THERE will be endless debates as one gets to the end of this tremendously gripping series, HBO’s The Last of Us, as to which episode is the best. There is however one episode that will undoubtedly be remembered as the most moving of them all. This is “Long Long Time,” Episode 3 of the blockbuster series.
People may quibble as to how this episode makes sense when placed against the other episodes marked by violence, suspense/surprise, and horror. No one can disagree, however, that this must be one of the tenderest stories ever placed within a series that is meant to be about the hopelessness in humans when they forget how nature can be forbidding when it goes berserk. Or when we forget that next to our gods, there is another almighty around us—the ecology tampered, the environment not only disregarded but taken for granted.
In musicals, some songs are showstoppers; in a series, what do we call an episode that “stops” the show?
A bit of context is needed: rebounding from a great loss (I am trying to avoid falling into spoiler traps) in the previous episode, Joel (Pedro Pascal) is continuing with his journey, bringing along with him Ellie (Bella Ramsey). This young girl has been discovered as bearing on her arm the marks of someone infected by the fungus that has nearly destroyed the entire world and remains to threaten the annihilation of the human race.
Joel needs to bring Ellie to the Firefly, a rebel group that has been formed during the pandemic, to show them this human that seems to possess immunity to the said fungus. The two have escaped a quarantine zone (QZ) and are now on their way to see Bill, a man who because he has long prepared for any global threat to humanity (he calls himself a “survivalist”) is now living alone in a small town barricaded against the world of the infected.
Like a fable, the journey of Joel and Ellie gives way to another tale, that of Bill and another stranger. No one, it must be said, is ever prepared as this story is disclosed to us—love amidst the time of dangers to life and men.
It begins one day. Bill, self-sufficient, naturally grouchy and alone, hears the sound of an intruder who has fallen into one of the many traps he has set, this one a deep hole. From the pit comes this voice of one man. Bill, as expected, is unwelcoming. For some reason, he gives this man a chance by lowering down a ladder into the hole. The man climbs out of it and into the arms of Bill. I am rushing of course. And, however silly that description is, that is really the crux of this tale, without the cloying sentiment one expects from and, surprisingly, without the unnecessary gravitas one always associates with a damn serious and honest narrative about men falling in love with men (now, there goes one spoiler I cannot avoid to make my point).
To rush (a necessary move) into the gist of this episode, Bill starts to believe in the sincerity of Frank. But more than that, there is this feeling created by the story of how we should believe in the story of one man, alone out there, seeking the safety of and with another man. In a world where humans are dying, another human becomes inescapably important. But, remember, Bill has always been alone. And it is not easy for him to trust another man—or anyone—coming from nowhere.
It is from this solitary existence that this episode has nurtured a plot development so magical that by the time we have realized we are viewing a chronicle of romance and love, we have forgotten the world is still on the brink of extinction.
There is almost a cabalistic sense in that scenario where Frank approaches a piano, declaring it antique and rare and in the process disclosing his own personality. Then the most cinematic artifice is set up: Frank rummages through piano pieces, finding the predictably “classical” “Für Elise,” quickly discarding it in favor of Linda Ronstadt hits and off we fly into neverland, where love wins over plagues and fungus, albeit temporarily, and both kindness and sadness offer a respite.
The next scenes take us through summers and springs, a reassurance that the earth has never changed despite the deaths on it. Bill and Frank have grown old together. They have quarreled in between seasons; they have loved each other through new discoveries (the growing of strawberries because a gun has been bartered in exchange for seeds) and with each other witnessing personal frailties and increasing disabilities (a wheelchair now graces a table always set for fine dining).
As Bill, Nick Offerman, is a treat: from a grumpy dystopian gunslinger, he slowly turns into the tenderest, gentlest, most naive lover. As Frank, Murray Bartlett is a charmer from the very beginning and he never loses those sensual good looks even when the end is near. Together, the two actors rebuild in us the old belief that a good series, however dreary, should always have hope. Like art.
Lest we forget, Episode 3 resurrects Linda Ronstadt and her hit song “Long, Long Time.” Long after we have gotten used to deadly fungi creeping like wild flowers all over ruins of human civilization, there will be one last song syndrome for us all and it will sound like this:
‘Cause I’ve done everything I know/To try and make you mine
And I think I’m gonna love you/For a long long time….
Directed by Peter Hoar and written by Craig Mazin, The Last of Us streams on HBO Max and HBO Go. A full review of the series follows next week. n