One of my deepest desires for my career is to be able to cultivate such trust with a company that they allow me to do what Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann did with “Long, Long Time,” The Last of Us Season 1 Episode 3. From an industry perspective, this episode is such a rarity – a lifeboat in the formulaic sea of what a studio expects a show to do to be successful. It’s also (and easily) one of the best episodes of television I have watched in a very long time.
Spoilers ahead for “Long, Long Time.“
This episode picks up right after the events of the The Last of Us Episode 2. Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) find themselves camping out for the night before making their way to Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), Joel’s business acquaintances and Tess’ (Anna Torv) friends. On their way, the two stumble upon plane wrecks, as Joel explains to Ellie how the cordyceps pandemic took over the world in three days. And, you guessed it, flour is the answer. Once a primary source of food was contaminated, it was only a matter of time before cordyceps took over everything that consumed it. And it just so happens to have been September 26, 2003.
Episode 3’s setup happens when Joel and Ellie stumble upon a mass open grave full of people who were told by FEDRA that they were going to be taken into protected quarantine zones. They were instead executed because “If you’re dead, you can’t get infected.” The grim discovery further highlights one of the themes of the story; in the words of the now-famous TikTok sound from YouTuber Wendigoon, “The Next Time That Somebody Tells You, ‘The Government Wouldn’t Do That,’ Oh Yes They Would.”
“Long, Long Time” is a twenty-year long episode detailing the love story of Bill and Frank. Bill, a doomsday prepper who trusts no one but himself, survived the apocalypse by literally taking over a small town, one that FEDRA evacuated and subsequently wiped from existence. But, because of his distrust of authority, Bill stayed behind, hidden, and now has the entire town to himself. In three years, he’s constructed a fully automated, secure, trap-filled safe haven, in the process answering one of my most pressing questions: “How would Ron Swanson react to the apocalypse?”
However, while Bill has secured his life and future, he’s also completely isolated himself from the world, damning himself to a life of solitude. That is, until Frank falls into his life. (Well, into one of his traps, but same difference.)
Humans are social creatures by nature, and, as apprehensive as Bill about Frank and letting him to stay in his sanctuary, Bill finds himself quite taken. Frank’s zest for life and his desire to keep the two of them connected to their humanity for as long as possible are a refreshing, much-needed change of pace for Bill. It’s through Frank that Bill meets Tess and Joel and forges a mutually beneficial partnership; it’s also through Frank that Bill learns to love again, to let his guard down and reconnect with the world around him. As much as Bill wants to believe that he and Frank don’t need any help, or that he can fend off infected and raiders on his own, Bill’s new connections remind him that he doesn’t have to.
So when the worst comes to pass and raiders do come looking for something to loot, it’s because of his new relationships that Bill can defend their small oasis in the most badass of ways. He finally has something to fight for – or, rather, someone to fight for, to protect and take care of. Someone who, when Bill is shot and injured, would gladly do the same for him. And years later, when both men have been battered and bruised by time and their bodies are unable to carry them forward, it’s as lovers, partners, and husbands, that Bill and Frank decide to end their lives together. There is no life worth living if they’re not together to experience it.
Since The Last of Us‘ first episode I’ve had a theory brewing and it was only after this episode that I realized it to be true. In both episodes leading up to this one, Joel lost someone close to him; both times, he’s retreated further into himself. Trusting those around him becomes harder. Joel’s purpose in the world becomes dimmer: there is nothing left worth living for. With “Long, Long Time,” Bill changes all of that. In the video game, Bill was a cautionary tale for what Joel could become if he continued down the path of isolation and self-destruction after his and Joel’s significant others, Frank and Tess, who kept them both grounded, passed away and left them alone once more. This is why it was so important for Bill and Frank to interact, so Bill could see just how paranoid and disconnected from humanity he might become.
And this approach in The Last of Us‘ adaptation, even if Bill and Frank didn’t get to interact with Ellie, serves Joel the same way. Instead of choosing to push through in a cloud of pain, anguish, and heartbreak, Bill writes in his letter that “It’s people who give our lives purpose,” actively changing Joel’s trajectory for the better and reminding him that he can find purpose through those around him. This is what he’s meant to do.
There have been plenty of viewer complaints about how “Long, Long Time” doesn’t actually move The Last of Us‘ plot forward. To those viewers, all I can say is: respectfully, shut the fuck up. TLOU Episode 3 is the start of Joel’s healing journey – the loud wake-up call he needed to finally switch gears and start giving a fuck again. Ellie isn’t just cargo anymore; she’s Tess’ last wish and last hope. And as much as he wants to blame himself, Ellie, the Fireflies, and fucking FEDRA for putting them in a position where Tess’ life has ended, at the end of the day, it was her choice to go on this run, her choice to have hope. The same fire has started to grow within Joel as well. That is, after he finds Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and makes sure he’s all right.
Also, shoutout to Ellie for finally making the apocalypse relatable by picking up menstrual products. And for finally getting herself a gun.