The Last of Us returned this week with its third episode, “Long, Long Time” – a lovely episode, almost entirely zombie and fungus free. Yet it served as a beautiful reminder of what is actually at stake with Ellie and the potential for a cure. Let’s get into it.
“Long, Long Time” starts right with the credits, with no flashback scene like in previous weeks. The on-screen graphic helpfully tells us that Joel & Ellie have gotten ten miles west of Boston, or about a day. Joel has stopped to build a little cairn of stones (RIP Anna Torv) and be grumpy at Ellie, who isn’t here for Joel’s silent treatment and reminds him that he came out on this trek by his own choice. Ellie asks Joel to stop blaming her for something that isn’t her fault. Again, I am loving Bella Ramsey’s portrayal. She is tough, but still a kid, yet not cloying or precocious. It’s a great balance.
On the way to Bill and Frank’s place (the friends Tess mentioned last week), they stop at Cumberland Farms for Joel to find a cache of supplies. (I guess Dunkin’ would have been a little too on the nose.) While Joel looks for the floorboard where he hid his stash, Ellie goes exploring. After marveling at a Mortal Kombat 2 arcade cabinet in the store, she heads into the basement.
Ellie sees a face in the rubble. It’s a mushroom man, but wheezing, and apparently close to death. Ellie creeps up on him and stabs him in the head. Is this the first one she’s killed? It seems likely, based on her reaction. She pointedly does not mention it to Joel when she comes back up. (Was that zombie connected by tendrils? I’m not quite sure how those mechanics work, but the lack of fungus patterns on the walls would indicate that it was alone.)
As they push on to Bill and Frank’s, they pass a plane crash site. Ellie’s never ridden in a plane, or even seen a working one. She was born mid-plague, and is a reminder that there’s so much of the “modern” world she knows nothing about, like how the planes just started falling out of the sky once the fungus started to spread. Joel takes the opportunity to give a brief recap of the outbreak.
Best anyone can tell, the cordyceps mutated. It started off infecting the food – flour, sugar, stuff that was in everything we eat. (Like from the factory where the Indonesian woman from last week worked.) Even pancake mix – so I guess it’s a good thing Joel didn’t eat his birthday pancakes. People started to eat the infected food on Wednesday and Thursday and then on Friday, September 26, 2003 – Outbreak Day – people started going crazy and biting.
And by Monday, civilization had collapsed.
This is an interesting take since it ties into a few things that are legitimately concerning – like the globalization of the food supply, and how so much food is distributed by a handful of suppliers that it’s difficult to trace where tainted food came from. It also answers some of my questions about the cordyceps spread. The fungus must be ingested, or transmitted through bites. (The showrunners confirmed this in interviews after last week’s episode. They aren’t dealing with airborne spores…yet.)
Suddenly, Joel wants to take a detour off the road. There’s something up there he doesn’t want Ellie to see. Which, of course, makes Ellie race toward it. It’s a mass grave. FEDRA was evacuating small towns and taking them toward the nearest Quarantine Zone. That is if they could fit. If they couldn’t, the troops shot them, even if they weren’t infected. Dead can’t get infected or spread the disease.
The camera pans in on two skeletons, dress in the rags of old clothes, one clearly much smaller than the other. And now we get our flashback. Sept. 30, 2003. The evacuation that Joel just described. The two bodies we just saw as skeletons are a black woman cradling her infant in her arms as they wait to get on the transport out of town. Thankfully, we are spared seeing her and her child get shot. We instead cut to a mysterious man watching the evacuation on a closed circuit and muttering “not today, you jackbooted New World Order thugs.” (Now there’s a blast from the past. I don’t think I’ve heard that phrase in at least a decade.)
This is Bill, played by Nick Offerman, and Bill is best described as Ron Swanson but played entirely serious. He’s a paranoid survivalist holed up in his basement bunker to avoid the forced evacuation. And like they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. (And how vindicated must you feel if you were a survivalist prepper and the apocalypse happened?) He’s got a basement full of guns and fuel and as soon as the feds leave, he drives out to get more gas and wine. All the essentials.
Things are going pretty well for him for the first few years. He has booby-trapped the area around his fenced-off street with tripwires and pits. The few mushroom men that stumble through get blasted by shotguns. But after four years, someone falls into his pit trap.
This is Frank (Murray Bartlett). He was with a group of ten heading from the Baltimore QZ to Boston (since the Baltimore QZ is no more). Reluctantly, Bill lets him out of the pit to send him on his way (of course scanning him for infection first). Frank begs him for food, and Bill doesn’t want to give him any but relents in the face of Frank’s desperation. Perhaps Bill just wants someone to talk to after four years of solitude.
After a shower and a change of clothes – which must be just unimaginable luxuries after the squalid and cramped QZs – Bill served him a magnificent meal of rabbit and fresh vegetables. Look, I get teary when I find a good bagel. In a world where they live on beef jerky ration strips because of infected flour, real food (and wine!) must be the height of decadence.
