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‘The Last of Us’ Takes a Pleasant (and Necessary) Detour From the Game

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett shine in the show’s first real attempt to separate from its source material

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the end, it’s just a man, standing in front of another man, a little petrified at the prospect of shedding his bath towel. Nick Offerman’s eyes do a lot of the heavy lifting in “Long Long Time,” the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, adapted from the video game series that also took great pride in its subtle looks. He was doing the “discarded puppy” in that scene. As big as Offerman’s frame is, he makes the walk from the doorway to the bed containing someone who wants to sleep with him—all of about 5 feet away—seem like a mile over hot coals. It takes quite a bit of skill to convey all that in a glance.

Not everything Offerman does in this episode is subtle, though. Show cocreators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin also seem to have asked him to do a bit of Ron Swanson, if Ron Swanson had survived the forced evacuation of his hometown during an apocalyptic fungal outbreak. Offerman’s character, Bill, waits out the fall of civilization in his basement, surrounded by stacks of closed-circuit TVs, jugs of sulfuric acid, and every gun you can possibly imagine. When he steps outside to breathe some fresh air, he throws the tarp off his pickup truck and loots the town to the tune of a Fleetwood Mac song.

After the disorienting explosion that concluded Episode 2, The Last of Us takes a much-needed pause. We begin with Joel down at the riverbank, keeping his hands steady by stacking rocks in order of descending size. Ellie makes sure he can’t speed through a nonconversation about their late companion, Tess, whose death—Ellie makes clear—is not on her. The two then walk through gorgeously overgrown New England while Joel explains the “Before Times” as if he were explaining why the moon gets kinda orangish sometimes: The infection was probably caused by a Cordyceps mutation that got into something basic, like flour in a factory, which made its way through the global supply chain. Within a weekend, people were biting each other. At this point in Joel’s story, the pair happens upon a mass grave. He explains more: The government sent troops through small towns, rounding up citizens to “solve” the threat of infection. With a camera zoom-in on a microfleece blanket, which we first see caked in mud around one of the skeletons and then see swaddled around a crying infant, we’re suddenly transported back in time.

Most of Episode 3 is a flashback, occurring between the year 2003 and “the present.” There are subtle shifts in the way Druckmann, the creative director of the game, chooses to let the story unfold this time. In the games, these events occurred from 2013 to 2033, the Cordyceps infection was also an airborne threat, and the evacuation of Bill’s town, Lincoln, Massachusetts, was neither mandatory nor successful. Some residents chose to stay. Some even chose to continue working. By the time you arrive there to meet Bill, a paranoid survivalist, and hassle him for a car battery in The Last of Us Part I, the town is overrun with all manner of infected. Bill sleeps in a different place every night. When he speaks, which is usually to suggest why you’ll fail in the long run, he waves his pump shotgun around.

Although Bill still waves his pump shotgun around in the show, it’s over half an hour in before we learn what the character’s name is—and it’s after a kiss. Druckmann and Mazin are trying to illustrate in big and small and strangely articulated ways that in an apocalyptic setting, the true struggle is for humanity and not against the grotesque, man-eating monsters. There is more time to explore the big questions in the game, as you spend hours with the principal characters, listening to canned dialogue while running from stuff that’s trying to kill you. There’s more canned dialogue than you can even process while you’re running for life, but you still wind up getting a good sense of why someone might sacrifice themselves, extend their trust, and so on. In the first two episodes of the show, HBO faithfully hit the gruesome story beats with precious few detours, but there hasn’t been much to explain why anyone would try to do anything for anyone else in this world. Community, and the remaking of it, seems fundamental to survival, doesn’t it? How has this ordeal shaped those left in its wake? How did we make inroads with each other again?

Initially, Bill’s resounding answer is: Who cares? He finds obvious joy in the lack of supervision over his scruffy home-defense projects—in that same Fleetwood Mac montage from earlier, he cinches lead pipes and fashions them into igniters for flamethrowers. He lays out trip wires and electrifies a fence blocking the only road in or out of his suburb. He doesn’t meet another human person until four years later, at the bottom of a pitfall trap he himself set.

The man Bill meets is Frank, played by Murray Bartlett, who you’ll remember as Armond in the first season of The White Lotus. Frank has a similar predilection for bending the rules here: He doesn’t factor into Bill’s very set ideas about isolation and resource management. Bartlett’s Frank is gentle but insistent in a way that suggests he’s never totally out of control of the situation, even when being held at gunpoint. It wouldn’t feel right to call what follows a courtship: Frank is hungry, and Bill feeds him. It’s the same pan-seared rabbit and carrots he’s been preparing for himself for years by this point, but there’s a limit to how much you can enjoy these things alone.

Bartlett and Offerman are alternately surprising in their tenderness and in their temerity: After the meal, Frank goes over to the piano to maul a piece of Linda Ronstadt sheet music. I like the way Offerman flinches as Bartlett thunders around the song, searching for the proper key. It’s probably the first time I’ve laughed out loud at the Last of Us TV show. When Offerman shoves him aside and begins the song again with softness and real pain, like Bartlett, I’m agape. I’ll be thinking for a while about how, when Offerman sings, “I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time,” the “you” disappears behind a lump in his throat. After the two share a kiss, I like how Bartlett sinks to the piano bench and takes a deep breath after sending his new partner to the shower; it makes me consider how long it’s been since he’s been with someone else too.

Bartlett is a great foil for Offerman. As the years pass, they grow in love and contempt—Frank is the last surviving member of a group that left their quarantine zone in search of new friends, trading outposts, and something better. Bill exists in a reality where there is nothing else out there for them—at all. Tempers run the hottest between them when Joel, some years before the “present day,” arrives at the compound with a bit of foreshadowing: There’s worse than infected out there. That fence Bill constructed is already rusting. Raiders will see that. They’ll come at night, and they’ll be armed.

Indeed they do, and indeed they’re armed, but Bill and Frank survive—into old age, in fact. I kept waiting for the domestic conflict that would finally break the two up—not because I myself am a grotesque monster, but because I am unable to stop looking for the exact spot where all the ends fuse together and The Last of Us forms a perfect real-world continuum from PlayStation 3 to HBO. But sometimes the simpler version of the story is best, and that’s what we have here: Frank takes ill, and, rather than suffer, he asks Bill for one last truly good day. He asks that Bill take him to the boutique, make him a nice dinner, and finally take him to bed: his final resting place.

Personally, I think it’s a lot to ask of someone to turn the bed they share with that someone into a tomb, forcing them to figure out on their own how to live in the rest of the house. Bill’s suicide note to Joel is deterministic and maybe a little foolhardy. Satisfied that he’d fulfilled his purpose in life, he then hands that purpose to Joel, who hears Bill’s words in Ellie’s voice. Bill didn’t seek out companionship, or need it—he wasn’t particularly pleasant about it—but he found one person and protected them to the end.

For a brief moment, as Ellie is reading, the back door mischievously swings open. There’s no reason to believe Bill’s alive, though. He’s done his part.