resource management

Give It Up for the Last of Us Menstrual Cup

Episode six’s menstrual-cup scene — short, pointed, human, distinct to the TV series, unburdened by overexplanation — is The Last of Us at its best. Photo: HBO

In The Last of Us’s sixth episode, “Kin,” Joel and Ellie finally reach Jackson, Wyoming, a miraculously functional town in the middle of the show’s postapocalyptic America. Joel is reunited with his brother, Tommy, and they spend some time with Tommy and his partner, Maria. Eventually things go awry, of course, and Joel and Ellie find themselves out in the wilderness again. But before that happens, they take advantage of Jackson’s resources to acquire a few new things. Joel gets new boots; Maria gives Ellie a haircut, a pile of clean clothes, and a menstrual cup.

It’s a short little scene: Ellie finds the cup left for her on a bed and glances at the accompanying pamphlet. The camera slides briefly past the pamphlet diagrams and then cuts back to Ellie as she examines the cup. “Oh,” she says, gently surprised and a little impressed. She squishes the cup a little, and then folds it as the Diva Cup pamphlet demonstrates. “Gross,” she says, smiling.

That menstrual-cup scene — short, pointed, human, distinct to the TV series, unburdened by show-your-work references or overexplanation — is The Last of Us at its best.

It’s perfectly in keeping with video-game logic without carrying the weight of re-creating a specific, beloved game sequence. The menstrual cup belongs to TV Ellie alone.

The Last of Us showrunner Craig Mazin says he began thinking about tampons early in the pandemic while browsing Target aisles and suddenly realizing he should probably be stocking up for his wife and daughter. He called his wife — “What do you use? How many packages should I get?” — and then started considering that same experience in the context of The Last of Us. “These are basic items that we’d need or would want,” he says. “In a postapocalypse, it’s annoying to have to deal with that and have a shortage of options. Why wouldn’t we show it? Especially because our co-lead is a 14-year-old girl. This is part of her life!”

Episode six’s menstrual-cup scene is the second time Ellie encounters menstrual products in the postapocalyptic wilderness. In the first, a scene from episode three, Ellie ignores Joel’s instructions to stay put and explores the cellar of a convenience store. She picks through rubble and risks an encounter with an Infected, and when she finds a dusty box of Tampax Pearls left sitting on a shelf, she whispers “Fuck yeah!” It was important, says Mazin, that there’s no moment when Ellie considers stuffing them into her backpack so that Joel can’t see them. Joel, Mazin says, is “a very masculine guy, and you know he never had a period conversation with [his daughter] Sarah. Never! And here’s this kid who has no shame attached to it whatsoever.”

That scene in episode three is one of the many instances where The Last of Us re-creates game functions for the landscape of a TV drama. In this case, it’s the video game’s persistent resource-management anxiety, familiar from Neil Druckmann’s Last of Us as well as dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of other role-playing video games. How much can you carry? What items do you really need? How do you find more bullets or more health packs? So much of the game-playing experience is about scrounging and searching, constantly raiding busted lockers and rusty shelving units for odd scraps of food or extra ammo. Ellie wandering into a cellar and finding a box of something useful is as fundamental to the gaming experience as crouching behind a chest-high wall or thwacking a zombie in the head with an ax.

But for that box to be tampons, rather than a first-aid kit or a can of peaches, is an opportunity for the TV version of TLOU to be just a tiny bit playful with the original game’s inherent assumptions (and its familiar omissions). Dealing with the inconvenience of a human body does sometimes go beyond food, bullets, and antibiotics. When Ellie discovers a box of tampons, the TV series can play into the expectations of a game-literate viewer — here she is, doing a classic search for hidden items — but it can also twist those expectations into a more expansive vision of what kinds of bodily experiences get prioritized in video-game landscapes.

The tampons are a fun first salvo, but the menstrual-cup scene is really the pinnacle of this motif. It takes that same resource-scouting architecture of the tampon moment and adds a new layer of video-game structure: As you make it further into the game, you level up to better items. The cup (Ellie’s is specifically a Diva Cup), Mazin says, “is a great solution in the ongoing apocalypse. It’s a reusable solution that doesn’t require you finding boxes of tampons in Infected-ridden cellars.” But there’s very little hand-holding about what the object actually is or does. “We did do one thing,” Mazin says. “We enhanced the original paperwork that we had for the cup. It says ‘menstrual solution’ on it, but it was hard to read, so we used visual effects to make it a little bigger. But it goes by very quickly. The intention was that if you don’t know what it is, you can ask someone or you can Google. It’s more for the people who do know what it is.”

“We do this all the time in shows with things like guns,” Mazin adds. “People don’t know how to load guns, and we don’t explain it to them. Why should we have to explain this?”

Beyond the pleasure of a simple, straightforward representation of how annoying it is to have to deal with menstrual hygiene, the Last of Us’s cup scene is a case where the TV series deliberately creates some small but palpable space between itself and its source text. The biggest earlier example is the Bill and Frank departure episode, but in that case, TLOU was operating on a broad, operatic emotional scale. It felt like a flag in the ground, an arm-waving assertion that the show could stake out its own narrative territory, but it also carefully steered clear of changing anything fundamental about the Joel and Ellie characters inherited from the video game. The menstrual-cup scene is smaller, funnier, and more casual, and it’s also one very gentle tweak of Ellie as a character. She is a 14-year-old with a uterus, and unlike the video-game Ellie, who runs across the dangerous American wilderness without ever thinking about what day she is in her cycle, TV Ellie has a period. Acknowledging that makes her — and the show — just a bit more human.

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Give It Up for the Last of Us Menstrual Cup