By Tori Preston | TV | January 30, 2023 |
By Tori Preston | TV | January 30, 2023 |
This week The Last Of Us departed from the game and its own nascent formula in big ways for the first time. The third episode cleverly inverts our expectations by beginning with Joel and Ellie in the present, in the aftermath of Tess’s death and their narrow escape, and makes us wait 18 whole minutes before finally delivering the flashback we’ve come to expect from the series. And then the episode just … stays with that flashback, for the next 45 minutes or so, taking up the bulk of the runtime! And like all the previous flashbacks, this one is in its own way wholly original to the television adaptation, despite the fact that it introduces a known side character, Bill, from the game. It’s just that it takes that character and changes his whole life story, and in the process offers us a glimpse of something the game never did:
What a happy ending looks like in this broken world.
Normally I try to keep the game/show comparisons to a minimum in these recaps, because the people who’ve played The Last of Us know it already and those who haven’t don’t really need the details. So far the show hasn’t strayed too far from the broad strokes of the game’s plot anyways. Even here, this chapter with Bill serves the exact same plot function that it does in the game: Joel and Ellie finally get their hands on a set of wheels. Still, I think it’s worth explaining who Bill was to highlight just how much of a departure the series crafted even while ticking that necessary plot box. In the game, Bill was one of Joel and Tess’s smuggling connections. He’s a paranoid, bitter loner living in an Infested town, protected behind an elaborate series of booby traps. Joel brings Ellie to him after they escape Boston, because they still need to find a vehicle for their journey west — and since Bill apparently owes Joel a favor, he’s compelled to help them find the necessary parts to get something up and running. Along the way, Bill mentions that he used to have a partner named Frank but Frank disappeared, and it’s implied that Bill and Frank were lovers — or at least that Bill is homosexual, based on the gay porn mag Ellie discovers. It’s all fine though because, according to Bill, caring about someone is only good for getting yourself killed anyway.
The kicker, of course, is that Frank didn’t just disappear. He hung himself after being Infected, and Bill discovers Frank’s body while looking for the car parts with Joel and Ellie. In the note Frank left behind, he talks about how much he grew to hate Bill, and Bill tries to pretend this doesn’t hurt him even though it clearly does. After that, Joel and Ellie head off down the road and Bill is never seen again, his debt having been paid. That’s it. That’s the story of Bill: Just another window into how tragic and horrible and hard life in the fungipocalypse can be, just like every other mission in the game.
Episode three, titled “Long, Long Time” after the Linda Ronstadt song, rearranges those details into a different sort of story altogether. The flashback begins on September 30, 2003, just four days after the outbreak, as the military rounds up the surviving townspeople and takes them to the quarantine zone… or rather, dumps them in the mass grave Joel and Ellie just passed down the road twenty years in the future (as Joel explains, in the days after the outbreak the policy was to kill any survivors that wouldn’t fit in a QZ simply to prevent them from becoming infected). Bill (Nick Offerman) manages to dodge the evacuation by hiding in his survivalist surveillance bunker, and once the town is empty he sets out to transform it into a safe, gated compound for himself. Yes, there are booby traps, but there’s also fresh food and power and running water. It took a paranoid loner doomsday prepper to eke out a little slice of paradise in the middle of hell, and that too is a sort of message (“when the world ends, get you a man with a generator” probably).
Four years later a dude named Frank (Murray Bartlett) stumbles into one of Bill’s booby traps and, after a nice dinner, some wine, and a Linda Ronstadt singalong at the piano, falls into Bill’s heart as well. As comfortable as Bill is guarding his solitude with a gun in his hand, Frank sees right through that facade and takes the lead, getting Bill to open up to him (and getting him into bed). While both Bartlett and Offerman are rightly getting early awards buzz for their performances, I have to give a shout-out to Offerman’s very specific physicality in this sequence. His hunched shoulders, nervous hands, and wide eyes telegraph just how vulnerable he is — and how unused to vulnerability he is — without any explanation. Frank asks to stay for a few days to confirm this isn’t just a casual hookup for either of them, and of course he’s still there when the episode jumps another three years in the future.
By now the honeymoon period is over. Frank is frustrated by Bill’s isolationist tendencies and paranoia, and demands to fix up the town and invite friends over. Against Bill’s objections, Frank connects with Tess over the radio and invites her and Joel over to discuss possible business opportunities. This is the origin of their smuggling operation (and that mysterious radio code Ellie discovered in Joel’s apartment), but it’s also a way to illustrate the similar dynamics between these two couples. Frank and Tess are the social ones, the planners, while Bill and Joel are the pessimistic loners who happen to have found that one person they can trust and support. They don’t necessarily like one another, but a certain camaraderie forms between Bill and Joel if only because their respective partners leave them no choice. To prove their value, Joel offers to bring certain supplies that will help shore up Bill’s fence and other defenses, and mentions they need to be wary of raiders. After all, this compound is one helluva mark.
