The Last of Us
When the world ends in the early autumn of 2003, Bill (Nick Offerman) feels like a man whose moment has finally come. He’s been preparing for this moment (though we’ll later learn he prefers the word “survivalist” to “prepper”). He has a bunker full of guns, security cameras trained on all corners of his property (a lovely two-story house not far from Boston), and all the supplies he needs to get by. Bill knows just what to do. When the electricity gives out at the power station, his first reaction isn’t “Oh shit!” but “That was fast.” Then he takes the necessary steps to keep the power running. Bill was made for these times.
Or so he thought. That’s the thing about survivalists: They focus on surviving. But what waits on the other side of survival? And, just as importantly, what’s the point of surviving if mere survival is all you get for your troubles? In some respects, Bill’s philosophy isn’t that different from FEDRA’s. It’s just with no one else around, there’s no one to oppress. And, as it turns out, Bill doesn’t really have oppression in him. He’s not the person he thinks he is, but it takes someone else to make him see that.
“Long Long Time,” the third episode of The Last of Us, shifts the focus from Joel and Ellie for much of its running time. Still, it’s deeply connected to one of the show’s central concerns with the sort of connections that can survive the cordyceps apocalypse and what it takes to sustain those connections in a world defined by dehumanization, only some of it caused by mind-controlling fungus. It’s also, in the purest sense of the phrase, a very special episode, the best of the series so far, and an extraordinary hour (and some change) of television by any standards.
It takes a bit to get to Bill’s story. The episode opens in 2023 and finds our protagonists in the wilderness ten miles west of Boston. Joel and Ellie’s relationship still seems fraught, but she holds her own, pointing out that no one made Joel and Tess take her. That was their choice. Joel has no response. He also seems to be warming to Ellie, or, at the very least, he wants her to survive, giving her his jacket and making sure she’s eating well. He hasn’t been a dad in a while, but the old instincts seem to be kicking in.
As they make their way to Frank and Bill’s, Joel responds to Ellie’s question about whether or not they’re nice. His reply: “Frank is,” though that joke won’t really make sense until later in the episode. But first, they must stop at Cumberland Farms, a convenience store that Joel has used to stash weapons and other supplies. It’s also home to a broken Mortal Kombat II machine, a game Ellie knows well even though she’s almost certainly never played it. She has heard about it, however. Video games have become part of the lore of the world before.
Bored and deciding to explore, Ellie drops into the basement where she sees an Infected in the late stages of the condition, a creature whose body has become more fungus than man. It’s a curious moment. Seemingly without fear, Ellie approaches the Infected, makes a small incision that produces a little blood but much more in the way of fungal tendrils, then stabs the Infected through the head. She never tells Joel about it. Whatever this moment means to her, she decides to keep to herself. The visit ends with Ellie again pleading for a gun, which Joel denies. By the episode’s end, she’ll have one she’s keeping secret from Joel. (This would seem to be Chekhov’s gun in action, but we’ll have to wait and see.)
Joel’s paternal instincts extend to trying to protect Ellie from physical and emotional harm. After passing a crashed jet — an object of awe for Ellie, who can’t believe Joel is so dismissive of the miracle of flight — he attempts to steer her away from a grisly mound of skeletons, innocents rounded up by the U.S. government who’d been taken from their home in the name of evacuation they’ll never get to experience. In a startling edit that initiates the flashback, the camera frames the blanket of a long-dead baby and then cuts 20 years to show a healthy (but doomed) infant wrapped in the same blanket.
It’s awful. It’s also Bill’s cue to spring into action. There’s a hint of a smile on his face when he realizes everyone else is gone. All he needs to do now is make delicious meals, tool around town in his truck, and enjoy the silence — that and occasionally chuckling when his carefully mounted defense system takes out one of the Infected.
Flash-forward four years, and Bill still seems content with being alone. When a hungry man he’ll later learn is named Frank (Murray Bartlett) falls into one of the booby traps he’s set up on the perimeter of the town where he’s become the sole resident, Bill doesn’t want to kill him, but he does want to send him on his way without feeding him. “If I feed you,” Bill argues, “then every bum you talk to about it is going to show up here looking for a free lunch. And this is not an Arby’s.” Frank’s retort: “Arby’s didn’t have free lunch. It was a restaurant.”
Is this the moment when Bill realizes he doesn’t want to be alone anymore? Offerman and Bartlett play their scenes together beautifully, conveying as much with subtle shifts in expression as often as dialogue, particularly in these early moments, when Bill and Frank are choosing their words carefully, feeling each other out, seeing if what they believe — and hope — they see in each other is true.
