Editor’s note: The following discussion contains spoilers for the eighth episode of The Last Of Us, “When We Are In Need.”
In an article for Vogue last December, author Chelsea G. Summers identified cannibalism in fiction as the defining cultural trend of 2022. The evidence is hard to dispute. We got Bones And All in theaters, and Yellowjackets, Fresh, and Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on television. There were books like Woman, Eating and Summers’ own A Certain Hunger. The popular video game Elden Ring featured a cannibal village, and there were even cooking games like Cannibal Cuisine and Ravenous Devils that involved the preparation of human meat. All of those titles came out just last year. So if you have mixed feelings about the latest episode of The Last Of Us going the cannibal route (as the game previously did), it might help to look at it as a narrative tool that reflects on (and perhaps even relies on) the zeitgeist.
For a series that has spent most of its season deliberately avoiding the tropes of the zombie genre (and make no mistake, this is a zombie show), The Last Of Us took a rather expected turn with the introduction of David (Scott Shepherd), the most evil villain we’ve met so far, and his clan of (mostly) unwitting cannibals. It’s nothing new for post-apocalyptic stories in any medium to use cannibalism as a plot point; they’re essentially an offshoot of the disaster survival genre. The Walking Dead, which always seems to hang over The Last Of Us like a long shadow, had its Terminus arc back in 2014. When those episodes aired, many fans accurately predicted where the storyline was going. The juxtaposition of mindless man-eating zombies and survivors who choose the same path with clear heads is rich territory to explore. It’s no wonder it comes up so often in these kinds of shows.
There’s a whole category for this over on the TV Tropes website: “I’m a humanitarian” (as in, if vegetarians eat vegetables, then humanitarians must … you know). You’ll find dozens of titles listed there, from The X-Files to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to The Simpsons to Hannibal. But none of those—with the possible exception of Hannibal, a show way ahead of its time—really speaks to the current wave of cannibals invading our media landscape and the reasons for that. What is it about modern times that makes us want to lift up the rock of civilized society and examine the squirming savages beneath?
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If only there were some sort of massive global event we could point to that made us all pause and consider what might happen if the guardrails that keep our communities in order were to fail. Oh, right. The pandemic might be the most obvious paradigm shift, but we’ve also seen upheavals in social justice, democracy, women’s rights, international diplomacy, the economy, and so many other systems we once took for granted as reliably stable. Watching them being dismantled and feeling powerless to stop it takes a toll on our psyche. To the rational brain, it might sound ridiculous to draw a line from these events to cannibalism, but cultural trends like this often touch something deeper within us beyond logic (and some right-wing extremists have already gone there by circulating illogical conspiracy theories suggesting their political opponents have engaged in it).
The news cycle often forces us to ask the question: What horrors are we as a species truly capable of when ethics, truth, empathy, and basic human decency are devalued? Taking that line of speculation all the way to its limit, we ultimately arrive at cannibalism, the last and most forbidden taboo. When we see characters in fiction cross that line—whether it’s a desperate attempt to survive or to satisfy an unnatural craving—it’s a sign to the audience that they’re past the point of no return. We can believe this character is capable of committing any atrocity because they’ve already thought the unthinkable, and acted on it (with or without their sanity intact).
When we learn that David in The Last Of Us has been feeding his people human meat and lying to them about it, that tells us all we need to know about the extent of his depravity. For all the reasons we’ve talked about, it’s likely that most of the audience correctly jumped to the right conclusion about the real origin of that “venison” right away. Once we suspect David is a cannibal, he becomes that much more of a threat to Ellie. Then he makes his creepy advance on her and we know we’re dealing with a truly irredeemable monster. It worked well in the game, and still does here. Sure, it’s a more predictable twist than we’re used to in this series, but the writers are counting on the audience to make that connection. With cannibals suddenly cropping up everywhere in pop culture, that’s an even safer bet now than when the game first came out in 2013.
It’s starting to look like cannibalism as a defining trend isn’t going to be limited to a single year. As long as we’re still dealing with trauma and disruption in public life, it will have symbolic appeal to artists, creators, and audiences alike. As much as it’s tempting to call out The Last Of Us for being the latest work to jump on the cannibal bandwagon, it’s a subject matter that remains unfortunately relevant in 2023.