In HBO’s The Last of Us, it’s spore-spreading mutants rather than flesh-eating zombies that plague the survivors fighting desperately to stay alive in an apocalyptic future. But uninfected humans do have reason to be concerned about being hunted down and eaten. Episode 8, “When We Are in Need” from writer Craig Mazin and director Ali Abbasi, lays bare in brutal detail just what makes living out in The Last of Us’ infected and infested wilderness so dangerous — even in winter months when the fungal monsters aren’t an immediate threat.
With Joel (Pedro Pascal) still wounded and in need of medical attention as “When We Are in Need” opens, it almost seems like a godsend when Ellie (Bella Ramsey) first encounters a preacher named David (Scott Shepherd) and his right-hand man James (Troy Baker) who insist that they can help keep her safe. But as Ellie gets to know the pair and how they’ve been managing to survive with their small group of fellow believers out in the woods, the encounter becomes one of The Last of Us’ most nightmarish chapters that highlights how people have lost part of their humanity.
As the voice of Joel from The Last of Us games, Baker’s return as a supporting antagonist in one of the show’s darker storylines makes his cameo a rather surprising one. But when I spoke with Baker recently ahead of the air of “When We Are in Need,” he was quick to tell me that he felt a very specific kind of similarity between his takes on Joel and James — one that becomes easier to understand when you stop thinking about The Last of Us as a story with true villains.
Episode 8 introduces us to the show’s take on James and David, and I was really surprised and kind of delighted to see how subtly different your James is, in particular from his counterpart in the games. Talk to me about who this James is in your mind.
Troy Baker: The beauty that I got with James is there’s more to explore because, in the game, it’s not a James-forward story. In this version, we got to kind of explore who he is, and that’s still the job that’s put to the actor — to come up with your own backstory. For me, it was who is this person, and how is he not a villain? That’s the first challenge that I have because I don’t think that anybody is a villain. We’re all the heroes of our own story. So how is James a hero? To me, he’s doing exactly what Joel does, which is to ask “how can I best look after those that I care about?” And he’s a pragmatist; he’s not a violent person.
Is that what David values about him on some level?
TB: David is looking for an equal, and he keeps James under his thumb because he recognizes there’s one missing component with James that Ellie actually has, and that’s a violent heart.
It’s interesting, you saying there’s this part of James that wants to protect people. There are these moments all throughout the episode where it almost starts to seem like he’s trying to help Ellie in his own sort of twisted way. When he asks David “is it God’s will for us to kill this little girl or should we let her just go?” it sort of plays like he’s trying to keep Ellie away from their group to protect her. Who, in your mind, is James’ No. 1 priority? Who’s he most concerned with protecting?
TB: James. James is his own No. 1 priority, and that never changes. The anchor point of his arc is one of ego. It’s “how can I maintain my position?” and it comes from a place of fear. James recognizes that David’s 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 immediately threatens that position.
How do you mean?
TB: James doesn’t believe in God. James doesn’t believe that they’re doing God’s will or that God’s 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 away from here, and he uses two arguments. One: maybe it’s God’s will. And two: if we bring her back, she’s just another mouth to feed. He’s using pragmatism. Because what he doesn’t want to say is “that girl is going to take my role.”
We only spend so much time with James and David’s group. But the episode does give you this sense of how important faith is to these people but also how fraught their relationship with faith has become in this situation for obvious reasons. You said James doesn’t really believe in God, but I’m curious — what ideas about faith did you want to explore with his character and this community?
TB: That’s definitely a question for Craig [Mazin] as far as what they wanted to show, but there is an element. I don’t believe that people who have faith are deluded, nor do I believe that they are even necessarily wrong. What I do believe is that the appropriation of faith and specifically scripture in order to control is the great perversion of something that is inherently good.
Faith’s meant to inspire, and it has. Some of the greatest works of art and pieces of music and literature have been created by people who were inspired because of their faith. The problem is that faith can be used as a means to control, and that’s something that David quickly recognizes. It’s similar to when you look back to the history of the church. Their ability to control people was by saying, “Well, what if He said this? And what if we wrote down this and threatened you with punishment?”
It’s a story that’s been well-documented throughout history. People, especially tyrants who seek to oppress, will use faith and hope as weapons, and these people — David and James — are in such a desperate position that those two things are all they have to cling to.
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 really reductive way to talk about why the show resonates with people—
TB: [laughing] Hey, those are your words.
Just sharing things I’ve heard. But no, I wanted to hear from you why you think the show has found such a following outside of the OG fans. What is it about this show that’s speaking to people considering how familiar we all are with post-apocalyptic narratives?
TB: I think, No. 1, it’s a story that is relatable because it’s a story about love. It’s not a story about the apocalypse or about the infected. It’s not a story about anything other than a love between a father and a daughter. The combination of Neil [Druckmann] and Craig together is, in part, the large reason for our success, because Neil’s philosophy is “what’s the least amount that I can write that can communicate what’s at stake and what my intention is with this scene.”
Craig, his philosophy is “what are they thinking, what are they feeling, and how can I most honestly display that?” And I’ve been given writing notes from Craig, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice that I would pass on to any writer, which is don’t be clever, just be honest. On every page, in every scene, with every character, in every episode.
There’s a commitment to authenticity, not only to the truth that’s trying to be conveyed in each line of dialogue but also in these characters, in their performance. And that commitment to that truth-telling is what makes it resonant — because, like it or not, agree with it or not, whether it’s your bag or not, the truth is incontrovertible, and when you’re face-to-face with it, you have to reckon with it.