The third episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us” might be one of the show’s finest hours. Most of it largely ignores protagonists Joel and Ellie to focus on the tale of Bill and Frank, minor characters in the game whose story here is transformed in unexpected, kinder ways.
In the game, Frank and Bill are two older gay men whose story ended with bitter suicide, leaving a lonely Bill to stew in his resentment and regret. Episode 3 begins with Joel and Ellie in the wake of Tess’s sacrifice to save them both. We start 10 miles west of Boston, and we can sense Joel’s acrimony toward Ellie. Bella Ramsey’s Ellie, in a strong display of emotional intelligence, senses this and preemptively lectures Joel: “You made a choice, so don’t blame me for something that isn’t my fault.” Joel, with Pedro Pascal’s sunken face, nods back knowingly. You almost get that Joel respects Ellie for her read on him, and her reasoning. This is shown immediately as the pair walk along and Joel lets down his guard a little, opening up to a smiling Ellie as she bombards him with questions about his past and the history of the apocalypse they’re surviving.
They arrive at a gas station for supplies, and here we see the show’s first jarring interaction with real-world intellectual property: Ellie is fascinated and thrilled to see a “Mortal Kombat II” arcade cabinet. The video game version of “The Last of Us” made up a fictional game and character called “Angel Knives,” but HBO is under the Warner Bros. Discovery family, which also owns the Mortal Kombat brand. It’s a fitting swap, especially since both “The Last of Us” and “Mortal Kombat” have shared history in expanding the video game medium’s depiction of violence.
Ellie strays off into the basement, where she faces an infected buried and still breathing under rubble. Her fascination with a violent video game is an interesting juxtaposition to her fascination with inflicting violence upon infected monsters who used to be human. She’s almost meditative in her exploration of this monster’s humanity, staring at its eyes and cutting it open, only to find that it doesn’t bleed like most living things. Perhaps comfortable with that knowledge, she stabs it dead. The HBO show is laying more groundwork than the game did in establishing the growing violence within Ellie. In the first episode, she leans forward to watch Joel beat a man to death. Here, she tests the boundaries of her ability to harm and kill something else.
The pair continue on, and Joel finally confirms the theory that wheat-based products fanned the flames of infection. The first episode had multiple scenes of Joel being able to avoid eating these foods, including his stubborn forgetfulness to buy pancake mix and cake. They stumble upon a burning site of human remains, and Joel explains that if quarantine zones in major cities didn’t have enough room, people from small towns would be burned alive. The camera zooms in on a piece of cloth from a dress, and we flash back 20 years to 2003, the start of the disaster.
We see security cameras outside of someone’s home. It may be standard to the modern-day home, an indication of how bad our distrust of community has become, but this homeowner, a bearded man with lots of guns, was ahead of the times. His self-admitted paranoia saves him from the same incendiary fate of his neighbors, as he snarls, “Not today, you new world order jackboots.” He is who we’d call a doomsday prepper, and it turns out his instincts were correct, in all ways. HBO viewers don’t have his name yet. Veterans of the game know him as Bill, performed by Nick Offerman underneath a grand beard.
The following montage is perhaps the show’s most rousing sequence, as this lone survivalist happily finds himself alone in his town, and avails himself of all of its resources, including scavenging nearby big-box stores, jerry-rigging a personalized electrical grid out of the abandoned power plant and raiding the town’s winery. He creates zombie-proof traps around the town, and delights in his handiwork. In a monstrous world tearing itself apart, he is now the mayor, governor and king of his own existence, protected by the Americana tools of guns and trucks. He’s become a community of one, a man finally vindicated and justified in his dim view of humanity, and we witness him reap the rewards.
These halcyon days last for four years until a man named Frank (played by gay actor and “The White Lotus” star Murray Bartlett) stumbles into one of Bill’s traps. Bill checks Frank for all the signs of infection and sizes him up. Frank is the only survivor from a group of 10 who escaped the Baltimore quarantine zone, now apparently overrun with monsters, and he just wants to get to Boston. Bill doesn’t trust other humans, but he’s not inhumane. When Frank pleads for food, Bill says he’s not an Arby’s, which is another jarring incorporation of real-world branding into this world. Nevertheless, Bill invites Frank into his home.
Frank marvels at the normalcy of Bill’s existence as he wanders around a well-kept living room. Bill avails Frank of his fine cooking, complete with oils and wine pairing. Bill says he knows he doesn’t seem the type to know wine pairing, and Frank says with zero judgment, “No, you do!” Bill seems to be taken aback by someone who seems to accept him completely, despite having just met.
Frank insists on playing a song on the piano from one of Bill’s books, a collection of songs from country singer Linda Ronstadt. He chooses “Long Long Time,” the episode’s title, and Bill says no, not that one. It’s implied that Ronstadt and the piano have a strong connection to Bill’s mother. Bill sits down and performs the song beautifully, enchanting Frank. The two kiss, Bill leaning with some desperation but mostly relief to finally feel human intimacy after all these years. The two sleep together. Bill’s paradise finally feels complete.
