The Last of Us‘ eighth episode, “When We Are in Need,” delivered a truly stunning hour of television. It also delivered an all-time great villain in Scott Shepherd’s David. The mild, friendly, cannibalistic pedophile preacher was more horrifying than any fungus. But while he was a spiritual leader wielding the word of God as a weapon, the show was not an indictment of organized religion or its followers. It was akin to a sermon entirely in line with the teachings of the Bible. Because Christianity warns about monsters exactly like David, false prophets with evil appetites who will lead others astray at the end of the world.
Content Warning: This article includes references to cannibalism and pedophilia.
If you want a succinct masterclass in both screenwriting and developing a memorable villain, The Last of Us provided exactly that with David. At this point in the show’s run we know not to trust anyone in this dystopian wasteland of monsters. Especially the human ones. There’s no depths to the amount of evil a person might carry behind a friendly veneer. Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen made that clear. She sounded and looked more like a sweet librarian than the amoral, bloodthirsty killer she truly was. But that’s what made the episode’s writing and Shepherd’s mesmerizing performance so effective. It was hard not to initially think this soft-spoken man, the former math teacher who found faith in the face of armageddon, might actually be as kind as he seemed.
David’s people, suffering and broken, turned to him for comfort. He offered hope of both surviving their current hell and for eternal salvation in the next life. With his steadying hand and personal conviction it’s easy to see why they named him their actual leader and not just their preacher after meeting him along the proverbial road to Damascus. And even if he was not as good as he first appeared, how bad could he be if he insisted on saving a young girl’s life? He wanted to keep Ellie safe even though she represented one more mouth he could not feed. He also refused to hold her accountable for Joel’s actions. What could be more Christian than protecting the innocent and vulnerable? Of granting mercy and forgiveness? Of refusing to punish someone for the sins of their father?
But the warmth of God’s love and light that David bathed himself in slowly faded over the course of the episode. The show methodically revealed the dark depths of his deception and depravity with a deft hand that made discovering his true nature a terrifying journey. He was not a nice man in a sweater and glasses offering the Almighty’s grace to his congregation. He didn’t even see himself as a man. David considered himself a godlike “Father” to them all. And when a grieving daughter challenged his authority his previous kind words became a vicious backhand, all before he sat down to a bountiful feast while his hungry followers dined on morsels.
But that was merely the start of learning who David really was. We then discovered he had unwittingly turned his people into The Last of Us‘s very own Donner Party. It was the episode’s first shocking revelation to brilliantly reframe everything we’d already seen. But it was not its most important nor its most troubling. David could justify breaking the Bible’s commands against cannibalism because it was the only way he could save his people. And keeping that secret from them was in some ways a selfless act because it burdened him with additional sin rather than the others. In some ways his immorality was moral. (Note: Catholics believe they consume the literal body of Jesus Christ during Holy Communion. However, within the Church it’s still a sin to eat someone else’s flesh.)
There’s no justification, either religious or secular, for why he really kept Ellie safe, however. David was not a simple shepherd. He saw opportunity in the Apocalypse, a chance to finally embrace his true evil self. “I’ve always had a violent heart, and I struggled with it for a long time,” he told Ellie. “But then the world ended and I was shown the truth.” And for him the truth Cordyceps revealed was that his nature was not unnatural. Cordyceps proved to him violence is the only true form of love, because the fungus protects its family by attacking others.
David couldn’t admit any of that to his congregation, only Ellie. He wrongly thought he saw the same kind of evil and violence in her, whereas his “sheep” had good hearts. And it was those very same good hearts that left them vulnerable in their greatest time of need. “They need God, they need Heaven, they need a Father,” David said. And he fulfilled that role with lies that shielded the truth about himself.
But none of that means David or the show should be considered an indictment of religion and Christianity. It’s the opposite. That pedophile who once worked in an elementary school is a villain right out of the Bible. It warns its followers again and again about evil men like him. The Gospel of Matthew says, “ Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” because these “ false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” And Romans 16:18 says, “For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” It’s as though those passaged and the countless like them were the very inspiration for the character.
Those are just a tiny fraction of the Bible’s many warnings about David-like figures. Many of them come in the Book of Revelation which tells of the end of the world. It says that’s when false prophets and the Antichrist himself will come to prey on God’s followers. The lies of Satan and his worshippers, delivered with a smile and claiming to be in service of Christ, will lead the Lord’s sheep away from salvation when they need it most. But just as the Bible speaks of his coming, David met the very end that sacred book promises awaits his kind.
Flames filled the room where David tore off the last vestiges of his false persona. It was another perfect moment in a perfect episode, as though Hell itself had opened its gates to him. And as he sat atop Ellie and pinned her to the ground reveling in the fight, the kid with a good heart who was not like him at all, sent him where he belonged. She took hold of that butcher’s knife and fulfilled the Book of Revelation once more. For it says, “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
David wasn’t the show’s screed against religion or Christianity anymore than Kathleen was a screed against fighting fascism. They were both warnings about what can happen when we willingly blind ourselves out of desperation or fear. David was another warning against our own failing and the dangers of putting total faith in any leaders. Because our ability to see the truth about people we want—and often feel we need—to believe in can leads us to darkness. Sometimes we see the flames of damnation and think its a light of righteousness.
So long as any person, with all the failings that come with being human, has something to gain from leading others we are all vulnerable to evil. And that warning, told so powerfully in this episode, is an extension of the series’s most important ida. The Last of Us is about finding purpose in serving others rather than finding purpose in people who claim to serve us. That’s a beautiful idea, one that is as true in our own world as it is in fictional one. And you don’t need to be a Christian to see why.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.