‘The Last of Us’ reminds us people are the real monsters in a zombie apocalypse

As “The Walking Dead” and its progeny demonstrated time and again, people – left to their own devices in a lawless society – become the true monsters during a zombie apocalypse, a point made powerfully in the latest episode of “The Last of Us,” while demonstrating how tough, steely and resourceful the teenage Ellie can be.

With Joel (Pedro Pascal) still ailing, Ellie (Bella Ramsey) encountered David (Scott Shepherd), the leader of a starving community that he presides over as its spiritual guide as well as on a more basic level.

“It’s hard to trust strangers, I know,” David said when he first met Ellie, assuring her, “I’m a decent man.”

Yet despite a pleasant voice and sounding completely reasonable at first, David was exposed as a different kind of monster, resorting to cannibalism to feed his struggling flock, and eventually trying to sexually assault the teenage Ellie, who, thanks to her grit, he saw as a kindred spirit.

In one of the more horrific images the series has produced, first Ellie and then Joel witnessed the remnants of what David was relying upon for food, with the latter discovering a gruesome locker where bodies were being stored.

For her part, Ellie fought back after trading a deer for antibiotics in order to help Joel, who recovered enough to torture and kill several of David’s men in order to find her. She also brilliantly leveraged her immunity to the virus as a means of buying herself time when David was about to kill her, before cathartically saving herself with a visceral outburst of violence.

Almost surely by happenstance, the odd-numbered episodes of the series have generally been more memorable than the even ones, a pattern that persisted here. These last several chapters have been notable for the gradual evolution of the Joel-Ellie relationship, underscored when he finally found her at the hour’s end, telling the emotionally drained youth, “It’s OK, baby girl,” with a tenderness that stood in stark relief to the brutality on display otherwise.

Already a huge success for HBO (which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery) in terms of viewership and media buzz, the series has one more episode to essentially cement its credentials in terms the other priority associated with prestige-TV fare: Being remembered when Emmy awards season kicks into high gear this spring.

Aside from a rich roster of guest stars, Pascal and Ramsey might not have completely closed that deal given the historic hurdles faced by this genre on that front; still, with each of these last few hours, they continue to build upon what already appeared to be a pretty compelling case.