Years ago I was watching a Charlie Brooker programme counting down the greatest video games of all time, when The Last of Us came up I left the room as I was in the middle of the game and didn’t want the story spoiled. This was the first time the story of a video meant so much that I would be worried about spoilers. This is a roundabout way of discussing the tv show The Last Of Us, and what would happen with a video game adaptation where the game had a surprisingly heavy impact on me. In Episode 3 of the show, I found out.
Spoiler Warning – everything that happens in the episode will be discussed.
Episode 3 – Long, Long Time
A very quick synopsis – the world has been overrun with zombie-like creatures – “clickers” causing the collapse of civilisation with a few territories maintaining a modicum of the modern world. The show’s main characters Joel and Ellie head out into the world and realise they need more supplies and Joel suggests heading to Bill, someone who lives outside the protected cities and could help. Most of the episode is then taken up explaining who Bill is.
Bill (played by the always brilliant Nick Offerman) was a survivalist before the apocalypse, meaning he had thought some manner of the disaster was coming and he had prepared for it. The area where he lives is protected by an electric fence and numerous traps. Not long into his new isolation, Bill finds a non-infected human caught in one of his traps, Frank (played by Murray Bartlett, best known as the hotel manager in season 1 of White Lotus). Bill is exceptionally cautious, helping Frank while keeping a gun trained on him, intending only to point him in the right direction. But Frank asks for help and reluctantly Bill grants it. Bill’s home is a paradise compared to most of America, with electricity, hot water, great food and plentiful wine. Frank explains that he will leave soon and thanks Bill for his hospitality. But that isn’t quite what happens. After a moment of piano playing the tension that has been evident comes entirely to the surface and the two have sex. Frank again explains that he will leave after a couple of days. He doesn’t. This is the start of a relationship that lasts years.
I expected The Last Of Us to be good, in fact, very good. I didn’t expect it to be this good. Already this episode is being hailed as one of the greatest episodes of television ever and while I think it wise to always wait a while before making such proclamations…I feel the same. One of the great strengths of The Last of Us game was that you cared about the characters and again, I had anticipated caring about Joel and Ellie, but by the third episode, I cared immensely about two other characters.
There are several jumps in time, showing Frank and Bill’s relationship. Whereas Bill could have quite happily stayed in his isolation, even if isolated with Frank, his partner wants more. He wants to work on the neighbourhood, make it better, make it look nicer, he cares about their home. To Bill, this is a needless waste of resources but he agrees.
The Dinner Party
Perhaps a slight exaggeration but Frank has invited guests, Joel and Tess, who he had been talking to on the radio. Unsurprisingly Bill has brought a gun to the dinner table. While Frank and Tess chat happily, Joel and Bill have a more serious conversation. Each of them sees themselves as the “protector” in their relationship, Joel points out about what they can do for each other, trade, for example.
Inevitably raiders find Bill’s house and try and take it but through a mixture of traps and Bill’s gun collection they are repulsed, not before Bill is injured and Frank takes care of him. Time jumps forward again and we have now entered heartbreak territory. Frank is now in a wheelchair and clearly very ill, there is much talk of tablets and medicine and how even before the apocalypse there wasn’t a cure for what he has. We see Bill taking care of Frank, helping his partner with whatever he needs, in a gentle and caring way. Then one morning Frank announces his intention to take his own life at the end of the day. After coming to terms with Frank’s decision the two spend the day together, get married and have a last dinner. At which point Frank takes an overdose of tablets with a glass of wine and then realises Bill has done the same, they go to their bed so they can go to sleep and die together.
This episode was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking things I have ever seen.
A lot of films, books, tv shows etc that feature the apocalypse often focus on the idea of characters retaining their humanity, in not simply abandoning morality and civilisation and doing whatever it takes to survive. With Bill there is a distinct difference, it seems like before the apocalypse he was isolated, he didn’t have anyone he cared for and he was alone. Bill’s relationship with Frank allows him to experience humanity – Bill was never some monster who attacked people but he was alone and didn’t see the need not to be. Not everyone is looking for a partner or companionship (apocalypse or not), they do not want it or need it, but Bill did want and need these things and it took “the end of the world” to find them.
Frank’s insistence on beautifying their neighbourhood, on having friends, on reaching out is about having humanity. The post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven has a travelling theatre troupe that has the motto “Survival Is Insufficient” – to be human is not simply about surviving. For Frank survival was insufficient. He wanted friends despite the obvious danger it put him in by inviting people to their house. Frank is not naïve about the dangers of making friends but he does it anyway, if he dies tries to reach out to people so they can all have a better life…so be it.
The skill and ambition of the people making this show is astounding, taking a minor part of the video game, and making it into a beautiful decades-long romance with the main characters of the show barely in it is risky but they have had spectacular success.