The Last Of Us Explores A Serious Apocalyptic Threat We Haven't Seen Before

This post contains spoilers for HBO's "The Last of Us" and the video game series of the same name.

The infected in "The Last of Us" are driven by a different kind of hunger. These mutated, fungi-adorned monsters do not exhibit the traditional characteristics of a zombie, despite sharing overlapping traits with them. The Cordyceps-controlled infected function as a hive mind, interconnected through yards of undergrowth and tendrils, but they hunger for one thing alone: To infect every last human on earth. The end goal is not to devour human brains or flesh, but to multiply in violent ways to annihilate an already-dying race. Human survivors like Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) have spent most of the apocalypse fighting the infected, and the best way to tackle them is a shot to the head or a knife to the heart. But what about a threat that festers unseen, and brings the worst out of humanity? I'm talking about hunger. 

In both "The Last of Us" video games and the HBO adaptation, humans are a greater threat to our central duo than the infected, as their motivations are more twisted and difficult to parse. Episode 8 of the show highlights a new kind of evil with David (Scott Shepherd), the leader of a cultish religious group who enforces abuse by wielding power over the dependent members of his community. Like every other group of survivors, David's group has to contend with harsh winters, the infected, potential human threats, and hunger amid scarcity. Although survival has warranted a ton of violence in "The Last of Us," David's group takes it further when they are forced to satiate hunger: They kill and eat their own. 

Survival at any cost

The episode opens with David performing a sermon of sorts for his group, who have recently lost a member (who happens to have been killed by Joel in self-defense). David attempts to console his community and offer strength to the little girl who has lost her father. This scene gives off the impression that they're just like other groups trying to survive, doing their best to arrange food, shelter, and warmth for everyone, with David taking the onus of leading them. With time, it is clear that the group exhibits characteristics common in cults, with David assuming the role of a deceptively charming and seemingly generous cult leader who uses emotional manipulation to assert a sick form of authority. This is evidenced when David hits the same girl he had comforted before when she inadvertently questions his decision.

Hunger drives the plot forward when Ellie, David, and James (Troy Baker) cross paths after the former shoots down a deer. David appeals to Ellie's empathy by saying that he needs some of the meat to feed women and children in his group, but what appears as thoughtfulness is merely a ploy to have Ellie lower her guard. David exerts power over everyone by being in control of key resources like food and fulfills his role as a provider by killing and eating stray survivors, along with members of his own group. 

While his inner circle is actively aware of this and helps him carry out cannibalistic violence, others have an inkling but are either too scared or desperate to question or upset the status quo. The fact that human meat is passed off as venison in the group kitchen is revolting, especially considering that most of the adults are aware of the truth.

Hunger, the greatest provocateur

While the actions of the group are heinous, their desperate circumstances make it difficult to completely condemn them within a moral context. The younger members of the group are most likely unaware of the true extent of the situation and are trapped in a cycle of abuse enforced by the men they are dependent upon for survival. The same can be said about David's inner circle, who question his leadership at several points but ultimately choose to do nothing. Also aware of David's predatory behavior, they do nothing to actively stop it, as the need to have a full belly has convinced them that his (and their) actions are a necessary evil, thus justified.

The reprehensible nature of the cannibal group is in full display when Joel finds limbless bodies hanging inside their shed. To realize that they have been killing and eating people for years in the name of some twisted, survivalist mindset is sickening. David's monstrosity aside, the fact that the group was ready to kill a child in the name of retribution (and later eat her) or allow David to keep her locked in a cage clearly underlines their "us versus them" mentality, wherein they're ready to go to any lengths to satiate their own hunger. Hunger for food is only the least of the group's problems, as this base need has snowballed into a need to devour other lives and dehumanize anyone they deem as prey.

Then there are others like Maria and Henry, who, despite facing the same hunger, chose to give in to the need to protect and nurture instead. "The Last of Us" highlights time and again that while some actions are unavoidable, the path that one chooses to embark on is always hinged on our choices. How we respond to our hunger defines us.