SPOILER ALERT FOR SEASON ONE, EPISODE THREE OF THE LAST OF US
I’m having a hard time recalling the last time a show, especially as one as anticipated as The Last of Us, came out of the gate this hot in its first three episodes. Watchmen and House of the Dragon come to mind, but not all of those were instant classics. Chernobyl, also from showrunner Craig Mazin, was spectacular but that was a mini-series with only five episodes so obviously the structure is a little different. The best guess I can come up with in the last ten years or so is Stranger Things but I don’t think that show ever accomplished what episode three of The Last of Us just did.
“Long, Long Time” is a triumph on so many levels. Acting, writing, production design, music: it was perfect. The episode starts on Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) 10 miles west of Boston (as someone who lives 30 minutes outside of Boston I have NO idea where such a beautiful forest exists) making their way to Bill’s (Nick Offerman), an old colleague of Joel’s, isolated compound in the town of Lincoln. After stumbling upon a graveyard of citizens executed during the outbreak years prior, the show cuts to a flashback of people evacuating Lincoln with government assistance. Everyone that is, except for Bill, a doomsday prepper who hides out from the government evacuation until the town is abandoned. At this moment, he raids the local Home Depot and barricades himself within the town, setting up fences and booby traps while enjoying his isolation.
Years later, a wandering patron heading to Boston falls into one of his traps but convinces Bill he’s not infected and to take him in for a meal. The man, Frank (Murray Bartlett), stays for a meal and a hot shower but sees Bill’s piano and convinces him to play him a tune. The song he plays brings the two together and Bill, having never been with a man, quickly falls for Frank and tells him he can stay. Years later, the two have developed a domestic partnership and are seen lovingly bickering with one another like an old married couple. Their arguing comes to a peak when Frank reveals he’s made a friend over the radio and has invited her over for dinner. That friend just happens to be a flashback version of Tess (Anna Torv) and her partner, Joel. Frank and Tess become fast friends while Joel and Bill, while certainly not friendly with one another, agree to develop a partnership to help each other out with supplies. Another three years after that we see Bill and Frank’s home under attack by a group of ravagers and Bill is able to fight them off though it comes at the expense of a bullet in his gut.
This leads to a heartbreaking cut where we fast forward several more years to see it’s actually Frank is now wheelchair bound, which we learn is likely due to ALS, and Bill has become his caretaker. We see how Bill has essentially put his life on hold to care for Frank, even with their limited resources. The following day, Frank declares that today is going to be his last, thanking Bill for everything he has done and that but he would like one last good day rather than continuing to fight an incurable disease. Bill painfully agrees and heads to the local boutique that they’ve maintained, picks out suits for the two of them, they hold a wedding ceremony, and have one last meal together. Bill then crushes up the remainder of Frank’s medication, slips it into his wine and then drinks the remainder for himself. From there, the two head to bed where it is presumed that they happily die in each other’s arms.
While its undetermined just how long after, Joel and Ellie finally make it to the compound where Ellie finds a note from Bill explaining what has happened and inviting Joel and Tess (who he obviously is unaware is dead) to anything he can carry, including his truck. From there Joel decides to continue west with Ellie, making their way to Wyoming to find his brother.
This episode, for lack of a better term, was beautiful. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision a nearly two decades story of Ron Swanson and Armand falling in love amidst a zombie apocalypse to be one of the most romantic episodes of TV I’ve ever seen but here we are. Offerman and Bartlett are both perfectly cast in their respective roles, both in their juxtapositions and similarities. Bill may seem like a gun-touting, tin-foil hat, doomsday prepper but the man knows a nice red when he sees one. This love for the finer things is what first bonds them together but they immediately grow dependent on one another and Bill takes Frank’s protection, not his own, as his new purpose in life. Seeing them grow old together and the life they create for one another was legitimately heartwarming and their ending was equally satisfying and soul crushing. Seriously, the Emmys are going to have to find a way to give both of them a Supporting Actor award.
Like any story of this nature, there will be its critics. Those who gripe about how ‘I thought this was about fungi invasion! Not a fun guy invasion!’ and how they’ll never watch the show again but to that I say they can shove it. One of the best parts of this episode was the fact that we actually got a lot more of Joel and Ellie than people think. There’s little quips like the bit in the beginning where Ellie asks Joel what it was like to fly in an airplane and her asking about the origins of the outbreak that are great relationship building moments we know will only continue to grow. Plus, by the time Joel makes it to the compound and Bill and Frank are gone, their deaths keep the story moving forward as they provide Joel with a truck, food, and supplies that will surely come in handy moving forward. It took a lot of balls for the showrunners to not only have a bottle story with two unknown characters in just the third episode, but to knock it out of the park AND keep the plot moving? Bravo.
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