‘The Last of Us’ Season 1, Episode 3: ‘Long Long Time’
In last week’s episode of “The Last of Us,” Ellie waded through a flooded hotel lobby, delighting in the decaying grandeur of a social institution she had only read about. This week, she spends a few hours in an elegant old house, filled with vintage furniture and a piano. She has no context — not even from books — for what a home like this really means.
Joel, on the other hand, has dined with and traded with the house’s former residents, Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), many times over the previous 15 years. Joel keeps his feelings to himself, but it is easy to imagine that for him this home was a portal to a safer, cozier past, like the one he lived back in Austin.
How must Joel feel then, when he finds Bill and Frank dead?
This is the first episode in this season to skip the pre-credits scene, which in the previous two weeks had been devoted to a brief flashback. Instead, most of the 70-minute running time is spent on one long journey into the past, stretching from the frantic early days of the cordyceps plague, in 2003, to one quietly bittersweet day in 2023, not long before Joel and Ellie knock on Bill and Frank’s door. Over that 20-year stretch, we see the story of a love affair — doubling as a short, sweet lesson about what survival really means.
As someone whose favorite post-apocalyptic movie is George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” — with all of its long scenes of survivors constructing a combination fortress-oasis in a shopping mall — I could have lingered forever in this episode’s 2003 segment. After the government has evacuated his neighbors, Bill, a doomsday prepper in a quaint Massachusetts town, raids the Home Depot, the gas plant and the wine store, and he eventually builds a fence around his neighborhood and its nearby shops, fortifying it with security cameras, electric fencing and booby traps.
With his gardening and hunting skills, Bill has all he needs to survive. But he lacks a larger sense of purpose. Four years later, when a stranger, Frank, falls into one of his pits, Bill softens. Frank, a refugee from Baltimore’s failed Quarantine Zone, persuades his captor to give him some food and let him take a shower. With someone — at last — to show off his skills to, Bill delivers an elegant gourmet rabbit lunch, paired with a fine Beaujolais.
Inside the Dystopian World of ‘The Last of Us’
The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
- Game Review: “I found it hard to get past what it embraces with a depressing sameness, particularly its handling of its female characters,” our critic wrote of “The Last of Us” in 2013.
- ‘Left Behind’: “The Last of Us: Left Behind,” a prologue designed to be played in a single sitting, was an unexpected hit in 2014.
- 2020 Sequel: “The Last of Us Part II,” a tale of entrenched tribalism in a world undone by a pandemic, took a darker and unpredictable tone that left critics in awe.
- Playing the Game: Two Times reporters spent weeks playing the sequel in the run-up to its release. These were their first impressions.
Later, the two men take turns playing the piano and singing the Gary White love song “Long, Long Time,” made famous by Linda Ronstadt. The lyrics prove prescient. After Frank coaxes Bill to admit that he has never acted on his attraction to men, they slip into bed together, with Frank promising, “I’m going to start with the simple things.”
What follows are two more poignant vignettes, from 2010 and 2013, showing the comfortable life these two lovers settle into. Bill can’t entirely shake his fear of losing everything to the authorities or to the infected — a paranoia more intense now that he has someone to protect. But Frank nevertheless urges him to make their immediate surroundings more attractive and permanent. Then he invites over some friends he met on the radio: Joel and Tess. All this domesticity leads Bill to worry that taking pleasure in basic human interactions will be a distraction from his mission to survive, leading to near-fatal mistakes — like the night when raiders try to infiltrate the compound, and Bill gets shot.
But Bill survives that attack, and instead it’s Frank who falls apart, succumbing to some unspecified illness in 2023. In their house, now filled with Frank’s paintings instead of Bill’s mother’s cross-stitch samplers, the men agree to have “one more good day” together before drinking wine laced with a lethal dose of painkillers.
