Up until episode three’s “Long Long Time,” HBO’s The Last of Us walked a fairly treacherous tightrope between fan expectation and creative independence. When you’re adapting a video game as seminal and beloved as Neil Druckmann’s action-adventure role-playing epic, you’re both beholden to its self-generated nostalgia and freed from the constraints of its original medium. You must achieve gaming fans’ obscure vision of what this show should look like while challenging them (and newcomers) with originality that pays homage and pushes its storytelling forward in ways that entertain and delight, but never anger or disappoint.
It’s an impossible ask, one the show has fielded well so far, but episode three gives us hope that Druckmann and showrunner Craig Mazin won’t always feel that need to both appease and surprise fans in equal measure. Because, as interesting as the side-by-side comparison shots are, as fun as the easter egg hunting undoubtedly is for gaming mainstays, it’s only now that HBO’s answered the question, “Why do we need this show?” It’s not for the callbacks or the verbatim dialogue or for those point-to-screen recollective moments. It’s for this – a deep dive into a Queer post-apocalyptic love story that had no space to grow and flourish within a pixelated RPG world. A bottle episode amidst a fungal nightmare scape that’s quiet and beautiful and reason enough to keep trying when it comes to these “world’s ended, now what?” narratives.
New World Order
Of course, before we get to the Hallmark-but-make-it-more-horrifying romance at the center of the episode, we’ve got to catch up with Joel and Ellie. They’re backpacking through a forest reserve in Massachusetts on their way to meet Joel’s contact, Bill. They hope he’ll have a battery for them, maybe a car too, so that the pair can make their way west. Joel is mourning Tess in that somber, silent way of his and Ellie is refreshingly unapologetic about her part in the woman’s demise. These smugglers were experienced and intelligent enough to know the risks of their mission better than a child fresh out of the QZ so Tess’s death can’t be laid at Ellie’s feet, no matter how much Joel might wish it.
They trek to a gas stop where Joel is sure he stashed some supplies. (Note: a key skill to hone should a zombie apocalypse break out is the ability to remember where you hid things years later.) While he “zeroes in” on his goods, Ellie goes exploring, scoring a stale box of tampons before running across an Infected in the shop’s basement. She marvels at it, carving its face with her trusty knife before ultimately putting it out of its misery. Is this the first time she’s killed one? It’s not clear, but her curiosity, reluctance to harm, and eventually gratification in ending its existence harks back to her conversation with Joel earlier this season. If she finds it hard to put these creatures to death because they might hold a shred of their humanity, that internal dilemma is fading, and fading fast.
Their hike also gives us a bit of needed background on the cause of the Cordyceps outbreak courtesy of Ellie’s unrivaled ability to pester the hell out of her walking companion. As we suspected, tainted grocery store items like flour, bread, and pancake mix were the culprits for the original infection. Once people ate enough of them, they began looking for uninfected bodies to bite. What’s more disturbing than how quickly the old world went to hell – a weekend seems both too short a time and also, a generously long wait for the world to end considering how we’ve handled our own pandemic – is the mass grave Ellie stumbles upon despite Joel’s warnings to avoid the road. It’s here that the military rounded up residents of neighboring small towns, promising them a place in a Quarantine Zone that was already filled to capacity. Rather than leaving them be and letting them fend for themselves, the government executed them because, as Joel puts it, the dead can’t be infected which means they can’t be a threat.
That chilling scene bleeds into a flashback of a mother and her baby being loaded into a military truck, unknowingly riding to their death as boots on the ground raid homes, looking for any stragglers before abandoning a small town called Lincoln. This is where Bill (Nick Offerman) waits, in a secret bunker under his colonial-style home, watching CCTV footage of his own country turning on its people in panic and self-preservation. It’s likely proof of some long-held beliefs he’s had – we’ll learn later he’s a bit of an eccentric survivalist – but it’s hard to dismissingly shake your head at his ramblings when you see the end results. Within just a couple of years, Bill has his town fortified via a steel fence, with traps laid for both the Infected and any raiders looking to steal a piece of his pie. He siphoned gas for his generator, opened up a line that runs directly to town, grew gardens, raised chickens, and found a way to keep the hot water on.
He’s essentially created a fungal-free Utopia for himself, which feels both impressive and pitifully lonely. I’ve often wondered what the point is for survivalists, especially in situations like this. Yes, you beat mother nature at her own game, yes, you’re the last man standing. But what’s the point when there is no one to share the life you’ve fought so hard to keep? It seems Bill has had some of those same thoughts too because when Frank (Murray Bartlett) falls into one of his massive man-holes, he doesn’t just shoot him on sight as you might expect. In fact, after making sure he’s not Infected, he invites him into his home, for a chance to bathe and fill his stomach before he sets off for the Boston QZ. (Note: another skill worth cultivating in the apocalypse is the ability to swindle your way to a free shower and a homecooked meal. Frank is a swindling savant.)
