At the end of 1956’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the lead protagonist has just escaped a town composed of malignant extraterrestrials that have replaced their human counterparts. The protagonist reaches a busy highway and frantically warns commuters of what he has experienced, by yelling seemingly absurd but all too real warnings. The third episode of HBO’s latest and greatest one-hour drama series is so damn good, that I want to take to the streets and proclaim its greatness over a loudspeaker. “LONG, LONG TIME” is less action-oriented and relatively low on violence, but the episode is nearly perfectly juxtaposed with horror, terror, love, and sacrifice. In this episode, we are introduced to Bill (Parks and Recreation alum Nick Offerman) and Frank (The White Lotus alum Murray Bartlett). Bill and Frank’s short but profound screen time is one of the most effective love stories in television history. The preceding sentence is solely my opinion, but in this day and age of the perpetual war between wokeness and traditionalism, THE LAST OF US has given viewers the definitive answer to address representation onscreen. JUST WRITE A DAMN GOOD STORY. Hollywood, please take notes.
We begin with Joel and Ellie on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts. The duo arrives at a mass grave, which is filled with bodies of persons who are not displaying fungal infection. Ellie inquires why would the military kill non-infected, and Joel reluctantly reveals that some safe zones did not have the space or supplies for more people. Rather than risking the survivors’ attempt to other safe havens and risk getting infected, many were executed by the military. As with the showrunners’ (Mazin and Druckman) superb direction of the first two episodes, episode three has marvelous direction courtesy of BAFTA-winning director Peter Hoar. Hoar captures a solemn scene of Joel stacking rocks, which serves as a makeshift memorial for Tess. When Ellie mouths the words “I would like just to say…” Joel immediately cuts her off and says he doesn’t want her apologies. This is a key moment that differentiates the personality of the Ellie tv character from the Ellie video game character. The latter version was constantly apologetic to Joel for the sacrifices that he made. This Ellie says Joel is responsible for his own actions and shouldn’t blame her for jack-shit. Joel is beginning to realize he does not know Ellie as well as he initially thought, for she may not have the experience of a seasoned adult, but Ellie is a far cry from a clueless kid.
Joel and Ellie continue en route to the former’s ally Bill and arrive at a fortified neighborhood. Bill was a survivalist before the Cordyceps outbreak, and his stronghold in Lincoln, Massachusetts has managed to ward off the infected and malicious faction groups. Joel enters the compound by entering a code into the front gate. Bill’s trust in Joel was a long and arduous process and this ordeal is later revealed in an entertaining and poignant flashback. Ellie uncovers a letter left by Bill. From here we are thrown into a moment in time that was the alpha and omega of a beautiful relationship.
Twenty years prior to the arrival of the outbreak, we see Bill savaging abandoned places for supplies. At his fortified residence, we see that the traps set by Bill are effective in dispatching the infected that occasionally show up outside of his fence perimeter. Years later, Bill is checking one of his traps and finds Frank at the bottom of the trap. Once Bill realizes the stranger is unarmed, he lets Frank out and the newly freed man asks for a meal and the use of a shower. The next day Frank is supposed to leave and continue his solo journey, but eyes and plays an antique piano. Bill follows suit but adds singing into the mix. Frank deduces that Bill is gay and never experienced love. The two sleep together and from here their love blossoms. Frank assists Bill in fixing up the neighborhood, by planting floors and painting the surrounding abandoned homes. Three years later, the beautification of the neighborhood attracts friends, which is initially to the chagrin of Bill. The couple eventually meets Joel and Tess, and the couples exchange supplies and methods of defending against outsiders.
The sole action scene in the episode features a brief but intense attempted night raid of Bill and Frank’s compound. Frank is awakened by gunfire and screaming; the screams are of the raider’s realization that Bill’s fence is not only electrified but has hoses that dispense jets of flames. Bill is seriously wounded during this ordeal but survives. We fast forward to just days before the current story (which concludes with the arrival of Joel and Ellie). Frank is dying of an unspecified degenerative disease and wishes no longer to suffer. It is important to note here that Bill and Frank’s relationship is only hinted at through sporadically placed notes and Bill compassionately but briefly mentioning Frank. In a beautiful montage, Bill and Frank share their final night together with both men dressed in suits and having a candlelit dinner. Frank was supposed to end his life by overdose to end the inoperable suffering. Bill tells him he is “coming with him”, for he has served his purpose. That purpose was caring for Frank. Without Frank, Bill would have lived a lonely existence, pained not only with having to survive in a bleak world but having to do so without his one true love.
Joel finds that Bill mentions Tess in the letter. Joel has lost his daughter Sarah and now Tess. Joel continues to treat Ellie like cargo rather than a person, for he fears getting close to anyone and then losing them. Joel cares for Ellie but attempts to suppress all glimmers of that care. Those who have played the game know that Joel and Ellie eventually and inevitably bond like father and daughter. Certainly, the HBO series will go the same route, but it is exciting that this series honors the source material without being a carbon copy.
This episode is one of the finest in recent television history. In this day and age of endless streaming and cable channels, HBO remains the gold standard of television. THE LAST OF US returns Sunday, February 5, 2023 at 9PM on Home Box Office.