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The Last of Us episode 3 is the ‘San Junipero’ of zombie stories

The stand-alone episode expands on the game’s most incidental queer romance

Nick Offerman as Bill standing in front of an electric fence and holding a rifle in The Last of Us Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

If you enjoyed Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” you’ll want to give a thought to “Long, Long Time,” the third episode of The Last of Us on HBO Max, starring Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman in a guest role as Bill.

No, “San Junipero” doesn’t have anything to do with zombies, and “Long, Long Time” doesn’t have anything to do with uploading your personality to an endless 1980s club scene. They share a far more niche category: self-contained episodes that pivot from the overall thrust of their respective TV series to present a sci-fi-tinged queer love story.

Back in 2016, everyone I knew was watching “San Junipero,” talking about how they hadn’t watched “San Junipero” yet, or telling me I should watch “San Junipero,” the fourth episode of the third season of Black Mirror. It’s not that I knew a lot of Black Mirror fans; it’s just that I know a lot of queer folks who enjoy genre TV. Eventually, I watched “San Junipero.” It was lovely! I’ve never seen another episode of Black Mirror.

“San Junipero” is widely considered one of the best episodes of television to come out in 2016, and is still appreciated for being basically the only episode of Black Mirror where technology is a good thing that’s nice, instead of a Twilight Zone horror. But for many, “San Junipero” is most fondly remembered because a romance-centered genre story is rare enough to see on TV, let alone one where a gay couple gets to ride off into the sunset together.

Did you enjoy what “San Junipero” did for bisexual and lesbian sci-fi fans? Would you like to see The Last of Us do it for (white) gay men?

Well, then, can I interest you a 60-ish-minute short film where Nick Offerman plays a closeted survivalist in a zombie apocalypse who learns the irreplaceable value of attachment from another man’s tenderness, as you follow their relationship from its beginning through to a peaceful end in old age?

[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains broad spoilers for “Long, Long Time.”]

Also Joel and Ellie are there too, I guess, but whatever. They bookend the episode, appearing only at the beginning and end, leaving the rest for director Peter Hoar and writer Craig Mazin to spend expanding on Bill and Frank. And expand they do. Bill’s game appearance is minor, and Frank died before the player even finds out he existed. What players know is that their relationship ended badly. One can infer that they were lovers, but there’s no direct confirmation of it. The Frank (played by The White Lotus’ Murray Bartlett) and Bill of The Last of Us TV show are a near-complete retread.

Offerman frankly stuns in the role as a self-sufficient prepper who freezes like a deer when presented with the freely offered intimacy he had never dared to allow himself to need. Bill and Frank kiss, and fuck, and argue; they cook, and make art, and surprise each other with loving gifts; they find much struggle but greater joy in building out a pocket of paradise in the wasteland.

If the episode has a failure point, it’s that these guys are almost literal Log Cabin Republicans (although the log cabin is a modern colonial in the suburbs of Boston). Or, and I’m putting on my best Surfer Dude accent here, “Getting yours and then actively resisting creating a community to share with others even though you absolutely have the resources to do so? Not (queer) radical, dude. Not (queer) radical at all.”

But that’s a failure point of all of The Last of Us, game and show, in that regardless of race or creed, it molds its characters according to a lionization of the largely mythical idea of the private, isolationist homestead defended righteously against chaos.

Offerman’s and Bartlett’s performances are what make the episode transcend The Last of Us’ limited ideas of ideal society, turning “Long, Long Time” into the best episode of the show’s first season. Time — and further seasons, as they arrive — will tell if it turns out to be the best episode of the show, period.

But in the meantime, no pun intended, it can be enjoyed in isolation from the rest of The Last of Us. If you can watch the satisfying thing everybody’s talking about without signing up for hours of notoriously dour television on either side of it, well, that’s an easy sell. Stand-alone status propelled the spread of “San Junipero” across the face of queer discourse, and it may just walk “Long, Long Time” into the queer sci-fi hall of fame as well.

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