Episode Analysis The Last of Us: When We Are In Need

Episode eight of HBO's The Last of Us shows how editing and directing can transform a story.

Episode Analysis The Last of Us: When We Are In Need
Image courtesy of WarnerMedia

Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode eight as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.


We’re on the home stretch, folks! Episode Eight of HBO’s The Last of Us! When We Are In Need! Penultimate ep before I can finally start talking to you guys about all the stuff I’ve been screaming into a pillow about so I don’t spoil any of you.

Did I change the date of a doctor’s appointment so that I had all of next Monday free to write? Yes. Yes, I did.

But in the meanwhile we’re on episode eight! Which is not the finale! But has things that are relevant to the finale and will make even more sense after the finale and HAVE I MENTIONED I’M TRYING TO BE GOOD HERE?

Which of course leaves me with… what do we talk about?

Which is some stuff! But I’ll ask your patience if there’s things I skirt around because, again, one more ep to go! Then everything, I promise!

If you need the short version it’s that I thought this was a good ep. Not a great ep. Not one of the best eps. But okay.

Let’s talk why.

Why HBO’s The Last of Us: When We Are In Need Was Good But Not Great

Seriously, never tiring of the subheading gag.

So as regular readers know, I try not to look at other reviews, message boards, social media or the like before I do my writeups. I like being able to word vomit my own opinions and ideas at y’all and then see what other people said.

As such I don’t currently know the answer to this, but would love to hear from any of you for whom this applies to.

Namely: Did people who aren’t familiar with the game think that there was a race to see if Joel would save Ellie before Ellie saved herself?

Because in the game that was absolutely clear. And based on the companion podcast and behind the scenes video after the show, that was supposed to be clear.

But I don’t think the show actually made it clear. And I think the reason why is a problem the entire episode had for me, frankly, which is directing and editing.

Now I don’t know Ali Abassi from a hole in the ground as far as directing goes. Same for Cindy Mollo as an editor. Cindy’s got a longer resume than Ali does so there’s that in her favor. And I realize that this is me being super picky in a way that most people don’t notice or care about.

But the super brief conversations I’ve had about the episode with people seem to indicate that I’m not alone in saying the episode didn’t feel right. Like it had a lot of strong story beats. It had great acting, including from Scott Shepherd as the hard to nail role of David (played by Nolan North in the original game, aka the only man more ubiquitous in the voice acting world than Troy Baker while being just as talented). But the emotions and the pacing felt off.

You know I don’t mean to slag off on people trying to do a good job. And in fairness to everyone in front of and behind the cameras, putting together an episode in the weather conditions they had to deal with is not easy (that was very much real snow and frequently real wind to go with it). But it was during even those early scenes where my spidey sense was tingling, and what made it tingle was that we were not seeing shots that felt like they went together. They felt like a collection of shots that happened one after another.

I will, as always, cheerfully point to Endure and Survive as an example of phenomenal editing. Seriously, I will be using that episode as an editing touchstone long after season one of HBO’s The Last of Us is done. Beautiful. Can’t say enough good about it.

But when you think about what made Endure and Survive work - which is that even in the chaos of infected and soldiers and, yes, even fire you always knew what was going on and where people were in relation to one another, does When We Are In Need feel like that? Or does it maybe feel more like episode two, Infected?

I’ll start with the easier to understand examples and then pull our metaphorical camera back, so to speak.

Think about Ellie in the restaurant. Forget everything else. Can you give a general idea of the layout of the restaurant? Where is the front door in relation to the fireplace? How about in relation to the kitchen? I’m not saying you need to sketch me a detailed floor plan, but if we see a shot of Ellie grabbing a burning piece of wood do we know how far away David is from her? How about when she grabs the knife? How about when she went through a pair of swinging doors? Or when she’s hiding while David talks?

The entire point of this scene is to build tension about Ellie being in danger and at no time do we know where she is, where she’s going, where David is or where he’s going, and especially where they are in relation to one another.

