For anyone who’s played The Last of Us, which splits the narrative into seasons of the year, you know the “Winter” section is pretty rough. Not only is the terrain and visibility incredibly treacherous, it leads Ellie to perhaps the most infamous confrontation in the entire first game. For the corresponding episode of the HBO series, they somehow managed to make it even more horrific and intense while entirely removing a major set piece. You probably didn’t even miss it.
This section of the game is the first in which players take control of Ellie rather than Joel. Joel is still, as he is in the show, largely incapacitated from the wound he suffered in Colorado. For the entirety of the game to this point, Joel has been the player, and Ellie the escorted supporting character. So when we see the “Winter” chyron in the game, we’re surprised to see it’s Ellie we control. She has a bow and arrow and hunts for wild game. The solitude the player and Ellie feel is palpable. As Joel, we always had Ellie cracking jokes and keeping us honest; here, Ellie has no one, and that’s precisely what leads her to the horrors later in the story.
After shooting a deer—in the show, it’s just with a rifle—she comes across two weary looking hunters. One is David (Scott Shepherd) and the other is James (Troy Baker). Now anyone who has played the game knows David is bad news, but the TV show, I think, does a much better job of making David truly terrifying rather than video-game terrifying.
As voiced by Nolan North, Game David is scraggly, unshaven, seems to wear dirty rags, and speaks with what I can only describe as “evil creep whimpering.” In short, it’s no surprise when we learn David is a cannibal. This works just fine in a video game, and it’s no shade on North or the game designers. By this point in the game, we’ve met tons of weird creeps, and it’s really more of a question of whether Ellie can trust David for even a short period of time.
In the show, David is much subtler in his creepiness. While Shepherd plays him with the requisite shadiness, he’s clearly much more put together. His hair is short, he’s wearing a sweater, he looks like a guy. James, on the other hand, still looks much more in line with Game James, and we quickly learn why. More on that in a moment.
The first interaction plays out much like in the game. David tries to convince Ellie that he leads a bigger group and they need food. Ellie lies and says she does too, but eventually David convinces her that they can split the deer. James goes off to get the cutting implements while David stays with Ellie as collateral.
It’s here in the game when we get a big gameplay moment. Ellie and David have to fend off their position from a horde of infected. Waves of clickers and runners come into their little atrium of supposed safety and Ellie and David work together to stop them. It’s through this little action set piece that Ellie lets her guard down ever so slightly. She never fully trusts David, but she thinks they might be of similar level of desperate. Little does she know.
In the show, the same scene plays out very differently. We get no infected and instead we have a conversation where David talks about finding his way through religion after the fall of society. He has made a promise to his people, and wants to be a good person. Or so he says. It’s not entirely obvious that he’s up to some horrifying shiz, and this gives Ellie the briefest moment of guard-dropping when James returns.
Ellie has not that long ago seen Jackson, the thriving, safe, well-run community of survivors in Wyoming. David’s resort town-turned-sanctuary could easily have been the same kind of place. In fact, when we go back to the town with David, it certainly shows signs of what it could be. However, they were not blessed with the resources or the gumption of the Jackson compound, as evidenced by the slowly starving members of David’s flock.
What truly makes Show David scarier than Game David is that he believes he’s doing the right thing, and the power of his position has gone well to his head. We see everyone else pale and gaunt but David is well fed. Sure, it’s because he’s eating people, but in the same way we saw Kathleen’s followers trust her blindly to their own detriment, David’s people just want someone to believe in. They shouldn’t have done that. In the game, David feels like a psycho leading the Donner Party. In the show, he’s a monster who exploited lost souls.
By episode’s end, when Ellie goes feral in her final victory over David, both she and we have met the worst of The Last of Us. It’s not just people put in tough situations forced to do despicable things. Nor is it only an “us or them” mentality. David effectively gave Ellie the choice “Sell out Joel and become my next child bride or I’m going to eat you.” If the previous episode showed us the last hours of Ellie’s childhood, this episode showed us Ellie’s quick education on a what a world without Joel could hold for her. The winter of her innocence.