Time jump another three years, and this new partnership has begun to bear fruit — literally. In addition to the fortified defenses, Frank was able to surprise Bill with fresh strawberries he grew with seeds he bartered from Tess. Their bucolic existence is in contrast to what we saw of life in the Boston QZ, but just when their life seems too good to be true reality comes crashing down in the form of raiders, just as Joel predicted. The men arrive at night and try to break through the fence, only to set off Bill’s motion sensors and, uh, perimeter flamethrowers. Frank awakens to the commotion and finds Bill standing on the street, firing at the attackers through the fence and catching a bullet to the abdomen in the process. Frank then half-carries Bill back into the house to tend his wound, and Bill — fearing the worse — tells Frank to call Joel. “He’ll take care of you.”
Finally, the episode jumps a whole ten years into the future, bringing us into the show’s almost-present, where we find that Bill survived that late-night attack … but Frank is now in a wheelchair, succumbing to an unnamed degenerative disease. He announces that he’d like to leave the world on his own terms and that this is his last day on earth. He wants to get dressed up with Bill, get married, have a wonderful meal, and then have Bill drug his wine and let him pass away in comfort and love. “Just give me one more good day,” he implores his partner, and Bill is helpless to deny him. So they do just that — they have that one more good day together, and at the end of it Bill drugs Frank’s wine glass just as he was told to … but when Frank sees Bill chug his own wine, he realizes there’s been a change of plan. Bill decided to drug the bottle, too, so he could pass away together with Frank in his sleep. “This isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play,” Bill says. “I’m old. I’m satisfied. And you were my purpose.” And then he pushes Frank to the bedroom and locks the door.
The leftovers on the table have only barely decayed by the time Joel and Ellie arrive, seeking help on their journey. And the note Bill left behind (“To Whomever, But Probably Joel”) lays out the moral of this version of Bill’s story. If game-Bill was all about not opening up to people lest they get you killed, then show-Bill is the opposite. “I used to hate the world, and I was happy when everyone died. But I was wrong, because 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.”
It’s a hard note for Joel to read because he didn’t always hate the world. He only started hating it when he lost Sarah. And here’s Bill bringing up Tess just after Joel lost her as well. Bill is talking about the duty he and Joel share, and Joel already feels like he’s failed that duty. The question, of course, is whether Ellie can become that one person worth saving to Joel — and what lengths a man like Joel will go to if he decides she is.
So yes, Joel and Ellie are able to raid Bill’s stash for supplies, juice up a truck battery, and finally hit the road in earnest. They’re heading to Wyoming to try and find Joel’s brother Tommy, and in turn maybe more Fireflies. In that sense, episode three accomplished its narrative purpose the same as the game did — but its dramatic purpose is something entirely new. The story of Bill and Frank’s last good day became our last good day as well, as the series is surely going be full of Infected and danger and suffering from here on out. We got to see what happiness looks like in this world, because Bill was right — their story isn’t a tragedy at all. They found love in an apocalypse, and were privileged to live long lives full of good and bad days together, and then to choose their own exits on their own terms. The fact that this is only the third episode is almost more unnerving, like a rollercoaster slowing down as it crests before it drops into a death plunge and scares the pants off of you. It’s all gonna be downhill from here, I’m afraid.
- It’s funny seeing people call this a “bottle episode” because it isn’t. There’s the narrative frame of Joel and Ellie surrounding the flashback which opens the scope enough to make it not a bottle episode. But it feels like one because it’s almost impossible to remember anything that happened in this episode outside of Bill and Frank. It felt weird to even type “Joel and Ellie” in this recap because they were so beside the point! Get out of Bill’s show, JOEL!
- There’s a really interesting essay on Primetimer that explores the question of queer representation and makes an interesting argument that the show’s version of Bill is actually a downgrade from the game’s. I don’t agree with all the foundations of the argument (in particular, I think it overstates the importance of game-Bill as some sort of mirror to Ellie’s journey through the second game), but I highly recommend checking the piece out regardless. It made me stop and take stock of why this episode affected me the way it did, and how much of it was because I’m very much a cis straight woman.
- And just to be very clear, when I say this episode “affected me” I mean this episode “turned me into a snotty, sobbing mess that needed to be scraped up off the couch and sent to bed.”
- Linda Ronstadt deserves the same kinda bump Kate Bush got off of Stranger Things but unless The Last of Us keeps using “Long, Long Time” in future episodes I’m afraid it won’t happen. Do they even still make piano books for pop music anymore? Is there, like, a “The Best of BTS” scorebook I could buy? Is BTS the most modern musical act I could think of to name-drop here? I think you know the answer.