We realize it’s only January, but if 2023 gives us a better episode of television than episode three of The Last of Us, we’ll be very lucky. “Long, Long Time”—which was less an episode and more a short movie, clocking in around 76 minutes—told a story inspired by the game, but mostly original to the show. Yes, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are a big part of it, but the majority focuses on two characters whose 15-plus year journey not just illuminated the scope and erosion of this world, but the reason why it’s worth saving.
Little time has passed since Tess gave her life to save Joel and Ellie. The pair have only made it 10 miles outside of Boston. There, taking a break in the woods, Ellie tells Joel she doesn’t want him to blame her for Tess’s death, and he quietly agrees. He explains they have about a five-hour hike to their next destination, so they hit the road and do what many people who live on the East Coast would do before going off on a long trip: stop at Cumberland Farms.
Apparently, Joel stashed some supplies here years ago but doesn’t remember where. Ellie, to her credit, seems more excited by the Mortal Kombat II arcade game in the store, of which she has a surprisingly geeky knowledge. As Joel looks for his stash, Ellie explores a bit herself and jumps through a door into the basement. There she finds a box of tampons and an infected person trapped under a collapsed wall. Ellie examines the man, as this is as close as she’s been to an infected person for this long. Then, after suitably taking it all in, she stabs him in the head.
Oddly, she doesn’t tell Joel about this. He stashes his machine gun (he says there’s not enough ammo to carry it around), and off they go again. They see a crashed plane, which is the first of many instances where Ellie will be amazed at something everyone from before takes for granted. Speaking of before, she asks Joel how, exactly, the virus took over the world. Joel confirms what some fans online began to put together last week, with the virus first being detected at a grain plant in Jakarta. He says the prevailing belief is that some kind of basic food ingredients, like flour or sugar, were tainted and released into the food supply. People bought it on Thursday, ate it on Friday, and by Monday the world was over. He even specifically mentions pancake mix, the thing he was supposed to eat on his birthday all those years ago, but didn’t. Talk about a lifesaver. Literally.
Joel tells Ellie he wants to get off the road because there’s something ahead she shouldn’t see. But, being a teenager, that just makes her want to see it more. So she runs up ahead and finds a pile of dead bodies. Joel explains that these people probably weren’t infected, but were murdered because there just wasn’t anywhere for them. Ellie asks, why would the military kill people who weren’t sick? “Dead people can’t be infected,” says Joel.
Here, episode director Peter Hoar focuses the camera on two very distinct, colorful garments within the pile of bodies. He then match fades to those garments 20 years earlier, being worn by a mother and her baby. It’s a hugely upsetting, very effective way to give us context to just how awful things were getting. That doomed mom and child are in a small town somewhere outside Boston and it’s four days after the outbreak began. The town is being evacuated but one man does not want to go. He’s hiding in his basement, watching everyone on monitors, and waiting for them to leave. “Not today, you new world order jackboot fucks,” he says.
Meet Bill (Nick Offerman), a lone wolf survivalist who ends up as the last person in his small town. Once he’s alone he steals a boat, fills it up with supplies from all over town—Home Depot, gas station, wine store—and makes sure he has power, water, and gas. He cuts down trees, digs holes, and makes traps. He’s creating a fortress. He also cooks a mean steak and enjoys that with some wine as he watches one of his traps shoot an infected person in the head.
Four years pass. It’s 2007 and in that time, Bill has fenced the town off. The town is his home now, which is why he’s surprised when his traps catch something... or someone. It’s a man who is trying to get to Boston from Baltimore, which he says has been destroyed. He was with a group of 10, but now it’s just him, and though he almost lies about being armed, he does not. Bill helps him out of the hole, checks that he’s not infected, and, begrudgingly, agrees to give him a meal. This is Frank, played by White Lotus season one’s Murray Bartlett.
Before we continue, let’s talk about genre conventions. Earlier in this episode, Joel says something that’s true in basically any kind of post-apocalyptic show or movie you’ve ever seen: the people are worse than the monsters. So Bill’s caution with Frank doesn’t just feel warranted, it feels necessary. And when he lets him into his house, The Last of Us wants the audience to be nervous about it. Frank is going to rob and kill Bill, right? One hundred percent, that’s our thought. Nothing good can come of this. And that tension we’ve been hardwired to expect is what makes everything that comes next so meaningful.
Bill brings Frank some clothes as he takes what he calls an amazing shower. Once he’s clean, Frank sits down for dinner, and out comes Bill with a gorgeous plate of food. One that, Frank notices, Bill knows should be paired with Beaujolais. After dinner, Frank says he’ll leave, but first, he wants to use Bill’s piano. He rifles through his sheet music and finds a book of songs by Linda Ronstadt. He picks one and starts to play and sing, but Bill stops him. This song has meaning to Bill and he wants to play it his way. Frank wants to see him do that and promises, after that, he’ll leave. And so Bill goes into a soft, sweet, rendition of “Long Long Time.” “Who is the girl you’re singing about?” asks Frank. There’s no girl, replied Bill. “I know,” says Frank, who leans in to kiss him. Frank tells Bill to take a shower and the two get into bed. Bill has never done this before, with a man, so Frank says he’ll start simple. He does, however, let him know that he’s not a whore and if they have sex, he’s going to stay for a few more days. A nervous, excited Bill agrees.
