"The Last of Us" episodes 2-3 prove the property's deftness at both horror and love.

The second episode of The Last of Us continued some of the premiere‘s strengths into a chapter I enjoyed mainly for visceral reasons. The third deservedly became a critical favorite ahead of the season’s release, despite shifting focus away from Joel and Ellie. I’ve decided to cover both installments in one article.


Infected

Airdate: January 22, 2023
Director: Neil Druckmann
Writer: Craig Mazin

Joel, save who you can save.

-Tess Servopoulos

Joel and Tess question Ellie’s apparent sign of immunity to the fungus, as she tells the couple of the Fireflies’ plans to produce a vaccine from her genes. The trio continues their journey through abandoned buildings and an un-tended environment. Unfortunately, some attacks by mentally and physically corrupted victims of the fungus – including the hearing-enhanced Clickers – ultimately require Joel and Ellie to leave Boston by themselves.

The episode successfully delivers a horrific introduction to threats awaiting Joel and Ellie outside the quarantine zone.  The production design and makeup effects faithfully and realistically translate the video game’s ruined locales and fearsome Clickers to live-action.  The TV show’s infected demonstrate some abilities absent from the video games, detecting and contaminating victims through tendrils.  The notion of an infected hive mind cleverly allows the set pieces to retain a suspenseful element of the games, in which failing a stealth mission or impulsively attacking unleashes a swarm of new enemies.  I should admit taking several days to work up enough courage to watch these sequences again.

The cold open backtracks to 2003 Jakarta, Indonesia for a unique look at the outbreak’s origins.  Given that the show has already stated when and where the pandemic began, actually showing it here feels strongly like an attempt at increasing the series’ international appeal.  The sequence’s placement at least doesn’t feel too intrusive to the story, and also benefits from Christine Hakim’s performance as doom-preaching Dr. Ratna.

Aside from the disgustingly frightful set pieces, this episode interests by exploring the need to let go of the past’s unhelpful distractions.  Explicitly, the theme comes through during certain conversations Joel shares with Ellie and Tess, the only other named characters he interacts with in this installment.  In addition to Tess’ insistence for Joel not to let his past failure to save Sarah embitter him from embracing the hope Ellie could dispense, Joel admits to Ellie much earlier that fending off infected “sometimes” leaves him ashamed of killing former humans.  Implicitly, the theme comes through when Joel leads his party through the Bostonian Museum.  Overgrown fungus and dust often appear to have engulfed historical artifacts and architecture, visualizing how the community’s need to survive present disasters has overtaken any desire to relieve the past.  “Infected” brings The Last of Us closer to conventional horror, but does succeed at frightening tension and emotion.

Long Long Time

Airdate: January 29, 2023
Director: Peter Hoar
Writer: Craig Mazin

I used to hate the world, and I was happy when everyone died. But I was wrong, because there was one person worth saving…

-Written by Bill, spoken by Ellie Williams

Joel and Ellie hike to the home of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), with whom he and Tess often exchanged supplies.  Before they arrive, the viewer witnesses romantic flashbacks to Bill’s and Frank’s efforts to survive together in Lincoln, Massachusetts, outside of any government-controlled and crowded quarantine zones.  Their formation of a personal sanctuary enriches their lives, and eventually allows Joel some necessary support to continue protecting Ellie.

This practically-new elaboration of Bill and Frank’s past expands the world of The Last of Us in multiple ways. As in the game, Bill proves that some people could survive the apocalypse without help from the corrupt Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA). By tracing his 20-year romance with Frank, the show also demonstrates how close such people could come to achieving a full life. The episode realistically depicts not only the catharsis of their relationship, but also their efforts to overcome disagreements and potential discouragement. Offerman and real-life homosexual Bartlett contribute very impressive performances, especially when the former supplements his usual “tough to the point of comic exaggeration” persona with depictions of Bill learning to both acknowledge and overcome his loneliness.  Similarly, artistic and extroverted Frank proves his toughness when saving Bill from bandits’ gunfire, or when stubbornly defying Bill’s objections against welcoming friends from outside of Lincoln.

Even though Joel and Ellie don’t interact with Bill and Frank in the present-day scenes, their stories boast strong connections.  Joel personally appears in a flashback from 2010, showing how he and Tess joined the couple’s network.  This look at the friendship between Tess and Frank depicts both romantic and platonic love as essential to survival; a point emphasized when Bill’s refusal to open up to Joel and Tess reminds the viewer that the beneficial connection wouldn’t have formed without Frank. The episode also draws some transparent parallels between Bill and Joel: Both gruff introverts just wanting to persist through demoralizing conditions, until fate delivers an innocent to take in and protect. However, since Joel and Ellie still won’t completely open up to each other as of yet, I think these parallels would only resonate with genre savvy viewers and former players.

The TV show drastically deviates from the video game, when neither Bill nor Frank live long enough to meet Ellie. In the game, she and Joel find Bill living alone; his emotional distance from Frank having apparently convinced the latter – whose infected remains turn up hanging elsewhere in the town – to move out without ever meeting Joel. In the show, Bill and Frank serenely die together, for reasons seemingly unrelated to cordyceps. This de-emphasizes the game’s exploration of the miserable consequences of rejecting love, in order to maintain a strong focus on the benefits of embracing love.  The latter perspective does feel more necessary for Joel and Ellie at this point, due to Tess’ sacrifice requiring them to settle disagreements themselves.

For better or worse, I can’t imagine the point coming across as effectively if Bill had survived into the present.  Joel and Ellie would likely find him in a state of intense grief over Frank, which could raise the question of, “Why pursue love if mortality will eventually leave half of the group depressed?”  The deaths of both Sarah and Tess already put the question onto Joel’s mind, but Bill’s posthumous mementos of a time his household remained open to romantic and platonic love help bring Joel and Ellie closer to finding answers.  Additionally, having Joel and Bill discuss their grief in person would seem out of character for them – if not for The Last of Us as a whole – and undermine Ellie’s importance to Joel’s character development.  Overall, “Long Long Time” provides a beautiful, and not completely unimportant, diversion from Joel’s travels.

Author’s Note

I doubt “Long Long Time” will remain the only Last of Us episode to reduce Pedro Pascal’s presence, particularly since the video game has some levels and DLC focusing on Ellie instead.  However, only time will tell if I’ll cover any other such episodes in as much detail.

Plugs

Violence against Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans persists at alarming levels.  I donated to the Monterey Park Lunar New Year Victims Fund and the Half Moon Bay Victims Fund, and would also like my readers to contribute to at least one of them, even though I take no share of the funds.

This article is dedicated to Annie Wersching (1977-2023), who performed both dialogue and motion-capture for Tess in the original Last of Us video game.

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3 thoughts on “The Last of Us Episodes 2-3 Review (Massachusetts cont.)

  1. Long Long Time is probably a perfect example of how to change things for an adaptation – expand on material if you can tell a story that was left untold in the game, and if you are going to deviate from the standard plot, do so in a way that’s impactful. Major credit to the writers.

    Also, after this episode’s airing and given my recent playthrough of Disco Elysium, I can’t help but think now that Nick Offerman would be perfect to play Harry DuBois.

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