“I was never afraid until you showed up.”
Well, that was definitely not what I was expecting three episodes into a prestigious but often formulaic ‘zombie apocalypse’ story. Sidelining the two main characters in favour of a mostly two handed character piece, this early into the show’s run, is a brave move. It’s also, much to my surprise, one of the most affecting, beautiful pieces of television I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Long, Long Time (for such it was titled after the Linda Ronstadt song that drew the protagonists together) is probably not going to please fans of this genre looking for gun-pumping, head-blasting action. Instead, it’s a beautifully played, intimate love story, chronicling the long-lasting relationship between two people even after the world has fallen to pieces around them. Unusually, it’s a love story between two men, something you don’t often see in this genre; and even more unusually, they’re two middle-aged men, not the pretty, gym-toned twentysomethings you usually see when fantasy TV deigns to cover gay love.
To be fair, genre TV is getting more and more inclusive in this regard. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was something of a trailblazer, with main character Willow and her long time love affair with the much-missed Tara; later, shows like Teen Wolf put gay characters, male and female, front and centre. These days, it’s pretty much de rigeur for at least one of the major characters to be gay, with shows like Shadowhunters and the recent Wolf Pack foregrounding gay love equally with straight love. Inevitably, even gay favourite Doctor Who now regularly has gay main characters.
All that said, I’ve yet to see a genre show where there’s a single main character and he/she is gay – they’re still seen as adjuncts to the straight characters’ relationships, or one of a diverse ensemble. Even more significantly, I’ve never seen one where the characters reflect the demographic I’m now in – gay middle-aged men finding love late in life. If nothing else, this episode spoke to me because it felt like I was seeing myself on screen.
Not that Craig Mazin’s script made it easy for itself. Nick Offerman’s Bill, when introduced, comes across as not the most likeable of people, a gun nut and conspiracy theorist ensconced in his basement while the authorities evacuate his picture-postcard-pretty Massachusetts town. Obviously not comfortable round other people, he seems at first like the typical MAGA survivalist; though his practical skills are set up early when he fences off his block, gathers resources sufficient to survive comfortably for many years, and sets clever traps for the wandering Infected.
Mazin could have gone down the easy route, and shown us Bill becoming a Better Person as a result of the love he found with Murray Bartlett’s Frank. But this is a maturely written piece, and while Bill certainly develops, and softens somewhat, Mazin doesn’t compromise by making him a truly likeable character as things progress. He keeps his rough edges throughout, even in his final letter to Joel.
I must admit, I didn’t know what to expect in this episode (are these characters the same in the game, I wonder?), but there are little clues about Bill from the outset. Unlike the stereotypical prepper, it’s not a bar full of beer he raids for alcohol supplies, but a classy wine shop. He’s also shown to be an expert cook, preparing exquisite meals even as the world outside his fences crumbles into darkness. To an extent, these are stereotypes too; not every gay man is wicked cultured and a terrific cook. But putting these stereotypical traits alongside Bill’s more obvious libertarian streak certainly makes for an interesting character.
It might have given the game away somewhat to cast Murray Bartlett as Frank. Bartlett, whose star is on the rise after a terrific turn as prissy, crumbling hotel manager Armond in the first season of The White Lotus, pretty much always plays gay characters. But actually, in his initial, shabbily dressed and bearded appearance, I didn’t even recognise him.
Besides, the point became moot fairly quickly when Frank started playing Bill’s favourite singer on the well-maintained piano – Linda Ronstadt. As the tearful Bill reluctantly confesses, “there was no girl”, the kiss that comes next seems inevitable.
As in so many relationships, gay or straight, Frank and Bill are chalk and cheese, two very different people whose differences draw them together despite themselves. It’s moving to follow their relationship over ten years, with only a brief cameo from Joel and Tess (nice to see Anna Torv again albeit briefly) interrupting their idyllic surroundings. As Joel warns, they do ultimately come under attack from human raiders, and though Bill’s traps keep them at bay, he finds himself shot.
When Frank calmly tends to his wounds and the screen fades to black then fades up to a long shot of one of them in a wheelchair, it’s a clever bait and switch. You expect it to be Bill in the chair, suffering long-term consequences from the gunshot wound; but it’s Frank, clearly succumbing to some degenerative disease like Parkinson’s or MS. The script doesn’t specify what it is, but it’s plainly serious. As Frank wryly comments, “they couldn’t treat this even before”, the camera pans across his paintings, tracking his degeneration in increasingly shaky brushwork, and it’s heartbreaking.
Again, because gay characters in genre TV shows tend to be attractive and young, you never usually see what it’s like for them to grow old together, and particularly not for one of them to succumb to a terminal disease (that isn’t HIV). That’s usually more the territory of heartfelt, low-budget indie films. Here, because you’ve got to know and like these characters, it’s devastating. It would be easy to write this off as another example of the notorious “bury your gays” trope in TV, except for Bill’s remark, “this isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play” directly addressing that. And proving that, if nothing else, he’s seen The Boys in the Band.
Their final day together, Bill fulfilling Frank’s wish to get married and have one last perfect day before ultimately choosing his own exit, made me well up with tears – not something I was expecting from a show like this, and certainly not this early on with characters we’d never met before. Bill choosing to go with his love isn’t entirely a surprise, but when this gruff survivalist simply says, “you were my purpose”, I found even more tears rolling down my cheek.
This was an incredibly brave, moving episode for a show that, at first glance, seemed like a retread of later seasons of The Walking Dead. Given a decent length to tell its story, it would have been an emotionally affecting tale regardless of its post-apocalyptic setting – and the apocalypse is mostly kept at arm’s length throughout, in order to focus on the characters. In The Walking Dead’s second season, I frequently bemoaned the absence of the zombies that were the show’s raison d’etre; here, I was glad for their absence to let the story breathe. Tonally, it kept reminding me of the similarly unusual love story in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, which also has a melancholy Gustavo Santaolalla score and features Linda Ronstadt on the soundtrack. That’s no bad thing.
Nick Offerman, who I’ve not seen before (I never saw Parks and Recreation) and Murray Bartlett more than rise to the challenge of keeping this ep going all by themselves, and telling an unusual and affecting story. In overall plot terms, there was no reason for the show to have an ep like this at this point – with its characters already dead when Joel and Ellie arrive, it adds nothing to the overall narrative. But it’s an indicator of how this show, perhaps more than any similar ones I’ve seen, foregrounds character over narrative. After this ep, I’m definitely going to keep watching.
2 thoughts on “The Last of Us: season 1, episode 3 – Long, Long Time”
Reblogged this on Owen Blacker.
A beautiful review of a beautiful episode.
Bill and Frank do exist in the game and are partners though (partly through necessity for a decade-old action-adventure FPS) the nature of their partnership is merely implied. This episode’s plot represents a significant departure from the game, however; game!Frank hangs himself after being bitten and leaves game!Bill a resentful note suggesting they had shared a much less happy life (screenshot, transcription as image). IGN have a good interview with Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann as to why they changed it.
And in case you wanted to shed more happy queer tears, Twitter users have pointed out that Outbreak Day was 26 September 2003 — 2 whole months before the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the same-sex marriage ban. So Bill and Frank were the first. (Credit: Josh Albeza.) Also, given they were roughly our age on Outbreak Day, that means they’re a decade or 2 older than us. So “getting older means we’re still here” isn’t just a recognition that they’ve survived the apocalypse, but also the AIDS pandemic in Frank’s youth. (Credit: Becko.)
One last thing: I just had to share Sarah 🔥’s tweet about “berry your gays” 💖