Before this week’s The Last of Us, I was unaware that I had the capability to fall in complete love with a cantankerous, virgin survivalist with an unfortunate hair and to mourn his death as though he were a member of my family — all within the space of an hour and 20 minutes. But here I am, ugly-crying over The Artist Formerly Known as Ron Swanson.
Sunday’s episode of the series was a departure from the video game it’s based on, the biggest narrative change we’ve seen so far. It also was an elegant, thoughtful, moving love story set in a time and place where nothing is sweet or beautiful — which makes it that much more sweet and beautiful. I’ve been waxing rhapsodic about this ep since I saw the screener; make sure to watch the video at the top of this post to hear some of Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman’s thoughts on their The Last of Us turn.
But first, read on for the highlights of Episode 3.
PIT STOP AT A CONVENIENCE STORE | The episode starts off with Joel and Ellie, so we will, too. Ten miles outside of Boston, he builds a cairn and gives the teen the silent treatment as he quietly mourns Tess. But Ellie isn’t having it, telling him, “Don’t blame me for something that isn’t my fault.” They set off on a five-hour hike, during which she asks him roughly two thousand questions. (And no, he still won’t give her a gun.)
They stop at a Cumberland Farms convenience store where he stashed stuff a few years before. As he pokes around, trying to remember exactly where his goods are, she finds a trapdoor in a back room and, after opening it, drops herself into the dark and scary void below. (Side note: Whyyyyy, kid?) She finds a box of tampons (and has the best reaction to a female hygiene product I’ve ever seen on screen: ‘f–k yeah!’) before realizing that there’s an infected trapped under a bunch of cinderblocks in the corner.
With a scientist’s curiosity, she draws closer and uses her knife to slice open his forehead, then drives the weapon into his skull to end him. When she eventually emerges, brandishing the tampons like a trophy, Joel is none the wiser.
HOW IT BEGAN | Their walk continues. As they pass the wreckage of a plane that crashed into a hillside, she’s dazzled when Joel gruffly answers her that yes, he did travel via airline back in the day. “Dude, you got to go up into the sky,” she says, awed. Their conversation turns to how the Cordyceps outbreak got started. “Who bit the first person? Was it a monkey?” Turns out, no one knows for sure.
The prevailing guess is that the fungus mutated and got into the food supply via a basic ingredient like flour or sugar. (Side note: Now would be a good time to think back to the premiere and all of the baked goods — pancakes, biscuits, oatmeal-raisin cookies — that Joel and Sarah didn’t make or turned down.) “You eat enough of it, you get infected,” Joel theorizes, remembering that the outbreak happened on a Friday. “By Monday, everything was gone.”
When they get to a certain point in their journey, Joel wants to cut through the woods, to save Ellie from having to seem some pretty gruesome stuff. But she’s curious and forges ahead anyway. Even she, however, is pulled up short by the large number of skeletons they come across I a field. Joel informs her that, a week after Outbreak Day, soldiers evacuated small towns in the countryside and told people that they would be transported to the QZ. And that was true… provided there was room in the QZ. If not, the soldiers executed them. “These people weren’t sick?” Ellie asks, horrified. “No, probably not,” Joel responds. Via their conversation we also learn that dead bodies can’t be infected with the fungus.
ENTER BILL | And now, on to the main event. We flash back to Sept. 30, 2003, and one of those sweeps that Joel just referenced. An armed man hides in a subbasement of his suburban home, which is rigged with security cameras. Though soldiers search the place, they don’t find him. “Not today, you new world order, jackboot-wearing f–ks,” he gloats. Once they’ve loaded everyone else onto transports and left, he comes up into the house, wearing a gas mask that he slowly removes. The man is a survivalist named Bill (played by Parks and Recreation’s Offerman), and he is the only person left in his neighborhood.
