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A close up of David, the leader of the fundamentalist cult in the HBO series The Last of Us Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

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The Last of Us shows off the worst cannibalism I’ve ever seen

Goodbye to all that (moral ambiguity)

When The Last of Us introduces us to David, the preacher leading a congregation of survivors through a harsh winter, it’s legitimately hard to figure him out. Actor Scott Shepherd (nice touch) brings a grounded Midwestern charm to the character, exuding weary warmth to a desperate Ellie (Bella Ramsey) who needs to find food and medicine for an injured Joel (Pedro Pascal). There’s reason to suspect him, because there’s reason to suspect everybody — Joel and Ellie have generally not had a great time when it comes to dealing with other people. But when David tries to connect with Ellie while she holds him at gunpoint over a campfire, she wants to believe him. To connect with him.

So they start to have conversations about faith and survival, to debate a classic question of whether or not everything happens for a reason. In this, The Last of Us seems like it’s going to delve into a genuinely complex and human space, telling a story about people who’ve lost much and clung to things they might not have otherwise in order to find purpose and meaning. Then, 40 minutes later, the show reveals David’s secret, and abandons all of that. Again.

[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for episode 8 of The Last of Us.]

David, as the episode eventually reveals, is a simple tyrant: using faith to exploit the hope of his community for power and respect. Under his leadership, the members of his congregation have also become unwitting cannibals, as he and a small group of collaborators have turned to killing people outside of the community and butchering them to feed David’s followers, telling them it’s venison.

David warms himself by a campfire facing the camera while Ellie watches him, her back to the camera in HBO’s The Last of Us. Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

This is familiar territory for grim survival stories in this mold, a way to interrogate what the collapse of society means for what we believe makes us human. This can yield plenty of questions worth exploring: Do our moral and ethical standards still apply? Should they? What would be a good enough reason to give them up? What should new standards look like? How do we build community around them?

But episode 8 undercuts any of the nuance of that. First, it makes David a fundamentalist cult leader interested in power. Then the script introduces a cartoonishly evil late-episode twist where David imprisons Ellie, says he sees her — a child — as an equal, and expresses a lecherous interest in her.

There is no ambiguity in this. David is not a man hard-pressed to make difficult decisions to keep alive the people who trust him. He is not a man who believes in any kind of creed. All that makes sense to him is, ironically, violence — the lingua franca of the video game source material, which the TV show positions itself as adding complexity to.

It’s a well that The Last of Us writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann can’t stop drawing from. Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), the similarly petty tyrant in Kansas City who imposed a fascistic regime of absolute loyalty after overthrowing the fascist federal government; the poorly defined Firefly faction of guerrilla terrorists; the faceless FEDRA goons themselves — the world of The Last of Us is populated with zealots and tyrants. It’s the kind of place that imagines violence as the only meaningful way to have an impact on the world, and it’s notable that its only two exceptions — the survivalist couple Bill and Frank, and the Jackson settlement — are exclusionary communities where no one seems to believe in anything beyond a mistrust of outsiders.

Ellie crouches and presses up against a wooden fence in winter in a scene from HBO’s The Last of Us Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Blunt-force trauma is the only storytelling tool the show seems to employ in its biggest moments, sacrificing humanity for its sensational interest in moral and ethical extremes. Much like episode 8, where a desperate leader turning to horrific means of survival could result in a compelling story, the limits of violence as expression are potentially fertile ground — if the show’s writers were interested in it as anything more than a means to an end. Instead, however, Mazin and Druckmann believe they’re telling a story about Joel and Ellie, about trauma and love and the surrogate bond between them that the viewer, weirdly, has not even spent that much time seeing.

The Last of Us is presented as a story that’s interested in something more complex than the pulpy genre fare it’s riffing on. This is what all the statements about it being “the greatest story in gaming” and “not being about zombies” really amount to: a sincere belief that genre storytelling automatically equates to a deficit of depth, complexity, or relevance in character or theme. This is a position of insecurity, certainly, but it’s understandable, and the reputation of The Last of Us video game suggests that the original take on this story achieved that goal.

David is such an immediately and blatantly evil character that it undermines the entire reality of the show. The characters that obey him and are in on his secrets, the community that he leads — they are nothing but objects to exploit. Ellie, the heart and soul of the show, becomes an object for a man to exploit. In abandoning zombies, The Last of Us creators seem to think they are not making a zombie show. It’s hard to believe them, when all that they’re interested in is men and their appetites.

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