and NOW

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in