I can’t pinpoint the turn, but at some point, “Hollywood” stopped telling pandemic stories; no more talking through masks about a shared experience that was rapidly splintering. Film and TV are a mirror of the real world, of course.
The Last Of Us is an exception by necessity. It would be silly to fully compare the real-life COVID pandemic to the Cordyceps one in the HBO series, but there are notes that hit the ear the same. Many of us know a bit more about isolation, despair, loss, and what it takes to move through (and on from) a crisis now. Many of us would like to forget all of those things, but The Last Of Us uses that, pushing on the walls we’ve built up around ourselves.
Last night’s episode is a perfect example, featuring Nick Offerman as a survivalist at the end of the world who shares his bounty with a drifter (Murray Bartlett), one meal turning into a lifetime of love and companionship.
When Bill (Offerman) lets Frank (Bartlett) into his solitary world, it’s like a bank of lights turning on, slow with a hum before achieving full brightness. Everything is tactile, fresh sensations shaking a life of routine and quiet unacknowledged desperation – the sight of Frank’s satisfaction over the trappings of civilization (a hot shower, clean clothes) and the taste of the dinner made better by the ability to share it with someone. The sound of the piano and a Linda Rondstadt song, played impulsively by Frank and then by Bill as if given permission by that act of broken protocol in his own home. That first touch of the lips and then, later, Frank’s hand on Bill’s chest as they lay in bed, one of them assured, the other nervous.
Don’t elements of that hit harder if you sheltered in place alone or without a partner? Your awakening may have not occurred after as long a time, as deep a separation from society, or within a world so savage, but didn’t it seem comparably rich and intoxicating for how the rush of sensations felt so familiar and somehow also so fresh?
Bill and Frank’s story goes on, crammed into one episode where many more would have been justified. But the impact of the total picture (including an ending that left many viewers decimated) serves the needs of the storytellers to talk about love as a balm for loss and fear and chaos. Safe harbor and what happens when the seas rise and overtake even that, leaving you dark, cold, and alone.
We have seen the facts of Joel’s life (Pedro Pascal). The show’s main character lost his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), and his partner, Tess (Anna Torv). He’s now searching for his brother. But we haven’t really seen Joel deal with those things directly, we’ve only seen him grit his teeth and move through. With the ballad of Bill and Frank, we’ve been pulled closer into a show that we now know is capable of hitting those emotional heights, and it’s coming for Joel, through flashbacks that add more context to Joel and Tess’ relationship and the tattered remains of Joel’s paternal instincts that keep rearing their head in his interactions with Ellie (Bella Ramsey).
Bill and Frank weren’t just a plot device or a bridge to get the main story from point A to point B, though. Their initial connection so sweet, their bickerings and sounds of settling in with each other so relatable, and their ending, inspiring such an array of emotions. Theirs is a great love story all on its own, quite probably the last great pandemic love story considering the aversion to stories that go to a place that resonates with a time many would like to forget.
I didn’t cry last night when watching Bill love Frank how he wanted to be loved on his very last day, his body ravaged by disease and his want to not be a burden made clear. Not even as Bill pushed Frank’s wheelchair down the road to the boutique, as they sat and silently traded vows, or ate one final meal in that home they had made. That home, filled with Frank’s art and the many shades of Bill’s face, a character whose capacity to love was not obvious at the start as he hid within his compound and himself, drawn out by Frank.
In the end, when Bill decided to also drink the wine, I came so close to tears, but the charge that broke the dam was sitting down to write these thoughts, listening to that goddamn beautiful Linda Rondstadt song, looking at my wife, and thinking about our own time in the pandemic.
A want to not turn this into a journal entry begs that I only dip ever so slightly into personal confession, but I am at a higher risk for a bad result with COVID, and so our level of isolation during COVID has been more intense than most. Additionally, in the midst of COVID, we moved 100 miles from friends and family. And so we are, in essence, all each other has, something made clear to us a few times when each had short but intense bouts of illness over the last three years.
When I think about all that, the dreams we share and how we’ve sacrificed to protect those and each other, I am completely destroyed by Bill and Frank’s end. Particularly when looking at things through Bill’s eyes and his choice to reject a world without Frank in it, because how could you not if your literal purpose for living went away?
No one wants to tell pandemic stories or live with the weight of it on their shoulders anymore. Believe me, I understand why. But they’re still out there and the feelings they evoke are still hidden inside us all. Like I said, film and TV are a mirror, one that reflects even the things we don’t want to see. And great film and TV compels us to look, to find a connection between what’s on screen and what’s in our lives, even if there’s just a sliver of commonality. Above all else, it compels us to feel, and that’s what last night’s episode of The Last Of Us accomplished.