The Last of Us Goes a Whole Different Direction with Heartbreaking Introduction of Bill

If fans of the video game thought Episode 2 of HBO’s “The Last of Us” took a dramatic departure from the source material, they’d better buckle up before diving into Episode 3.

For the second time in three weeks, the post-apocalyptic saga dropped a feature-length episode on fans, clocking in at more than 80 minutes. In the premiere, it was earned because it had to do the heavy lifting of establishing this world and its major players. This episode earned it on sheer quality.

Not enough can be said about the incredible performance of Nick Offerman as Bill, a “survivalist” who endures across two decades after the cordyceps infection slowly but systematically wipes out all of humanity. Seriously, we’re expecting an Emmy nomination for this one!

The creators had a choice at this moment — and you’ll forgive us if we talk briefly about the game here — in how to adapt this sequence. Obviously, in a video game there are missions and quests and monsters galore. They could have gone that way.

However, viewers were just inundated with a cordyceps swarm in the previous episode (another change from the game) and spent the bulk of the hour learning about these monsters and just how terrifying they can be.

Rather than offer up more of the same, the creators instead opted for a far more emotional impact with this installment, which only featured Pedro Pascal’s Joel and Bella Ramsey’s Ellie in the opening and closing moments.

This was Bill’s story from start to finish, and from a storytelling point of view, they absolutely made the right call for a drama series based on the game. With this treatment, Bill went from an interesting side character quickly moved on from to someone heartbreakingly real.

On top of that, his connection to Joel and Tess (Anna Torv), who died just last week, helps to further fuel Joel’s story arc this season. Already this week we saw him throw a few snarky comments Ellie’s way, indicating she’s breaking through the hard exterior he built up 20 years ago when his own daughter died.

In many ways, Bill is an even harder version of Joel, as evidenced when he and Tess first met Bill and Frank in their private little street surrounded by Bill’s extensive traps and electrified fence. It took another person to teach Bill that it was okay to open his heart again — a lesson Joel may slowly be learning.

Before we met Bill and subsequently Frank, we picked up Joel and Ellie on the road about ten miles outside of Boston, and where Tess sacrificed herself to save them. In a powerful scene, Ellie pushed Joel to not blame her for Tess’ death because they made their own decision to help her.

We were surprised how affecting Joel’s tiny little nod was. Rather than just dismiss her and ignore her, he actually processed what she said and acknowledged the rightness of it. It’s not her fault Tess is gone, even though it might be easiest to just blame her.

That tiny gesture set the stage for his slow softening around her. With her incessant questions and unbridled joy at just being outside, in a forest, seeing plane wreckage or an arcade game, Joel can’t help but be reminded of his own young daughter, lost when this first started.

The beginnings of their familial bond are taking shape, while they continue to keep boundaries and secrets from one another. While in a convenience store, Ellie has an eerie encounter with one of the infected. Already trapped, she cuts its forehead open to see the undergrowth before killing it.

She doesn’t tell Joel about this encounter, knowing how overprotective he is. We lost count of how many times she asked for a gun. As much as Joel is warming up to her, he’s not ready to give her that responsibility (or is it risk?). He also tells her in no uncertain terms that they will not discuss Tess, or their pasts.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

Perhaps the most significant exchange between the two for viewers is a bit of exposition when Joel shares with Ellie the truth behind how the cordyceps pandemic really began and how quickly it all fell apart.

As hinted at in the previous two episodes’ prologues, the infection started in flour and sugars which made their way into foods everywhere. People purchased the food on a Thursday, ate that night and by Friday they were biting and spreading the infection. By Monday the world as it was known was gone.

In another moment of that ice cracking and coming both ways, Ellie had no sarcastic retort to this. Instead, she simply thanked him, which he politely acknowledged. They’re still feeling one another out, but that bond is tightening.

In many ways, the softening of Joel as he reluctantly and slowly lets Ellie into his heart was echoed in the bulk of the episode by the story of Bill and the man who fell into one of his trap holes, Frank (Murray Bartlett).

There was such an incredible restraint in Offerman’s performance as Bill throughout, it created an unexpected beauty when Frank was able to infiltrate his reluctant and clearly lonely heart. The two men played off of one another beautifully, creating a fully believable arc across 17 years to the present day.

We first met Bill down in his bunker beneath his mother’s house, which we’ll assume she inherited, as FEDRA was picking people up as part of a forced evacuation. This was a tragic transition from Joel and Ellie coming across a sea of bones just outside of town.

Among those were the bones of a mother and child, and it is with these two people alive that we step back into Bill’s small town in 2003. As they get picked up, they’re expecting to make their way to a Quarantine Zone (QZ), but as Joel and Ellie know, they never made it that far — or very far at all.