There’s an abrupt flash forward four years with some trouble in paradise, as the couple argue over Frank’s insistence to decorate the town. Bill doesn’t approve, and Frank snaps back that he will run through a trap if Bill insists it’s about “resource management.” Bill can’t lose Frank, exhales, and stands down to hear him out. Frank says probably a key line not just for the episode, but for the entire series: “Paying attention to things. It’s how we show love.” Frank wants friends, and he’s already been talking to a woman over the radio.
That woman was Tess, and we see her and Joel at a tense garden party hosted by Bill and Frank. It’s tense because Bill keeps pointing a gun at Joel. Tess remarks about how much she needed “this,” a sense of old world normalcy, and Frank obliges by offering a probably long-forgotten practice of hospitality: showing guests around the home. Left to themselves, Joel and Bill stand off with stares, and Joel growls to get the gun away from his face, and Bill concedes. Joel understands Bill, but also says they all need supplies and can benefit each other greatly. Joel remarks that Bill’s fencing is only going to last so long, and that raiders will come. Bill stands his ground on not wanting help.
A few years later and Bill seems to have taken Joel’s warnings to heart. The wall (we’re always building walls, this show seems to say) around the town is reinforced by busted cars. Frank shows Bill that he traded with Joel and Tess to obtain seeds for a garden. Bill picks and tastes berries and lets out a high-pitch giggle of delight. The apocalypse vindicated Bill. The berries vindicate Frank and his instinct to connect with others.
We flash forward again to human raiders attacking Bill and Frank’s town as they get completely destroyed by Bill’s defensive machinations. Still, Bill is shot and injured, and Frank brings him into the home to tend to his wounds. Bill seems convinced he’s about to die, and begs Frank to contact Joel. It’s Bill’s acknowledgment that Joel, the one man who understands his wariness of other humans, may be the only person with the will and strength to protect Frank. It requires a man as viciously paranoid as Bill himself.
Then, suddenly, we flash forward to the modern day of 2023. Frank is wheelchair-bound and gravely ill, and Bill is old and frail. Frank is so sick that he’s unable to feed himself or indulge in his pleasantries of painting. One morning, Frank decides he wants go die by his own choice, with Bill’s assistance. Offerman as Bill flashes back the saddest face any man can possibly have, and Frank is heartbroken. Still, the two decide to go through with it, as they raid the boutique store, get suited up, and marry each other. They have one last fancy dinner together, still in their suits and their fingers interlaced, as Bill reveals he has taken the same pills Frank has to end his life. “You were my purpose,” Bill says with a twinkle in his eye. Frank says he should be furious, but still can’t deny the romantic gesture. The pair enter their bedroom as we see them for one last time.
Enter Joel and Ellie, as they find the abandoned town and the empty nest of Bill and Frank. Like the game, there’s a suicide note, this time left by Bill. He left he window open, sparing the house of the rotten smell of their remains. Bill’s commitment to cleanliness in his own home survives, even if he doesn’t. Ellie reads the suicide note aloud, which says Bill assumed Joel would find the note because anyone else would die from his traps. Despite the tragedy, Bill still had enough humor and verve to write out “hehehehehehe” with self-satisfaction over his traps, and Ellie reads this aloud. Bella Ramsey looks up at Joel for a reaction, and here I realize I’m watching the most charming read-out of a suicide note I’ve ever seen. Bill decided to leave his guns and truck to Joel.
Joel and Ellie avail themselves to Bill’s resources, including a hot shower, and the two drive west, armed with weapons and a Linda Ronstadt cassette tape. The episode closes by pulling away from Joel and Ellie and into the wafting curtains of Bill’s bedroom window, as Ronstadt sings, “And I think I’m going to love you for a long, long time.”
Some notes and observations:
This is the most dramatically changed sequence of the TV show, but there are still hints of the original game. The conversation where Joel tells Ellie, “You don’t bring up Tess, ever” still happens, this time inside Bill’s home. Part of the delight of the game sequence was experiencing Bill’s intricate traps as Joel, but HBO viewers still get to marvel at some of this as we see them work against zombies and humans not nearly as skilled as Joel. If anything, the show is more satisfying in its approach. In the game, we the player simply move past most of Bill’s traps. In the show, we finally get to see why they were so dangerous.
Bill and Frank aren’t the only two men who get a more loving relationship in this episode. In the game, Bill and Joel interact with sharp barbs and bitterness. Bill helps Joel out of obligation because of some past, unspoken deed Joel performed for Bill. In this kinder episode, Bill openly trusts and respects Joel, and we can thank Frank for that.
Even the choice in country singer feels like it’s keeping with this kinder, warmer theme of love and life. In the game, the only indication of Bill’s musical tastes was a Hank Williams tape. Williams is the pioneering singer-songwriter from the early 20th century, and his life ended suddenly and quickly in the back seat of a car at the age of 29, after years of alcohol and pain. Ronstadt, in contrast, has lived a life free of controversy. She is still alive and was able to retire her career gracefully after a natural deterioration of her voice.