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When I want to read an oral history of the zombie apocalypse — remember that? christ, what a time — I turn to Max Brooks’s World War Z. Forget about Brad Pitt’s adaptation-in-name-only: The book is a cobbled-together account of the collapse, survival, and rebirth of human civilization following a global zombie outbreak modeled after fears of real-world pandemics, described mockumentary-style by the people who survived it. Many of those fears have since come to pass; the book’s post-9/11 idea of America and Israel as flawed but fundamentally good-hearted places upon which the survival of the world and the various mildly stereotypical international interviewees who inhabit depend has aged much less gracefully. But it’s a compulsively enjoyable read, especially the chapters pertaining to the collapse and to the military strategy involved in turning the tide.
One impediment to that tide-turning are the lone survivors mockingly referred to by the grunts in the army as “LaMOEs,” or “Last Men on Earth.” (LaMOEs, lame-o’s, you get it.) The problem with these folks is that the ones who are still around are just as likely to shoot at rescuing troops as welcome them, while even the dead ones can kill people from beyond the grave thanks to their Rambo-esque booby traps. Plus, they’re fellow humans, which means they can really piss you off. How angry can you really be with a mindless flesh-eater? A prepper with a trip-wired shotgun hidden in the outdoors section of a Target is a different beast.
Anyway, I thought a lot about the concept of LaMOEs while watching “Long Long,” the third episode of The Last of Us. Like its immediate predecessor it throws the bog-standard post-apocalyptic storytelling structure of the series premiere right out the window, where frankly it belongs. In its place, after a bit of adventuring by Joel and Ellie (who kills a trapped infected guy and finds some tampons, so everything’s coming up Ellie), is the ballad of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), a Last Man on Earth and the guy he winds up becoming the Last Men on Earth with.
I can’t say it’s anything particularly groundbreaking, except insofar as everything that isn’t regurgitating fascist talking points about queer people feels groundbreaking again these days. (I certainly hope you’ve already muted “last of us woke” on Twitter, because if you haven’t already it’s probably too late.) It’s just the story of a clichéd survivalist (his first line of dialogue literally includes “New World Order” and “jackboot,” some real finger-on-the-pulse shit from writer Craig Mazin) who finds a nice guy trapped in a booby-trap pit on his property one fine post-apocalyptic day, takes pity on him, sleeps with him, and falls in love with him, resulting in a beautiful relationship that lasts until their mutual suicide following Frank’s development of a terminal illness some 16 years later.
Along the way they play Linda Ronstadt on the piano, they eat delicious meals prepared by Bill, they revel in strawberries grown by Frank (Bill’s high-pitched squeal of delight upon tasting a fruity delicacy he probably hasn’t enjoyed in over a decade is delightful), they fend off an attempted invasion of their property by raiders with a show of booby-trap force that makes Kevin McCallister look like a guy with a banana peel, they befriend Joel and Tess (RIP), they renovate the neighborhood and some nearby shops, and they pretty much act like basically decent people making the absolute best out of the absolute worst situation. Keep in mind the entire main narrative stops short for, I dunno, 50 out of the episode’s 76 minutes to show all this.
Which is great! I’m already on record as saying how cool I thought it was for the show to jettison its epic sweep in favor of a mercilessly narrow focus on just three characters in Episode 2. For the majority of ep three, we’re talking two characters — two characters who are only tangentially related to the story at best. This is the kind of thing shitty YouTube videos and half-understood ideas about story arcs have taught viewers to treat as a distraction.
But as a wise young man once said in another HBO epic, you cannot give up on the gravy. If you’re going to have the temerity to make a brand-new zombie survival-horror prestige-TV series in the year 2023, you’d have to be insane not to try every digression, diversion, and narrative cul-de-sac at your disposal. This is the stuff that can make The Last of Us…well, not “different,” being different is value neutral, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is “different,” but interesting, unexpected, unpredictable, new. In a genre this worn out, new matters.
Again, it’s worth noting that this is only “groundbreaking” material insofar as our society is, if not increasingly, then at least more vocally homophobic than it was just a couple of years ago, before rank-and-file fascists and their millionaire/billionaire puppet masters decided there was hay to be made once again from demonizing queer people. I think it’s probably more useful to focus on how clever this storyline is, at least from a casting perspective. On the one hand you have the epic bacon libertarian from Parks & Rec, and on the other hand you have the pill-popping suitcase-shitting peon who got his whole ass eaten out onscreen by an employee in the first season of The White Lotus. It’s a little like watching John Wayne bed down with Charles Nelson Reilly. Trust me when I say that’s good enough a reason for filming a storyline as anything.
(NB: I have not played the game. My understanding is that this episode represents a significant departure from the game, but that honestly doesn’t matter. I’m reviewing a show, not a game, you know? i can only talk about what’s on screen when I press play on HBO Max. Anything else is beyond my pay grade.)
What does it all mean for our heroes? Not a whole lot, other than Joel losing two more of the only people it seems he can stand to talk to, and picking up a car for him and Ellie thanks to Bill’s generous forward thinking. (He assumed it would be Joel, of all people, who survived his booby traps in order to find out he was dead, and left him the car key for his troubles.) Joel lays down some Patrick Swayze Road House–style rules for Ellie (what he says goes, it’s his way or the highway, you get it), and off they drive to Wisconsin or Wyoming or wherever. And best of luck to them.
But I suspect that when I look back on this first season of TLoU I’ll recall these two LaMOEs and the life they carved out for themselves — living on the margins, away from community, away from the fascist government, away from pretty much anyone but each other. It’s a testament to their love that, when it looks like Frank will be leaving one way or the other, Bill opts to leave with him. They didn’t cure the plague or overthrow the government or anything like that. They simply had a good life together. That’s plenty.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.