HBO's The Last Of Us Episode 8 Pushes Bella Ramsey To A New Level

This article contains spoilers for "The Last of Us" on HBO.

Bella Ramsey is a goddamn powerhouse. Period. The star of "The Last Of Us" has proven to be a perfect fit for the role of tenacious yet fun-loving apocalypse-born teen Ellie again and again, but in the season's penultimate episode, Ramsey drives the point home like a well-aimed butcher's knife.

Ramsey has been the perfect scene partner for Pedro Pascal from the series' start, holding their own opposite an actor whose guarded-yet-traumatized character often feels like the emotional core of the series. But if Ramsey's performance has perhaps earned less attention than Pascal's, it's only because his turn as Joel has required a slow and satisfying externalization of emotions — a tough-guy mask that steadily slips to reveal that he's not much more than a raw wound underneath. Ramsey's character, meanwhile, has offered the opposite: Ellie's a light, energetic wise-ass who gains a deeper relationship with pain and trauma at the same time that Joel begins opening up.

Lighthearted Ellie has vanished in this episode

It's that childlike cheerfulness, a youthful ability to bounce back like a rubber band and meet even the direst scenarios with a quip, that has made Ramsey's performance so slyly great. The actor adds comedy to Pascal's sense of tragedy. When Ellie is exposed to the grim realities of the post-apocalyptic world, she often takes in the bad news with a wide-eyed, teary stare, shocked into silence. When she witnesses Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and Henry's (Lamar Johnson) deaths, for example, she freezes. With tears streaming and lungs heaving, she refuses to look away from the sight. Until now, Ramsey's most emotional moments have been marked by pointed absence: we know Ellie has been hurt when she's rendered speechless, without a comeback or sardonic comment to be found.

But Ellie's encounter with David (Scott Shepherd) isn't like anything she's been through before. For one thing, she's all alone. For another, he's a man whose insidious nature and false front make conversations with him feel like a complicated chess match. Ellie lets her anger soften into a facade of calm when he comes to her in her jail cell, at first insisting that he locked her up because he's scared of her before explaining that she's smart and resilient enough to lead his cannibalistic cult beside him. A teacher-turned-pastor who has "always had a violent heart," David co-opts the language of both religion and sexual predation. Like many a pedophile before him, he tries to appeal to his victim by insisting she's special and precocious. At first, Ellie is quiet, but it's not the shell-shocked type of silence we've seen before: it's a sort of faux-active listening that plays perfectly into David's ego.

A ferocious attempt to fight back

Then, when he puts his hand on hers, she feigns submission for a moment before grabbing his fingers and cracking them with a resounding snap. David seems to want a child bride, but Ellie's decided to instead become a feral child, using the sweet face that people seem to love to project their desires onto in order to get him right where she needs him to be. "Let's see what I tell them now!" David says, sounding like a pathetic man who's lost all advantage. "Ellie," the girl says darkly. Her next line is powerful in "The Last Of Us" video game, but here Ramsey injects a sense of unhinged fury that makes it come out as half a scream: "Tell them that Ellie is the little girl who BROKE YOUR F***ING FINGER!" It's the most badass moment to date for a character who, despite others' attempts to coddle her, is clearly more than capable of taking care of herself.

Many, many people have had to endure the advances of older authority figures who lord their sense of leadership — and control — over their potential victims, myself included. In everyday scenarios, conversations with an undercurrent of implied sexual violence have become so normalized that girls learn from an early age to nod and smile and not cause a fuss in order to safely make it out the other side. But Ellie acts, doing the thing so many of us have wanted to do: when David and James (Troy Baker) come back for her, she kicks and screams and bites, doing everything she can to get them off of her.

Ramsey's boldest performance yet

When she finally gets David at her mercy, her fear and fury coalesce into blind violence: she strikes him with his own weapon, not two or five times, but twenty-two times. There's no hint of youthful naivety here, nor, unlike past tragic moments, any hint of that feeling being lost in real-time. Ramsey plays Ellie as a single-minded, unapologetic survivor. When Ellie hacks away at David, perhaps turning him into those tiny pieces he threatened to turn her into, it's as if she's killing every unfair and unfathomable thing that's ever happened to her: losing Riley (Storm Reid), Tess (Anna Torv), Sam, and Henry. Almost losing Joel right after they became a family. It's all there in Ramsey's angry, powerful performance, as Ellie fights not until her enemy is dead, but until she grows exhausted.

Ramsey shines as all versions of Ellie: the awkward romantic, the witty sidekick, the anxious but optimistic kid, and the shell-shocked survivor. But this week's "The Last Of Us" shows that Ramsey is also capable of taking big, bold swings with this performance. The series takes an appropriately ambivalent approach to its violence, even at the hands of its heroes, and Ellie's brutal takedown of David is no exception. Yet there's catharsis in Ramsey's performance this week, too. When Ellie's left alone and cornered, she snaps back, striking with twice the sheer force of will of the man who's convinced he can get inside her head. "The Last Of Us" is full of scenes that I'll remember long after the credits roll, but few moments will be seared in my mind quite like the shot of blood-soaked Ramsey screaming through jail bars with stunningly unadulterated rage.

"The Last of Us" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO and HBO Max.