Now anybody familiar with the game can insert their own joke here about how confusing this particular boss battle is and how easy it is to get yourself turned around. But that’s playing a game where the player controls Ellie and where the camera faces. You shouldn’t have this confusion about a visual sequence in a TV show where the director should be getting full coverage of the action and the editor should be stitching that footage into a story.

Let’s go back to Joel now. We’re supposed to be on the edge of our seat going oh my god oh my god I hope he gets there in time! Except is the show showing us that? Again, not really.

During the David and Ellie sequence in the burning restaurant, they cut in a shot of Joel once. It’s brief shot of Joel slowly walking through the snow looking like he’s trying to find Ellie’s school bus so he can give her the backpack she forgot on her way out the door. There’s no sense of urgency. Pedro Pascal, who we know can convey volumes of information with his face alone, to all appearances looks like this might have been B roll of him heading back to his trailer.

So the lack of any sense of urgency with Joel is a director issue. Pedro had no problem conveying worry, speed, and urgency when standing in a window back in Endure and Survive. Here we’re supposed to believe he’s struggling against an unknown clock to save Ellie’s life and there’s no hint of that whatsoever.

And I’m not talking about the speed of his walk. I get that Joel is injured and have no issues with how Pedro is conveying that. My issue is that emotionally Pedro is being undercut this entire sequence. Take it a few beats prior when he finds Ellie’s backpack and then the bodies hanging from the ceiling. We cut away before we get Joel’s full reaction. We see enough to get Joel going “Am I seeing what I think I see?” (because, again, Pedro can convey this with his face alone) and then boom! Cut! Nothing to indicate what Joel is now thinking about how this new information relates to Ellie’s safety and how it’s even more urgent to find her.

So we go from not getting to see his reaction to the bodies to next we see him is squinting around in the snow. Not only that but the thing we hear from just before this shot of Joel looking like he’s trying to remember where he parked his car, is David saying “The doors are locked and I have the keys.” In other words we were just told nobody can get in. Putting the shot of Joel right after that is a choice made by an editor. If you put a visual after a piece of dialogue it connects those two things. The doors are locked means the doors can’t be opened which means nobody can open the doors and if you need a reminder of who someone is who might want to open the doors, hey! Here’s a shot of Joel! Cool! Now we know Joel has no way into the building! What a shame, since you need to get into the building in order to save Ellie! Guess Joel's not doing that then, huh?

Making it even worse, after that we don’t see Joel again at all the entire sequence. It’s David and Ellie… where ever the heck they are in the restaurant at any given time. Where’s Joel? Great question. Maybe he’s across the street from the restaurant, maybe he took a wrong turn and is now halfway back to Tommy’s house in Wyoming. We have no idea.

Now they don’t have to show Joel if the point of the scene has nothing to do about making us wonder if Joel is going to get there in time. But, as stated by Craig and Neil, it very much was. We’re supposed to think it’s Joel and surprise! Ellie saves herself.

There’s none of that. First up, you need more shots of Joel to begin with. You can’t have a brief shot at the beginning and then we never see him again. Second, you need better cuts to Joel to tell this story.

Instead of what we got, try this on for size: How about when Ellie bursts into the restaurant we see Joel come out of where the bodies are? Now we’ve tied these story beats together. Ellie is trying to escape, Joel is trying to find, the cut tells us this is happening at the exact same time and probably in close proximity to each other. Already we’re ahead of the game.

Keep the sequence of the restaurant as is for the sake of argument. But how about instead of after David’s line about the keys, we jump in after David says “I’ve decided you do need a father”? Now even if we cut to the exact same shot of Joel trudging around with Ellie’s backpack that they used the first time, there’s a better emotional impact. Ellie has a father. She has Joel, and Joel is coming for her. (Also imagine how much more badass it would’ve been to see Joel coming while we hear David continue with “I’m going to keep you, and I’m going to teach you” given that the earlier scene with the map showed us how Joel teaches people why they shouldn’t piss him off.)