But first, lunch. Bill doesn’t just feed Frank, he offers him a feast, even by pre-apocalyptic standards. “A man who knows to pair rabbit with Beaujolais,” Frank observes. “I know I don’t seem like the type,” Bill replies, to which Frank responds, “No, you do.” Frank knows who this man is and what he needs, even if Bill doesn’t. They move to the piano, where, after figuring out that the score to The Tales of Hoffmann doesn’t belong to Bill, he finds a collection of Linda Ronstadt songs. “This is you,” Frank says before he begins butchering “Long, Long Time,” the song that gives the episode its title. Unable to take it, Bill takes over. “So, who’s the girl? The girl you’re singing about,” Frank asks. But he knows there’s no girl.
In some ways, it must have been a leap of faith casting Offerman in this part, which isn’t the sort of character he usually plays. In others, it’s a savvy bit of casting. We’re used to Offerman playing gruff, confident men who know how to do things with their hands, and Bill is that. But when he becomes so tender and vulnerable in Frank’s presence — first when they kiss at the piano, then when Frank takes him upstairs and confirms Bill’s sexual inexperience — it’s kind of shocking. The apocalypse is nothing. This is what scares him.
Years later, he’ll say as much, telling Frank, “I was never afraid before you showed up.” In the years between, the two carve out a nice life for themselves, or as nice a life as they can have in the midst of a wasteland. Frank insists on fixing up the town a bit to make their surroundings more pleasant and in bringing some others into their world — a couple named Joel and Tess, who Frank knows from speaking to on the radio. Despite Bill’s objections, they strike a bargain, trading what they have — including produce and information — for supplies from the quarantine. By the end of their first lunch together, Bill’s even begun considering not pointing a gun at their company.
It’s an arrangement that lasts. Three years after that first meeting, Bill isn’t even that upset that Frank has traded one of his guns for strawberry seeds. But he has other worries on his mind. He regrets growing older faster than his fit, energetic partner. And when the armed raiders Joel warned him about make an appearance, Bill can’t trust his defense system enough to restrain himself from taking a gun to the streets and a bullet in the process. Bill can feel the end coming on and wants Frank to be prepared for it. But the end won’t arrive for another ten years.
When the flashback catches up with 2023, Bill seems well enough, but Frank can barely get around. He knows he’s ill, and he knows it’s bad. But he wants one last day with Bill before taking his own life at the end of a nice meal. But first, he wants, at last, to get married. Bill goes along but doesn’t tell him that he plans to end their meal by swallowing the poison as well. They long ago became the kind of couple that did everything together, so why should this be any different? “This isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play,” Bill tells him. “I’m old. I’m satisfied. And you were my purpose.” In the end, he wanted more out of life than survival. Having gotten it, he can give up the fight.
After some time passes, their house has visitors one last time. Joel and Ellie stop by and figure out what’s happened after reading Bill’s note. “That’s why men like you and me are here. We have a job to do,” it reads. For Bill, Joel’s job included protecting Tess. He can’t do that anymore, but he can protect Ellie, and as they pull away in Bill’s truck to look for Tommy in Wyoming, with “Long Long Time” playing on the radio, he looks almost fond of his passenger.
• This episode was written by series co-creator Craig Mazin and directed by Peter Hoar, a veteran of such series as Doctor Who, Daredevil, and It’s a Sin. It’s also the greatest divergence the series has thus far taken from the game, in which Joel and Ellie meet a still-living Bill, but no Frank.
• Peaking at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Long, Long Time” comes from Ronstadt’s second solo album, 1970’s Silk Purse. It was her biggest U.S. hit to that point and the biggest she’d have until 1975 when she topped the chart with “You’re No Good.” It picked up a second life when it was included in Rondstadt’s blockbuster Greatest Hits collection in 1976.
• As they walk, Joel fills Ellie in on the possible origins of the cordyceps infection, including the possibility it was spread through common food items and that it spread quickly because so many of the same items were so widely distributed. Globalization has its downsides, apparently.
• The cordyceps infection went global on September 26, 2003. In our timeline, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in May 2004. But in the Last of Us timeline, it would never have happened. (At least by anything we recognize as the government. Maybe, despite being, in Frank’s words, “actual Nazis,” FEDRA is surprisingly enlightened on this issue.)
• Offerman’s not alone in deserving praise for this episode. Bartlett is terrific too. Between his work in The White Lotus, Welcome to Chippendales, and now in The Last of Us, he’s on quite the roll.
Update: This recap has been updated to reflect Frank’s degenerative muscular disorder, which was left intentionally vague by the series’ showrunners.
Sign up here for email alerts for every new The Last of Us recap.
More From 'The Last of Us'
- The Last of Us Fans Are Screaming, Crying, Streaming Linda Ronstadt
- It’s Time for a Departure From ‘Bottle Episode’
- The Empty Sentiment of The Last of Us