This reality does not seem to faze him. He steals gas, loots Home Depot and barely blinks when the power grid goes down; after all, he’s got a huge generator in his backyard. That yard also features a garden, chickens and a zillion defense mechanisms. When an infected approaches and trips a wire near the perimeter, he watches via camera as it gets shot down by an automatic gun. “It doesn’t get old,” he muses. Yeah, Bill is basically having the best pandemic ever.
A MESSED-UP MEET CUTE | Four years later, an alert lets him know that someone is nearby; Bill goes outside to find a man has fallen into a pit on the land just outside the electrified fence that encircles his home. As Bill holds a gun on him, the man, Frank (White Lotus’ Bartlett), explains that he was traveling with a group of 10 people from the Baltimore QZ, which is now “gone;” they were heading to Boston but he’s the only one left.
Bill gives Frank a ladder and scans him when he climbs out; he’s not infected. Frank asks for some food. “This is not an Arby’s,” Bill says, irked. “Arby’s didn’t have free lunch. It was a restaurant,” Frank replies. Bill begrudgingly allows Frank to come into the house and shower, which is only part of the reason Frank is shocked when the meal Bill prepares is gourmet-caliber, complete with wine pairing.
As they eat, the differences in their personalities become even clearer. Frank is warm, talkative and open. Bill is wary, taciturn and tense. When the food is gone, Frank is about to leave but pauses when he notices a piano in the parlor. Bill acquiesces to his request to play. However, he stops Frank when he pulls out a songbook and gets a few bars into a rough rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time.” So Frank gestures for him to play, “and then I’ll leave.”
Bill sits and, from memory, plays a gentle, lovely version of the tune. “So, who’s the girl? The girl you’re singing about?” Frank wonders when Bill is done. “There’s no girl,” Bill replies, near tears. “I know,” Frank says quietly, putting his hand on Bill’s shoulder, then leaning down to kiss him. The effect is electric; Bill quickly stands and kisses him back. They’re both crying a little as Frank asks Bill’s name. Then, “Go take a shower, Bill,” Frank says, kissing him again.
When Bill emerges from the bathroom in a towel, Frank is waiting for him, naked, in bed. We learn that Bill slept “with a girl a long time ago” but is pretty inexperienced and VERY nervous. Frank gentles him, promising to “start with the simple things” and murmuring that if they do what they’re about to do, he’s going to stay for a few more days. Bill shakily, and happily, agrees, and Frank kisses him, sliding down Bill’s torso and out of frame.
DYSTOPIAN DINNER PARTY | We immediately cut to three years later, where the pair are having a loud argument. Frank wants to engage in some beautification of the house and surrounding neighborhood, because “We are going to have friends. We’re going to make friends, and we’ll invite them to visit.” A skeptical Bill wonders who’s even left to befriend, and Frank says he’s been chatting with “a nice woman on the radio.”
And that nice woman is Tess! She and Joel, both far less banged-up and wary of life than when we last saw them. Still, Bill and Joel give each other the hairy eyeball throughout the visit; after a lovely meal, Joel says he understands Bill’s desire to shun human contact, but the QZ has stuff Bill doesn’t — like books and medicine — and suggests that they can help each other. Bill quickly reminds Joel that he and Frank are self-sufficient: “I don’t need you or your friend complicating our lives. Is that clear?” Joel calmly points out the property’s eventual weak points, like the fence, which is already starting to corrode and probably has about a year before it needs to be replaced. Joel says he can get them aluminum that will last the rest of their lives, but Bill is unmoved — both by that and by Joel’s prediction that raiders — aka nefarious humans looking to steal and/or do worse — will come at night at some point. “They’ll be quiet and armed,” he says. “We’ll be fine,” Bill flatly states.
TOUGH TIMES | Three years later, after we get a sweet interlude in which Frank surprises Bill by showing him a strawberry patch he planted. Bill grouses about Frank trading one of his guns for the seeds. Frank assures Bill he likes seeing him grow old because “older means we’re still here.” Bill admits “I was never afraid before you showed up.” They make out. The whole scene is a beautiful slice of their relationship… which lulls us into a false sense of security that is shattered when raiders attack the house during a rainstorm.
