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Monday Stories: I Think I'm Gonna Love You For A Long, Long Time
The first in a series of Monday stories based on Sunday television episodes that are too good to wait a week to write about, so I call an audible. Today: the Bill and Frank episode of 'The Last of Us"
As a fan of neither the zombie apocalypse genre nor video games, imagine my surprise stumbling into one of the most emotionally affecting hours of television I’ve ever experienced in last night’s episode of HBO’s The Last of Us.
I happened upon news of the show’s impending arrival (on Jan. 15) by accident late last year on Twitter. As those of you who follow me on the socials likely know, I often have used the hashtag #lookforthelight when posting photos and content relating to my spiritual practice (particularly during Advent) of paying attention to light (both literal and figurative) during darker times of the year and tough times in general.
In December I began seeing a few comments on my then-daily #lookforthelight posts that seemed incredulous or where the author responded with the cry-laughing emoji.
What the heck?
Some of my daily Twitter posts around Advent were pre-scheduled and I hadn’t realized that in the intervening time, the hashtag had been corporately appropriated (as sometimes happens) and what looked like an exploding head had been attached at the end of the hashtag phrase. I now realize that the exploding-head-looking-emoji was actually not quite what it seemed and was, in fact, related to The Last of Us video game that was being adapted into a drama series for HBO.
Now, the last time I recall playing a video game was Just Dance on my son’s Wii about a decade ago, so I was completely unfamiliar with The Last of Us and, after giving a passing glance to the game’s plot summary, had little interest in the series.
Apocalypse. Zombies. Run. Been there. Got it. No, thank you.
That is, until I read that Nick Offerman was involved.
For me, Nick Offerman is to film and television what fresh figs and white truffles are to a restaurant menu: If Offerman is one of the ingredients I’m in.
Offerman, by all accounts a down-to-earth and affable fellow originally from rural Minooka, Illinois and spouse of 20 years to the inimitable comedic actor Megan Mullally (aka Karen Walker on Will and Grace), is perhaps best known for his iconic multi-year turn as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation.
I LOVE him. In everything. I don’t care what it is, I will consume it if Nick has had anything to do with making it. Case in point: the delightful reality competition series Making It co-hosted with fellow Parks and Rec alum Amy Poehler. (In addition to mastering acting, Offerman is a master wood craftsman. )
Offerman fascinates me and if he’s on screen (even as the voice of an animated character, as he on Hulu’s The Great North,) I’ll be watching.
He is also a wonderful writer of nonfiction and humorous books such as Paddle Your Own Canoe and Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers as well as a winsome, racy, and hilarious book co-authored with Mullally a few years back called The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History. I’ve just ordered his latest book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Likes to Walk Outside, and I imagine it will make an appearance in this space in the coming weeks.
As an actor, Offerman has incredible range, as demonstrated in more dramatic roles, including five seasons as Karl Weathers in Fargo, the charming 2018 film Hearts Beat Loud, and 2020’s mind-bending sci-fi limited series DEVS.
ERgo, due to the Offerman Effect™️, I gave This Last of Us a whirl.
It was well worth weathering the first two episodes and adding yet another hypothetically horrible way for humanity to meet its end (vaccine- and treatment-resistant fungus) to my catastrophizing quiver, to get to the third — the Jan. 29 episode titled “Long Long Time.” It is an emotional tour de force that took me by surprise, brought many tears to my eyes, put a big lump in my throat, and caused my heart both to swell and ache.
Just hand Offerman an Emmy right now and save us all some time in September.
** SPOILER ALERTS ! SPOILER ALERTS ! **
In the episode, we meet the characters Bill and Frank, whose names we’ve heard in passing a few times earlier the series but without any details that might have tipped off viewers unfamiliar with the video game storyline (and apparently even those who were). Bill (Offerman) is a middle-aged hard-core survivalist living in a quintessentially quaint New England town outside Boston. After the fungus apocalypse, he avoids being rounded up by federal troops (and sent to what turns out to be an all-but-sure death and burial in a mass grave) by hiding in his supremely well-equipped bunker.
Bill survives and thrives on his own, fortifying not only his house (presumably the one he grew up in) but several blocks of his now-deserted hometown. The perimeter is booby trapped, security cameras run on a generator, he has all he needs to stay alive and then some.
But he is alone.
Just hand Offerman an Emmy now and save us all some time in September.
Many months after the apocalyptic event (the fungus creates zombies out of humans and spread around the world in a space of three days, ending civilization as we know it), one of Bill’s many traps catches what he assumes to be a zombie but turns out to be Frank (Murray Bartlett, the Emmy-winning Australian actor you may recognize best from the first season of White Lotus, as Nick De Noia in Hulu’s Chippendales, or as Mouse in the Netflix reboot of Tales of the City.).
