[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Season 1 Episode 8, “When We Are in Need.”]
There’s one topic that so many post-apocalyptic narratives end up exploring at some point, but it took until Episode 8 of The Last of Us Season 1 for cannibalism to become a focus. The episode picks up with Ellie (Bella Ramsey), having managed to sew up the wound Joel (Pedro Pascal) received while they were looking for the Firefly base in Colorado, realizing they need more supplies to survive — her hunting trip unfortunately bringing her into the orbit of David (Scott Shepherd), a seemingly kindly “preacher” whose small group has also been struggling to survive in the harsh winter.
As someone who didn’t play the video games, I didn’t know for a fact that David’s small group would be relying on “alternative food sources” for their survival at first, but the episode did provide plenty of ample warning to prepare myself. See, everyone has things they’re not comfortable watching on screen: Some people can’t handle vomiting, or blood, or the sound of children singing. For me, it’s cannibalism, originating with a bad experience in high school — the cult film club I belonged to chose to watch part of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen during lunch period, and my turkey sandwich soon found its way into a hallway trash can. (I will not go into specifics about how it arrived there.)
Honestly, it was something I thought I’d moved past in recent years; while my cannibalism hang-up is the reason I still haven’t watched as much Yellowjackets as I know I should, I did at least get through that pilot (though I did not enjoy how much noise the meat made as it sizzled). So, going into “When We Are in Need,” I was feeling a little hopeful that I’d be able to make it through the episode without gagging too hard… and then Ellie spotted that damn ear.
Again, this subject matter is something you expect to come up in survival stories, its power deriving from what it says about the human drive to survive. I’ve been trying for years to figure out why cannibalism bothers me so much — it’s of course one of the great societal taboos, with stories of Uruguayan rugby teams and the Donner Party making for their own modern horror stories. Yet I know enough people who can watch Yellowjackets without looking away from the screen to wonder where my own personal disgust comes from (beyond blaming Jean-Pierre Jeunet for scarring me as a teen).
There has been plenty written about all the reasons why cannibalism is considered taboo by today’s society, and perhaps that’s the key element — the existence of society itself, the safety of rules and order, with values that include respect for basic human dignity, even after death. After all, for cannibalism to occur in the Western world in the 21st century, something has to have gone terribly wrong, either inside a person’s head or with their circumstances. Like, say, the onset of a global zombie apocalypse.