Then, for one last cut, how about after David pulls his bloody hand away from his stab wound, we see Joel dealing with his own? He - whatever - accidentally bumps into the side of the building and is dealing with pain and might quit but no! He’s gritting his teeth and still going! Better yet, how about at this point we then cut in a shot of the smoke coming out of the restaurant so now Joel has something to head towards and even more reason to get there as fast as he can?

Now none of this is perfect. It’s a little cheesy and not the platonic ideal of good timing for where cuts should go either. There’s a reason why I spend my time typing words over here instead of offering my skills to the vast number of YouTubers in dire need of someone to deal with their footage. (Or, heck, making my own.) But hopefully you can see my point about how they could’ve kept the relatively same concept of “Okay, Pedro, walk out of a building and head in this direction while we film you” but tell a better story with it purely with a couple of editing tweaks. It wouldn’t need much to give this sense that Joel and Ellie are on the same timetable, Joel heading right for Ellie, oh my gosh he’s almost there! Until - surprise! Ellie saves herself.

I mean at bare minimum establishing shots would’ve done a ton of lifting during this sequence. Establish the layout of the restaurant. Occasionally establish where Ellie and David are in relation to each other. Establish where the eff Joel is in town and how he even knows what building to go to. Etc.

Which gets me to my other point which is that I kinda suspect there were a lot of scenes not filmed when other actors are around. This gets picky and more finicky I grant you, but there are a ton of shots in this that I could put a dot next to and say this is a shot of an actor being told to repeat a single, small action. Like “Bella, lift your head from the snow.” or “Troy, stand by that tree.”

That’s not a bad thing! This is how the Hollywood sausage gets made. Again, as we talked about in Endure and Survive, I can guarantee you they have hours of footage of Pedro in a window looking left and right. But it’s your director and actors who put emotion into those moments no matter how small and it’s your editor who puts the footage into the final cut in a way that makes it look like it flows.

For a comparison, look at the sequence of Troy Baker’s character shooting Ellie’s horse versus Ellie running away in the cul-de-sac when Kathleen and her soldiers show up. Both have similar limitations: They have FX and other things to work around (gun shots, vehicles, real vs fake horses), environment (night time and snow), and shots that, for various reasons, require actors not to be there at the same time (the limitations of child actor hours plus what I’m guessing is the limitations of what stunt work Bella could do, especially as it related to falling off an animal).

If you want to get even more specific, compare the shot of Ellie firing behind her at the truck as she runs away in the cul-de-sac with Troy Baker readying himself by the tree before he shoots Ellie. Both of those have the same thing of filming an actor by themselves but making it seem like they are there at the same time as other people. Endure and Survive manages the illusion through the magic of directing, acting, and editing. When We Are In Need… has Troy Baker posting up near a tree in a moment that doesn’t even look like it was filmed in the same province as the rest of the sequence, never mind in something that implies he ever had the chance to meet Bella Ramsey in person while the show was filming.

These are all just examples but once you see them you can then look at the episode and go oh, wait, the whole thing was like this. There’s no sequence where you know where people are in relation to each other, where they are compared to where they were a second ago, why are they going in a certain direction, and on and on and on.

Sure you can watch the entire episode and get the general idea. Nobody’s coming out of this confused about David being a creepy pervert cannibal, for instance. But if you do come out of it going “Hmm, that ep wasn’t doing it for me like the other episodes did” I’m telling you right now it was the directing not getting enough out of the actors and the editing not producing a story.

Which, I’m gonna be honest: has me a little worried about next week because that’s Ali and Cindy too. Hopefully this is the one they phoned in so that the finale can be awesome.