Three years pass. It’s 2010 and Frank and Bill are still together. And fighting. Frank wants to use some of their resources to make their town a bit nicer but Bill thinks it’s a waste. Frank also tells Bill they should make friends but Bill explains there are no friends anymore. Well, it turns out, Frank has been talking to a woman on the radio.
At this point, you may have forgotten you were even watching The Last of Us. You’ve just been watching a tense but ultimately romantic meet-cute between two men who have somehow survived the apocalypse. But then, those new friends arrive and it’s none other than Joel and Tess.
While Tess and Frank get along, Bill and Joel do not. They’re cautious. Worried about trusting anyone they don’t know. Eventually, tensions ease when Joel tells Bill he can get him some new fencing and it seems like despite there being some friction, there will at least be respect. This is why Bill humors Joel when Joel tells him that, eventually, raiders will come to try and steal everything he has.
Another three years pass. It’s 2013 and Frank and Bill are exercising. Frank surprises Bill with a garden that’s sprouting fresh strawberries, seeds he got in a trade with Tess and Joel. Things are peaceful and good. Until that evening. That evening, Joel’s prediction comes true. Raiders attack, but Bill is ready. Frank is woken up by the explosions of Bill’s traps going off all over town but Bill is already outside, sniping the raiders from the street. Frank goes out to save him and Bill is shot. Inside, Frank works on Bill’s wound as Bill begins to come to terms with the fact he’s about to die. “Joel will take care of you,” he says to Frank.
So did Bill die? Ten years pass. It’s 2023, near the present of the show, and Frank sits in a wheelchair on the porch. Out comes Bill. He’s alive, but older, and taking care of Frank who is apparently sick. We see that their life is quiet but loving and when they go to bed after a nice meal, Frank doesn’t sleep. The next morning, he tells Bill today is his last day.
There’s no cure for Frank’s disease and he tells Bill his plan. He wants one more good day. That starts with breakfast, a trip to the store, and “then we’ll get married,” he says—which is the moment when I started crying, I don’t know about you. Frank then says they’ll crush up his pills, put them in wine, and peacefully die in his sleep.
We see the day in montage until we get to dinner. Bill prepares the same dinner he did the first day they met, and even breaks out the same wine, which makes Frank smile. After they finish, Bill brings out another bottle of wine, pours two glasses and puts the crushed pills in one. Frank chugs it, after which Bill chugs his too. Turns out, he put pills in the bottle itself. “I’m old, I’m satisfied, and you were my purpose,” Bill tells him. Frank says he doesn’t support it but “objectively, it’s incredibly romantic.” The two men walk to the bedroom.
This is legit powerful stuff. And now, it’s time to tie it all back together. Remember at the end of last week’s episode when Tess told Joel to go to Bill and Frank’s? Well, sometime later, Joel and Ellie arrive there. However, Joel knows something is wrong. The flowers are dead. The front door is unlocked. And inside everything is dusty. Ellie finds a note with a car key that’s addressed to “Whomever, but probably Joel.”
The letter is from Bill and in it he bares not just his soul, but the heart of the entire show we’re watching. Bill explains that at first, he was happy that everyone died, but eventually he found there was one person worth saving, and that’s what he did. Bill tells Joel that’s what men like them do. They save people, no matter what the cost. And though the letter suggests the person Joel can save is Tess, Tess wanted that person to be Ellie, for reasons greater than Bill or Frank could’ve ever imagined.
Joel, now with a new car, guns, and supplies thanks to Bill, takes it all in. He explains to Ellie how his original plan and hers can now co-exist. They’ll travel to Wyoming to find Tommy. Then Tommy, who used to be a Firefly, can figure out where Ellie has to be. She agrees to that and his rules, which include no mention of Tess and that what he says, goes.
After showers and new clothes, Ellie and Joel hop in Bill’s truck. Ellie’s never been in a car before and thinks the seatbelts are “so cool.” It’s her innocence and wide-eyed wonder that not just Joel, but we know, is worth fighting for and saving. So the two head out, while listening to Bill and Frank’s song, “Long, Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt which, of course, is also the title of the episode. And just when the show could not get any more perfect, the camera follows the truck from a room with an open window. The open window Bill said he left open so their house wouldn’t smell. It’s as if Bill and Frank are watching their friend from bed, fulfilling his destiny to save just one person.
Truly, episode three of The Last of Us was just an incredible piece of storytelling, complete with action, romance, powerful emotions, and plenty of backstories and forward momentum too. You laugh, you cry... mostly cry... and you feel confident that whatever is out there won’t be too tough for Joel and Ellie.
New episodes of The Last of Us arrive Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.
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