Some time later — perhaps weeks — Joel and Ellie find the couple’s dirty dishes, along with a note urging them not to open the bedroom door and see the corpses. (We never see them either. The episode closes with a shot drifting backward into their room’s open window; but it never shows the bed.)
It’s frankly remarkable that what is ostensibly an action-horror series could make time — in its third episode, no less — for an alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking short film about companionship. It’s as though the opening montage from the movie “Up” were extended to about 45 minutes and then dropped into the middle of “World War Z.”
It’s even more remarkable that the writer Craig Mazin and the director Neil Druckmann have made this little interlude not only relevant to the plot but also potentially essential to what this series is going to be about. On a surface level, what happens here is that Joel and Ellie get access to Bill and Frank’s stash, including a truck, a lot of guns and other essential supplies. But on a deeper level, this episode is about how even amid a world-ending crisis, the taste of a fresh strawberry can make a person want to stick around for another day.
“Paying attention to things — it’s how we show love,” Frank says; and Mazin and Druckmann back that up with their own small details, like how when Frank first arrives, Bill’s dining room furniture is covered in dust. But by their last day, Bill is voluntarily watering the flowers. Again: It’s the simple things.
The episode is also about Joel’s growing dependency on Ellie — he is starting to need her as much as she needs him. Bill’s goodbye note says to Joel that “men like you and me” are meant to take care of people, and that so long as there is “one person worth saving,” they can live a fulfilling life. In the note, Bill tells Joel to look after Tess — a line that hits our man so hard that he has to step outside for a few minutes. (Joel won’t talk about Tess with Ellie, though at one point we do see him building a tower of rocks by a creek, presumably in her honor.)
So he needs to refocus; and he needs to start caring more about Ellie, the foul-mouthed chatterbox who until now he has mostly just ordered around. (Not that she ever obeys.) This kid who is fascinated by tales of video games, restaurants and airplanes may help him see the world differently. When they hop into Bill’s truck to head off to Joel’s brother’s Firefly compound in Wyoming, Ellie is excited about everything in the vehicle, which she’s seeing for the first time. (“It’s like a spaceship!”) As they pull out of the compound, she pops in a cassette tape, and Joel is moved to hear “Long, Long Time,” a song that clearly means a lot to him, too, for his own unspoken reasons.
Ellie, of course, has no emotional associations with this song. (“You know I don’t know who Linda Ronstadt is.”) But right there, at that moment, they are making a new connection, together.
On their way to Bill and Frank’s, Ellie pesters Joel with questions about the pandemic, and he explains to her — and to us — more about what happened. Although the origins of the cordyceps mutation remain unknown, many believe the fungus contaminated some common worldwide grocery staple, like flour. Infections began taking hold on a Thursday. By the following Monday, society collapsed, as people were either herded into Quarantine Zones or slaughtered by the military. Everything happened so fast that no one had time to prepare. Rash choices made during a frenzied weekend still linger.
Those radio broadcasts that let Joel know about trouble outside the Q.Z.? It turns out they originated from Bill and Frank’s place. (The decade-specific pop music code was Frank’s idea.)
In a parallel to the sequence in which Bill fortifies his neighborhood, we see Joel and Ellie stock up for their road trip, grabbing clean clothes, toilet paper, deodorant and other basics. Joel won’t let Ellie take a gun; but when he isn’t looking, she finds the pistol Frank kept stashed in a writing desk, and she shoves into her backpack. This will undoubtedly appear again later.
Mazin’s dialogue captures the easy affection Bill and Frank have toward each other. It’s all about their gentle pokes and running jokes — the stuff that becomes the foundation of a long relationship. It’s clear these guys are going to hit it off from the moment they meet, when Bill says he is hesitant to feed Frank because he doesn’t want other bums to come by looking for a free lunch — “This is not an Arby’s,” he grumbles. And even though Frank is facing a gun-wielding paranoiac, he can’t help but reply, “Arby’s didn’t have free lunch; it was a restaurant.”