Bill impresses the drifter with his wine-pairing knowledge and his rabbit-braising know-how. Frank fails to do the same with his turn at a Linda Ronstadt ballad on Bill’s antique piano. While Bill is cautious and shy and clearly out of his element interacting with strangers, Frank is surprisingly at ease. He’s lived in a QZ, sardined amongst all kinds of people for years. His social skills are as sharp as Bill’s survival ones and he quickly discerns that, not only is Bill lonely, he’s been that way for quite some time. His whole life, even, because he’s never had the freedom to exist as he is. The pair sidestep the weeks of flirting and sexting that might normally come with this kind of romantic blossoming – we’ve got serial killing fungi on the loose, there’s just no time to give these two the Nancy Meyers treatment – but their eventual coupling never feels forced. Just sweet and awkward and innocent – all of the things you wouldn’t expect in a show like this.
One More Good Day
We eventually learn that, a few years after they first meet, Frank and Bill have become partners, though Bill’s strict management of his tiny quarantine zone begins to grate on the extroverted Frank. Game fans know this dynamic mirrors the fairly vague backstory given to the couple but it’s treated differently here. Instead of letting their personality quirks divide them – Bill is a paranoid loner while Frank is a person who craves attention and affection – the men work through their differences. Bill makes concessions. Some small – like paint for the fence and gas for the lawnmower. Others are bigger and more telling of his feelings toward Frank. When Tess and Joel show up for a midday lunch – Frank’s been chatting with her on the radio, hoping to broker a trade agreement in secret – things are tense and uncomfortable, not in the “these people are here to kill us and take our things” way but in the way any blind double-date between two couples is. There are always two partners who click right away, and two whose gruffness and distrust (or just plain disinterest) make them natural offenders to the social order of things. Joel and Bill bond over that shared commonality and while you wouldn’t go so far as to call them friends, they leave each other on friendly terms.
After surviving a raider attack at night, time jumps forward again. Frank and Bill are old men now, with one in a wheelchair and one playing caretaker. It’s Frank who wants to die first, after years of Bill apologizing for being older than him. Frank’s sick with some unnamed illness and tired of just existing. He plans one more good day for the couple, convincing Bill through tears to love him the way he wants to be loved with breakfast and a mini fashion show, an impromptu wedding ceremony, and a homemade dinner capped off with a glass of opiate-muddled red wine. He wants to die in their bed, asleep in Bill’s arms, which is terribly romantic and terribly sad and if you don’t cry at least once while watching this episode then, congratulations – you’ll probably make it through the inevitable apocalypse one day. Bill does as he’s asked with one amendment to the plan. He drugs himself too, determined to finish his life when Frank does because taking care of him was his sole purpose.
The way Bartlett and particularly Offerman play the couple’s final day is flawless, filled with emotion but never overstated to the point of melodrama. Enough jokes will circle around on social media comparing Bill to another Libertarian survival nut on a beloved workplace sitcom that we won’t subject you to our own. Still, while there is a touch of Ron Swanson in this guy, it reduces the actor’s work here to say he was a carbon copy or even a variation of the Parks and Rec employee. There’s soul and heart and a burning need to be loved and accepted for who he is that Offerman didn’t have to convince us of with his famous on-screen counterpart. And Bartlett, who can play over-the-top stereotypes as he did on The White Lotus, is equally impressive in how restrained he is as Frank, a man confident enough in his own sexuality that he recognizes when Bill needs to be guided and when he needs to be pushed out of his old ways.
If anything, this episode and this deep dive into two game characters who really had little impact on the overall storyline, prove that there’s more than one way to survive in a world trying its best to impose its will on you, and there’s more than one way to tell a survival story on TV.
Joel (9 to 2 odds)
Joel’s lackluster memory shaved some percentage points off his survival score, as did every scene featuring Nick Offerman making the apocalypse his bitch this episode. Joel, baby, you’re making this look way too hard.
Ellie (4 to 7 odds)
This episode reminded us that, for all her bravado and blunt insults, Ellie is just a child – one that’s never ridden in a truck much less a plane. She’s wide-eyed and curious and reckless, maybe because the worst that can happen (in her mind at least) already has. She’s been Infected and she’s fine. She should feel like a god. But that sense of invulnerability needs to fade fast if she’s going to make it to season two.