The Last of Us Blinks Back the Tears with “Long Long Time”
The Last of Us pauses to tell a touching love story, albeit one revealing its own storytelling limitations.
The Last of Us, Season One, Episode 3:
“Long Long Time” Review
Through its first few episodes, HBO’s The Last of Us has concretely established a few key elements of its structure and tone, portraying a broken world of broken people, what nascent sense of shared humanity left between them depicted via ration cards, worn-eyed looks of longing and regret for what might’ve been. Save for a few playful bits of dialogue, The Last of Us has reveled in its dilapidated world – particularly, the misery of those who yearn for any semblance of a normal life. “Long Long Time”, despite its setting and focus away from the main narrative arc, fits neatly within these lines: there’s no arguing how well-crafted and performed this episode is, but to suggest it is 80 minutes running against the grain of its own pathos, would be a little more than dishonest.
Bookended by scenes of Joel and Ellie arriving in Lincoln, “Long Long Time” is the story of Bill (played here by Nick Offerman and memorably by W. Earl Brown in The Last of Us Part I), a survivalist who embraced the opportunity of the apocalypse to put his skills to use, and live out his days in quiet, peaceful solitude. But when he finds a man named Frank trapped in the pits outside of his electrified security gates, that facade of contentment quickly falls away (I mean – who wouldn’t after four years without a human conversation?), and Bill is revealed to be severely depressed and lonely, even amidst his anxiety around letting someone in his compound.
Very obvious visual metaphor aside, how “Long Long Time” builds a life for Bill and Frank (Murray Bartlett, in his first post-White Lotus HBO appearance) makes for a compelling love story. Checking in with them every three years, The Last of Us observe the pair during familiar moments of domestic life: bickering over aesthetic decisions, enjoying the company of a few friends (Joel and Tess, the latter of whom Frank meets over the radio and invites to their home) – and of course, defending everything they’ve built from a group of faceless raiders and nearly dying from it.
While it all benefits from the incredibly nuanced performances from Offerman and Bartlett, elevating what are rather typical Odd Couple debates – introvert vs. extrovert, optimist vs. cynic, etc., etc. – much of “Long Long Time” is fairly standard emotional fare (the nature of the vignettes being 5-10 minutes each ensures nothing gets too detailed), save for one scene that stands amongst the best romantic scenes I’ve seen in years.
I’m talking, of course, about the scene in the strawberry garden, where for a brief moment, the apocalypse washes away and we glimpse two people enjoying the sweet, slightly tart taste of young love and fresh strawberries – both experiences Bill and Frank assumed they’d never have again in their lives. Bill nearly cries when he bites into his first strawberry; both from the taste, and the overwhelming sensation when it becomes clear someone truly, truly loves you – their slow chewing and small moans of pleasure a catalyst not just for some impromptu afternoon delight but for the intertwining of two souls… and most importantly, giving Bill a much-needed sense of purpose his conspiracy-addled brain could never find in the real world.
It’s a large departure from the game, where the only explicit evidence of Bill’s sexuality and life with Frank is detailed by the gay porno with sticky pages Ellie finds at one point (I am not joking). The Last of Us trades the bitterness of the original (where their relationship was clearly more combative, with Bill eternally mad at Frank for committing suicide) for some undeniably more nuanced and tragic for its television counterpart. And it is a rather magical 55 minutes, a fantasy where The Last of Us can offer a different emotional tenor: one no less threatening or depressing but with a brief pocket of life unaffected by the world around it, where two people who would’ve never found each other in the before times could build out a life of meaning together.
Unfortunately, The Last of Us shuffling around the events and emotions of Bill’s backstory has no lasting effect on its pathos – “Long Long Time” is but a thematic playground for The Last of Us, but one where tragic irony and loss are still the series’ bedrock. After Bill is shot during a raider assault (a terrifying sequence that utilizes Frank’s POV to great effect), “Long Long Time” cuts immediately ten years into the future, revealing that Frank ended up in a wheelchair and is considering ending his life.
Of course, due to a degenerative muscle disease, Frank can’t really kill himself, so he asks Bill to give him “one last good day” before he departs his depressing plane of existence. Reluctantly, Bill follows along – a decision that Offerman’s performance carries with such silent, powerful grace – and set out to give Frank, and in the world’s most unsurprising twist, himself, one last final great day of life together. They get married (which… why wait so long?), they enjoy a day in the sun, and then have their final meal together (roast duck, just like their first).
The dinner scene is devastating in its simplicity; when Frank realizes what Bill’s done and sealed their fates together, he tells him what a romantic thing he’s done. Then, the old gays walk down the hallway together and disappear into oblivion – sealing their fates and the sense that even moments of joy and happiness are short-lived on The Last of Us, and that anyone willing to love, better be ready and prepared to lose it all.
Unlike Joel and Tess, at least Frank and Bill get to go out on their own terms, in each other’s arms: though The Last of Us doesn’t nakedly compare their two relationships, the dinner scene with all four is straightforward in its depiction of opposites attracting, and how a couple tries to find peace in trying times. Bill, having spent 20 years inside the walls, is a little more trusting than Joel, of course (you better believe Joel is shooting Frank dead in the hole he found him in), and Tess’s edges are a little sharper than Frank’s – but the dichotomy in their decisions, and circumstances, are what drives the scene between them. Bill embraced the end of the world, and found love – Joel raged against it, of course, and has received gifts in kind from the unforgiving gods.
However, what continues to limit The Last of Us‘s storytelling is that slavish allegiance to karmic irony; characters who express love are destined to experience tragedy – which is a beautiful statement grounded in truth, but becomes a bit grating when applied to every narrative instance in the show’s purview. Every moment of joy, brief as they’ve been, has been immediately followed by a dark moment to reground us in the show’s FEDRA-driven reality; it is consistent to the point of frustration that one can reliably count down from 10 to misery whenever something positive occurs on screen.
On its own, “Long Long Time” is a touching step outside the bounds of The Last of Us‘s known world, observing the other side of the coin – what happens when someone embraces love instead of conflict and opens their heart instead of closing it? But the ending is still tragic, still depressing (and although I resist the idea, it fully embraces this trope, the Tragic Gay Love), and ultimately, a story that proves the central thesis of The Last of Us instead of acting as a true spiritual counterpart to its other stories.
It’s a nitpick for a fantastic episode, sure, but one that shows a clear throughline in narrative design, one that shows no sign of letting up. And I was in previous episodes, I’m torn on The Last of Us‘s approach to this (a small portion of which is probably natural apprehension at the drooling, laudatory praises being laid upon it, admittedly); while it is certainly realistic, it’s inability to provide any lasting, tangible sense of anything except Prestige Dreariness is frustrating – there’s no reason why Frank and Bill’s story had to be a complete one-off as if creatively contained within the very same walls Bill bordered himself inside. The Last of Us‘s resistance to just letting some light in (which again, it does in that phenomenal garden scene) and letting it stay might make it a more honest creative pursuit, but it certainly doesn’t make it a more palatable one, especially as the series continues.
For now, however, we have strawberries and Linda Ronstadt – and quite honestly, there are a lot worse, more depressing ways for The Last of Us to spend an extended episode’s running time with. Though it doesn’t resolve any of my existing anxieties about the series as a whole, Frank and Bill’s tragic tale is a prime example of what can happen when compassionate storytelling is allowed to come to the forefront, even for a short time.