Frank has managed to evade fungal infection and is the last man standing from a group of ten survivors when he breaches the perimeter of Bill’s fortress of solitude and falls into a camouflaged well. Bill approaches guns blazing, but soon, if reluctantly, agrees to let him into the bunker for a shower and a meal, during which Frank quickly realizes his host is more than what he seems.
Bearded, crazy-eyed, shaggy Bill, with a sidearm strapped to his leg at all times, elegantly serves a repast made from ingredients he has cultivated himself — vegetables from his garden, game that he has hunted and preserved — meticulously plated on china plates atop metal chargers and accompanied by crystal stemware.
“A man who knows to pair rabbit with a Beaujolais,” Frank remarks, his comprehension of enigmatic Bill starting to clarify and expand.
Handsome, ebullient Frank, with silver dappling the edges of his slightly-more manicured beard, whom the viewer likely has surmised by this point is gay, spots a grand piano in the living room and insists on opening the bench to rifle through sheet music inside until he discovers a book of Linda Ronstadt songs.
“I had the thought that this would happen, that there was a song that would be played, and that we would be surprised by who was good at it and who was bad at it,” Craig Mazin, the series co-creator who wrote the episode, told IndieWire. “I remember saying to [Neil Druckmann, series co-creator and original writer of the video game upon which it’s based], ‘I’m not sure what the song is, I just know that it has to be this incredibly sad song about yearning for love, and never getting love, and just making your peace with the fact that you will always be alone. But it can’t be on the nose. And it can’t be a song that we all know.'”
They settled on Ronstadt’s 1970 hit “Long Long Time” — a song both men might have remembered from their childhood, perhaps playing on the AM radio in their families’ station wagons on the way home from Cape Cod or the ice skating rink in a simpler, more hopeful time than the post-apocalyptic-if-quaint setting in which they find themselves in their fictional version of 2003.
Bill watches Frank plonk and warble with an expression of horror tinged with intrigue, before he interrupts with, “Not that song.” He proceeds to surprise Frank (and the audience) by sitting down and performing a graceful, heart-rending rendition of the song that won Ronstadt her first (of 30) Grammys 53 years ago.
Love will abide, take things in stride
Sounds like good advice but there's no one at my side
And time washes clean love's wounds unseen
That's what someone told me but I don't know what it means.
Cause I've done everything I know to try and make you mine
And I think I'm gonna love you for a long long time
It’s a pivotal scene. Bill lets Frank in — to his bunker, to his heart, to his life. Franks is his first, and last, love. They stay together for twenty years, until fictional 2023.
“The intention was to show the arc of commitment. I’m in my 26th year of marriage, and middle-age love is a thing. And it’s a different thing than love in your 20s and new love. There’s something that gets kicked off by commitment over time,” Mazin told IndieWire. “It was important for me to show that the romance, however long it lasted, it didn’t last. And then it’s arguing. And then it’s bargaining. And then it’s realizing what the other person does for you. And then it’s fear, and pulling these characters through the stages of life as I’ve been experiencing them and I’ve seen my wife’s parents experience and other friends experience. The whole idea was to hit the highlights of moments in your life where love means something different.”
I can say with certainty I’ve never been happier about my ignorance of video games. It allowed me to be surprised by Bill and Frank’s love story, which broke me open, too.
Their first kiss, perhaps the hairiest (literally) in cinematic history, was beautiful, tender, moving, unforgettable. Truly a love scene for the ages. That rainy The Notebook smooch has nothing on these two bears.
Even with all the spoilers warnings above, I won’t ruin the ending in case you haven’t seen it yet and couldn’t help but read to this point. (The episode works as a stand-alone if you don’t have the stomach or bandwidth for hours of zombie apocalyptic content. You can find S1E3 directly via HBOMax HERE.)
Suffice to say, have a hanky on hand, and if you have a partner within arm’s reach, you’re gonna need a hug.
As I watched Bill and Frank’s story, I kept thinking about the mantras with which I often end these dispatches:
You haven’t met yet everyone who will love you
and you haven’t met yet everyone you will love.
They’re true. Even if it’s end of the world (or maybe feels like it is sometimes.)
So, may you be brave and kind and never forget that love will find you.
By the way, thank you for all the kindness about beloved Lin Brehmer, who left us too soon a week ago. Reminds me of the lyric that says there is no end to grief, that’s how we know, there is no end to love.
Last week, I had the honor of sharing some thoughts on NPR’s All Things Considered for the program’s tribute to Lin. You can listen to that HERE.
And remember what Lin always said: Take nothing for granted. It’s great to be alive.
Much love from me,