As always, things which don’t fit anywhere else:

  • Boy Troy Baker is a real good voice actor, huh?
  • Okay look, y’all know I love voice actors. I didn’t sit through all of What If…? because I don’t love the craft. And for real, Troy Baker is a very good voice actor. He’s kind of a pretentious twit as a person but the man has undeniable talent when he’s in front of a microphone. But, much as people who are good at in front of the camera acting aren’t necessarily good at voice acting, the same is true in reverse. And wooo boy my man forgot he’s got a whole body to work with there, huh? Which is weird because he does motion capture too! He did it for The Last of Us! But bless his heart. I was reminded of how you can sometimes tell good from great dancers by whether they remember to do something with the hand that’s not in front during the choreography.
  • Also in fairness to Troy, the directing was not strong. I mean even Pedro and Bella weren’t giving their best. Troy may have had a vastly different golf handicap here, so to speak, but the tide raises all ships, you know?
  • Props to makeup. Because I legit wrote in my notes I was worried about poor Bella getting frostbite, then in the behind the scenes I saw all that red on their face was put there. At least I hope most of it was makeup.
  • A little detail I liked was how David’s plate was clearly full compared to the three or four bites everyone else had to eat. Likewise he felt no need to eat quickly. Home boy was not going hungry like everyone else was.
  • The birds alerting Ellie to trouble was another nice detail.
  • I love the world building - and this is from the game as well but it still counts in my opinion - that settling in a resort seems like a great idea until you realize the things that make resorts attractive to visit (including their locations) are completely different from what you need for sustainable living.
  • As much as I don’t care for editing and pacing the rest of the ep, I will give genuine respect to the moment of Ellie killing David. I timed it. That is a 17 second long single shot of Ellie going through a host of thoughts and feelings as she cleavers a man’s face in. There are a lot of directors and producers who would not take the risk of having a shot like that. It’s a risk to have no cuts for that long, it’s a risk to do it with raw emotions for that long, it’s a risk to do it with raw, violent emotions for a female character at all, let alone a female character who is 14 years old. That was an amazingly done moment and I have no notes.
  • Try not to faint from shock, but this is the one time when I will agree with people that the episode would’ve benefitted from having some infected. Mild game spoilers here but in the game part of why Ellie and David bond is that during their time waiting for the medicine, they’re attacked by infected and have to fight them off together. It didn’t have to be as an elaborate action sequence as it was in the game, but David fighting off even a couple of runners with Ellie would’ve made for a good bonding moment. The infected make sense if they help the character development. As I’ve already discussed with Endure and Survive, the infected there didn’t actually do anything for the story. Super cool looking and well done sequence, but it meant nothing narratively. A quick infected fight here would’ve meant something. It’s not the worst thing in the world to not have it, but it wouldn’t have hurt either.
  • I know you have to trust me here but my magic super power at figuring out behind the scenes stuff kicked in when it came to the change from Joel finding Ellie in the restaurant to him finding her outside. Which is that I guessed it was because for whatever reason they didn’t want to film Pedro in the restaurant. Sure enough in the podcast Craig and Neil confirmed that it was the logistics of the fire combined with things like how would Joel even get in if the doors were locked?
  • So, since I was right with that, I’m going to give you another guess I have about this episode. I think that a lot of it was filmed on vastly different days, weeks, and even months. I think the weather probably screwed them a bit on both timing and what locations they planned on using vs what they ended up using. And that’s why things like Troy jumping over a fence feel completely unconnected from Troy standing by a tree, and also why they don’t have simple things like exterior shots of the restaurant burning or Joel coming out of where the dead bodies were hung. I think Cindy had to make do with the best she was given and that’s part of why it feels so choppy and unconnected. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my magic guess.
  • Again, keeping my mouth shut until next week. But this week did you notice yet again the characters motivated by love? Did you notice moments of who has and who offers agency? Did you notice how a story changes depending on the point of view of someone telling it?
  • Do you have your schedule cleared for next week because woo boy are we gonna talk?
  • See you then!

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