Luckily, Bill stayed hidden and ultimately watched as everyone he knew was driven away. From there, he took full control of the town and spent the next few years building an electric fence around his part of it, kept the gas running and even set up electric generators.

A doomsday prepper — or “survivalist,” as he insisted — Bill was ready to live this live alone and well. He was eating well and had everything he could want.

Until Frank dropped in (literally).

After reluctantly bringing Frank in with a promise of one meal and then he has to go, the electric chemistry between the two convinces Frank to take a chance. After hinting about a girl, Frank makes his move and leans in for a kiss.

What followed was a gorgeous post-apocalyptic love story for the ages. Unlike the video game portion, there were virtually no cordyceps monsters, and there was only one scene with raiders trying to attack (unsuccessfully).

We see Frank slowly breaking down Bill’s practical resource-driven mentality by actually convincing him to let him pretty up their home and even some of the shops downtown that they still use. Bill is surviving, but Frank is determined that they live!

The amount of times Bill gets frustrated and angry with Frank’s brazen attitude is both funny and endearing, as it’s clear how much Frank means to him that he puts up with any of it. That’s why when Frank revealed to him he’d been talking to a woman on the radio, Bill’s outrage and resistance was followed immediately by a picnic lunch scene with the woman, Tess, and Joel (a welcome return for Torv, looking all cleaned up, too!).

Their first encounter shows that Tess and Frank are a lot alike, still willing to open their hearts and maybe dream of a life in this hell. Joel and Bill bond more over how shut down they are, still in survival mode seven years after the initial outbreak.

But the foursome establish a friendship of sorts, one based on mutual trade. As an example, Frank trades off one of Bill’s “smaller” guns in exchange for strawberry seeds, creating a moment of unexpected joy for both men as they harvest and taste pure joy.

The raider attack sees Bill get shot. While the defenses keep the raiders from infiltrating, and kills most (or all) of them, Bill thinks he’s dying. But a flash-forward to ten years later proves it’s the other way around.

The video game gave these “partners” a cruel and unloving end to their partnership. By leaning into the love of their story, HBO’s take instead fills it with heart and heartache. Frank is suffering from a disease that’s stripping him of his ability to move.

In the episode’s most heartbreaking moment, Frank tells Bill that he wants to enjoy this one last day. He wants them to go shopping at the boutique and get dressed in their finest so they can finally get married. Then, he wants Bill to crush pills in his after-dinner wine and hold him so he can die in his lover’s arms.

This is such a far cry from how the two ended things in the video game, but it’s so much more satisfying. It gives a sense that there is yet hope for normalcy and love in this world, that there is value always in opening your heart to other people, despite the risks.

Honestly, while watching this episode play out, we thought to ourselves that this vignette is exactly the sort of thing “Tales of the Walking Dead” should be aspiring to accomplish. If you take away the connection — both emotionally, metaphorically and literally — to Joel and Ellie, you’ve got a stunningly gorgeous story of love at the end of the world.

Perhaps the most startling departure from the source material is that Ellie never even gets to meet Bill. Instead, he crushed pills in the wine bottle well before he put any in Frank’s drinks, “enough to kill a horse.” Now that he has loved and truly lived, Bill is satisfied. “You were my purpose,” he tells Frank.

By the time Joel and Ellie arrive, both men are gone and the house is quiet. Dinner is still on the table, but so is a letter written to Joel and the keys to a truck in the garage. No need for a video game mini-quest to cobble this together, though Joel does still need to build a battery.

Bill’s letter is the whole point of viewers witnessing his beautiful love story, and Joel and Ellie coming in just as the final chapter has ended and the book’s been closed.

“I used to hate the world and I was happy when everyone died,” he wrote, in part. “But I was wrong, because there was one person worth saving. That’s what I did. I saved him and I protected him.”

He urged Joel to do the same for Tess, having no idea that she was gone. But Ellie isn’t gone.

The episode ends with Ellie convincing Joel they both need a shower and finally getting a gun when she finds one in a desk drawer and stashes it in her bag before Joel comes back down.

It was a bold and potentially dangerous choice to step away from the main characters and the action for so long in a nine-episode season, but “The Last of Us” definitely won this gamble. Beautifully performed and filled with so much compassion and humanity, this was the kind of reminder of hope that we needed.

It’s easy to get lost in the worst of humanity in these shows. Joel and Ellie have yet to really experience that, outside of FEDRA, but it’s definitely coming. This reminder that there is yet good in humanity, and that there is reason to open your heart to love, will help carry us and them through.

In his letter, he urged Joel not to come into the bedroom where he and Frank had died. He said he’d left the window open so it wouldn’t smell, and it is panning back slightly through this window that we see Joel and Ellie drive away. As one story of hope, love and connection has ended, another continues.

“The Last of Us” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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