In HBO’s The Last of Us, it’s spore-spreading mutants rather than flesh-eating zombies that plague the survivors who are fighting hard to stay alive in an apocalyptic future. But uninfected people have reason to worry about being found and eaten. Episode 8, “When We Need You” from writer Craig Mazin and director Ali Abbasi lays out in brutal detail what it takes to survive The Last of Us‘ an infected and infested desert so dangerous – even in the winter months when the fungal monsters are not an immediate threat.
With Joel (Pedro Pascal) still injured and in need of medical attention as “When We Are in Need” opens, it seems like a godsend when Ellie (Bella Ramsey) first meets a preacher named David (Scott Shepherd) and his right-. handyman James (Troy Baker) who insists they can help keep her safe. But as Ellie gets to know the two and how they managed to survive with their small group of believers out in the woods, the encounter will be one of The Last of Us‘ the most serious chapters which emphasize how people have lost part of their humanity.
As the voice of Joel from The Last of Us Baker’s return as a supporting antagonist in one of the show’s darker storylines makes her cameo a surprise. But when I spoke with Baker recently ahead of “When We Are in Need,” he was quick to tell me that he sensed a very specific similarity between his take on Joel and James – one that becomes easier to understand when you stop to think about it The Last of Us as a story with real villains.
Episode 8 gives us an insight into the show’s perception of James and David, and I was very surprised and delighted to see how little different James is, especially from his counterpart in the games. Talk to me about who this James is in your mind.
Troy Baker: The beauty I found with James is that there is more to explore because, in the game, it’s not a James-forward story. In this version, we got a kind of exploration of who he is, and that’s still the job of the actor – to come up with your own background. As for me, who is this person, and how is he not a villain? That’s my first challenge because I don’t think anyone is a villain. We are all heroes of our own story. So how is James a hero? For me, it’s doing exactly what Joel does, which is asking “how can I best care for those I care about?” And it is pragmatic; he is not a violent person.
Is that what David appreciates on some level?
TB: David is looking for an equal, and he keeps James under his thumb because he recognizes that James is missing one component that Ellie really has, and that’s a violent heart.
It’s interesting, you’re saying that there’s this part of James that wants to protect people. There are all these moments throughout the episode where he starts almost like he’s trying to help Ellie in his own twisted way. When he asks David “Is it God’s will for us to kill this little girl or should we let her go?” he acts like he wants to keep Ellie away from their group to protect her. Who, in your mind, is James’ number 1 priority? Who is he most concerned with protecting?
TB: James. James is his No. 1 priority. 1 myself, and that never changes. The anchor point of his arc is one of ego. It is “how can I keep my position?” and it comes from a place of fear. James recognizes that David is the devil, and the last place you want to be is on the wrong side of the devil. So how can I keep myself in his good graces? And the problem is that Ellie is immediately threatening that position.
TB: James does not believe in God. James does not believe that they are doing God’s will or that God is protecting them or even that David is a man of God. He’s just saying, maybe I could use this as an excuse for you to get this girl the hell out of here, and he uses two arguments. One: it may be God’s will. And two: if we bring her back, she’s just another mouth to feed. He is using pragmatism. Because what he doesn’t want to say is “that girl will take my role.”
We only spend so much time with James and David’s group. But this episode tells you how important faith is to these people but also how frigid their relationship with faith is in this case for obvious reasons. You said James doesn’t really believe in God, but I’m curious — what ideas about faith were you trying to explore with his character and this community?
TB: That’s certainly a question for Craig [Mazin] as far as what they wanted to show, but there is an element. I don’t believe that people of faith are delusional, and I don’t even believe that they are wrong. What I believe is that it is the appropriation of faith and specifically scripture to control the great inclination to something that is inherently good.
Faith is meant to inspire, and it is. Some of the greatest works of art and pieces of music and literature have been created by people inspired by their faith. The problem is that faith can be used as a means of gaining control, and that’s something David quickly recognizes. It is similar when you look back at the history of the church. Their ability to control people was to say, “Well, what if He said this? And what if we write this and punish you?”
It is a story well documented throughout history. People, especially the tyrants who seek to oppress, will use faith and hope as weapons, and these people – David and James – are in a desperate situation where they must cling to those two things.
The Last of Us Being so cinematic and emotion-driven was a big part of what made it a phenomenon as a survival game in particular, and we’re seeing a lot of that same cinematic element with the series. But “the game was cinematic and good, so the show was good” feels like a very reductive way of talking about why the show resonates with people—
TB: [laughing] Hey, those for words.
Just some things I heard. But no, I wanted to hear from you why you think the show found such a following outside of OG fans. What is it about this show that speaks to people thinking about how familiar we all are with post-apocalyptic stories?
TB: I think, No. 1, that it is a story that is relatable because it is a story about love. It’s not a story about the apocalypse or the infected. It is not a story about anything other than love between father and daughter. The mix of Neil [Druckmann] and Craig together, in part, is a big reason for our success, because Neil’s philosophy is “what little I can write that expresses what I mean and what I intend with this scene. ”
Craig, his philosophy is “what are they thinking, what are they feeling, and how can I show that honestly?” And I’ve taken written notes from Craig, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I could give any writer, which is not smart, but let’s be honest. On every page, in every scene, with every character, in every episode.
There is a commitment to authenticity, not only to the truth that is trying to be expressed in each line of dialogue but also in these characters, in their performance. And it’s that commitment to telling the truth that makes it so resonant – because, like it or not, agree with it or not, whether it’s your bag or not, the truth is indisputable, and when you are face-to-face. it, you have to count with it.