Frank wakes as the assault begins and realizes Bill is not in the house. He grabs a gun and rushes outside, where Bill is firing at the raiders in the front yard. Bill takes a bullet (!) and Frank gets him inside, laying him out and trying to stop the bleeding while Bill insistently gives his partner instructions on what to do when he does. He tells him to call Joel, “he’ll take care of you.”
The next time we see them, it’s 10 years later: 2023. The good news? Bill survived his injury. The bad news? A degenerative disease has made Frank need to use a wheelchair, and his motor function has deteriorated so much that he’s having trouble doing things like painting or opening his pills.
So one morning, Bill wakes to find Frank already up and sitting in a chair, something that he admits took him nearly all night to accomplish. “This is my last day,” he announces. Bill is devastated, but Frank says he’s made up his mind. “I’ve had more good days with you than with anyone else. Give me one more good day,” he asks, outlining a 24-hour span in which they’ll get new clothes at the boutique, they’ll get married, they’ll have dinner, then he’ll put all of his meds in his wine and go to bed, “and I will fall asleep in your arms.”
Bill starts to sob. “I can’t,” he protests as Offerman kills me softly. Good lord, this guy is good. But Frank quietly asks if he loves him, and Bill says yes. “Then love me the way I want you to,” he replies.
BILL MAKES A CHOICE | So that’s what happens. Both men don suits and exchange rings in the parlor by the piano. Then they dine. Afterward, Bill brings out two glasses and a new bottle of wine. He empties crushed pills into one glass, mixes it up and hands it to Frank, who wonders whether it will be enough to do the job. “Yeah,” Bill says quietly, and Frank drinks it down at once. Bill follows suit, which is when Frank realizes… “Were there already pills in the bottle?” Bill meets his gaze as he answers, “Enough to kill a horse.”
As Frank tries to absorb what’s happening, Bill explains. He says he’s old and tired, “and you were my purpose.” For the record, Frank does not support the decision, but acknowledges that it is terribly romantic. They’re in a good place when they retire to the bedroom for the last time.
‘WE HAVE A JOB TO DO’ | When Joel and Ellie arrive at the gate, Joel instantly knows something is up. The code still works to let him in, but the grass is overgrown at the house and plants are dead in their pots, plus the front door is unlocked. Inside, Ellie finds an envelope — addressed “To whomever, but probably Joel” — and a key.
The missive is dated Aug. 29, 2023. Ellie reads it aloud. “If you find this, please do not come into the bedroom,” Bill asks. He instructs Joel to take anything he needs. “I never liked you, but still, it’s like we’re friends. Almost. And I respect you.” He writes about how he’d been wrong about being happy that everyone else was dead, because he found one person worth saving. “That’s why men like you and me are here: We have a job to do. And God help any motherf—kers that stand in our way.” He bequeaths all of his weapons and equipment, with the instruction that Joel use them to keep Tess safe. (Sob!)
The key is to a truck in the garage, and after Joel fashions a battery from Bill’s supplies and ensures that Ellie’s bite hasn’t changed in any way, he announces that he’s got a brother in Wyoming who used to be a firefly, and that maybe Tommy can help her get to someone who can get her to the lab.
But Joel’s got rules for travel, and she’s got to agree before they go any further. He doesn’t want to talk about Tess or their histories. Ellie can’t tell anyone about her “condition.” And Rule 3: “You do what I say, when I say it.” She promises to comply. While the battery is charging, they shower and gather supplies; Ellie finds a gun in a drawer and stealthily stuffs it in her back without Joel’s knowing.
When they get into the car, Ellie is really excited: It’s her first time in a vehicle. He helps her with her seatbelt LIKE THE DAD HE IS and teases her for her exuberance. “It’s like a spaceship!” she cries. Then she puts a tape into the stereo, and “Long, Long Time” starts playing as they drive away.
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!