Bill is about to send Frank on his way when Frank sees the piano across the room. He dashed over to it, pushing aside the classical books and pulling out the Best of Linda Ronstadt. He starts to butcher his way through Long, Long Time. He mangles it so badly, that Bill makes him stop. Frank urges him to take over, which he does with some hesitation, playing a very pretty version of it. Frank asks him who the girl is, the one he’s singing about. Bill softly says that there is no girl. Frank says “I know” as he puts his hand on his shoulder, and then they kiss and embrace, with survivalist Bill starting to cry with relief and happiness.
As they get into bed, Bill admits he’s never been with a man before, and no one at all except a girl a long time ago. Frank says he’ll start slow, but he’s no whore. He doesn’t sleep with people for a lunch. If he does this, he’s going to stick around for a while.
Now, at this point, I had my doubts about Frank’s sincerity. After all, If I was given the choice between fighting off fungus zombies and FEDRA agents who will shoot you on sight, or cuddling up to Ron Swanson who has a big house full of wine, well, I know what I’d do. Fortunately for all involved, Bill and Frank are into each other, and the remainder of the episode is an extended flashback detailing the next 15 years of their lives. And after two weeks of zombies and death, wow is this an unexpectedly welcome respite.
As my mom likes to say, every couple has the chatty one and the quiet one. Frank is the chatty one, the social one. He wants to spruce up the street, mow the lawns back, and paint some houses. Bill thinks that’s a waste of resources, After all, who are they decorating for? Why, their friends of course!
Frank has been chatting with a nice lady on the radio and wants to invite her over. (Gotta say, I’m on Team Bill here. I don’t care much for dinner parties now, without the threat of disease and bandits coming to pillage) But, sacrifices are made to keep your better half happy. So, they have a garden party with Tess and Joel, plus the handgun Bill insists on keeping out on the table.
Tess and Frank chat like old friends, while Joel and Bill warily stare each other down. (Joel’s the quiet one. Big surprise!) As Tess and Frank go off to look at the house, Bill and Joel come to an understanding. Joel respects Bill and understands his caution. After all, he’d feel the same. But, perhaps they can help each other out. Like, by trading some new wire for the fence and seed packets for guns? Well, Tess and Frank are setting up that radio code we saw in the first episode, so it looks like they’re going to be planning a game night soon. (What do you think they’ll play, Cranium or Apples to Apples?)
It’s a lovely portrait of a couple in love. Bill learns to trust and open up, going jogging with Frank and even giggling when he tastes the fresh strawberries that Frank grew. (He traded a gun for some seeds.) Frank learns to be more self-reliant, even field dressing Bill’s wounds after an attack from raiders. Like all good relationships, they grow and become more attuned to each other. And they also grow old together.
As the flashback starts to catch up to the present day, Bill and Frank look to be in their seventies. Frank is ill, confined to a wheelchair, and tells Bill that this is going to be his last day. He’s planned it all out. They’ll go out to the town boutique, Frank will pick out some suits, they’ll get married, and then Bill will make them a nice dinner. Afterward, Bill will crush up all of Frank’s pills and Frank will drink them with some wine and then go to sleep in Bill’s arms. Bill agrees, sadly, and tries to give him one last day.
It’s a lovely montage. Everything goes according to Frank’s plan. Bill prepares him rabbit and Beaujolais, the same meal he made when he hauled him out of the pit years ago. Bill crushes up the pills and puts them into Frank’s glass, then pours them both a toast. Frank figures out what’s going on, and asks if there were already pills in the bottle. Bill nods. “Enough to kill a horse.” Bill doesn’t want to go on without Frank. The ultimate misanthrope found a reason to live, and once that reason is gone, he sees no point in carrying on. They head to the bedroom, ready for their final rest.
Going back to the present, Joel and Ellie have made their way to the compound. Joel can tell something is off, based on the overgrown vines and the dead flowers (flowers we saw Bill watering in the previous scenes). Ellie finds a note, addressed “To Whoever, But Probably Joel,” since only Joel can get past the traps and knows the gate codes. In the letter, Bill explains what has happened, and leaves the contents of the bunker to him. “I used to hate the world and was happy when everyone died. But I was wrong. There was one person worth saving…That’s why men like you and me are here. We have a job to do and god help any motherfuckers who stand in our way.”
This is a little bit too pat, but it’s undoubtedly effective. The world is awful, but there are people worth saving and protecting, and cherishing. Bill meant for Joel to protect Tess, but now that she’s gone, he needs to help Ellie. They take Bill’s truck and head off towards Wyoming to find Joel’s brother (and former Firefly), who may know where the base is. (And Ellie also stole that gun she’s been asking about. Sure that won’t cause any problems later!)
After two tense and harrowing weeks, this is a good reminder of the stakes. There’s a federal agency that murders people outside of QZs. There have been several murders of young children by government officials. There are the cordyceps monsters, Clickers, that turn you into a slavering creature. Every survivor puts up a hard front just to get through the day.
But there is still beauty. And love. And music. And friendship. There are reasons to continue on, in spite of the horrors. People depend on us and we depend on others. And that is why a cure is important. Not just to stop the fungus, but to save what makes us human.
Five out of Five. And there’s better be an Emmy nomination for Offerman come July.
LINE OF THE WEEK:
Frank: You think 9/11 was an inside job and the government is run by Nazis!
Bill: The government IS run by Nazis!