[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.
Cannibalism aside, “When We Are in Need” is one of the weaker episodes of the season, due to how quick the pivot is from “everyone has to make moral compromises to survive in this world” to “David is a dangerous misogynistic psychopath.” Fiction is packed with charismatic leaders promising salvation before revealing their dark nature, but the more interesting interpretations are the ones where the leader in question is a more successful salesman: David makes a bit of an impact on Ellie at first, but his true nature is revealed very early to the viewer after he slaps a girl in mourning for her father.
To Ellie’s, and the episode’s, credit, she is barely tempted by his offer of safety within his flock, even before the topic of what’s for dinner comes up. But it removes any real ambiguity or doubt from what follows; we know Ellie and Joel won’t be joining David’s group, so it’s just a matter of how they’ll escape this situation, and how many bodies they’ll leave in their wake.
(Speaking of which: Troy Baker, who played the character of Joel in the original games, gets a substantial supporting role in this episode as James, David’s second-in-command. The show doesn’t get at all self-referential about it, though knowing that it’s the show’s Ellie who kills the game’s Joel — with a butcher knife to the neck, no less — is a bit funny to report.)
The most intriguing moment of the entire episode occurs before things get pretty black and white morally, when David tells Ellie about the recent scavenging party he sent out looking for food for his community, and how one of his people was killed by a “crazy man” who “was traveling with a little girl.” The Last of Us has been pretty good about finding the nuances possible when you consider other perspectives; in Kansas City, as one example, both Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and Henry (Lamar Johnson) made tough choices that led them to their tragic fates, but you could understand both sides of the conflict.
Similarly, revealing that the man we originally met as a dangerous ravager was a husband and father looking to help his community speaks to the ongoing question being explored by The Last of Us — what does it cost to survive, in a world like this, and is that price worth it? “When We Are In Need”‘s pivot away from ambiguity, unfortunately, means the show doesn’t dig into this idea as deeply as it could have, because what’s so horrifying about cannibalism is the way it invokes a basic human need on a primal, and relatable level. Put it another way, cannibalism is a hard idea to stomach… until your stomach is empty.
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.