This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 3, “Long, Long Time”
Before HBO’s The Last of Us aired, the co-creator Craig Mazin explained several times how he planned to do with the series what virtually no video game adaptation has done before: Be good. He stuck to the same refrain: “The way to break the video game curse is to adapt the best video game story ever … so I flat out cheated.” Easy—great game story, great TV.
But the show’s third episode was not even part of the games. And yet to me, a fan of the games, it still felt like a faithful adaptation of what made the games so good. Perhaps even more so than previous episodes that followed the original plot beat-for-beat. That’s because the strength of the series lies not—as Mazin claims—in how it adapts the games’ story, but in how it adapts the games’ storytelling. That’s a much harder task, one that couldn’t be cheated.
The first game connects the player directly to the site of its central conflict: Joel’s mind. Joel is a smuggler, and his newest cargo is Ellie, a 14-year-old who reminds him of the daughter he lost. As he begrudgingly accompanies her across a post-apocalyptic America, half of him yearns to connect with her, while the other half fights to protect him from the suffering such human connection can expose you to. When you hold the controller in your hands, you feel this conflict in you, because you are Joel. You meet Ellie when he does. Not knowing who she is, you share his skepticism. Unlike with other characters, you don’t let Ellie assist you at first. Joel balks when Ellie offers to be boosted over a fence, and as long as you treat Ellie like cargo, you don’t have to connect emotionally. But as Joel starts to trust Ellie, so do you. Joel teaches her to use a gun, and then Ellie snipes enemies for you in gameplay. You, the player, become grateful for her.
Neil Druckmann (the co-creator of both the games and the show) and his team went so far as to lie in pre-game interviews about the fact that you play as Ellie for a period later in the game. That you’ll eventually care for her enough to be her has to be a surprise, just as Joel’s feelings for her are. At one point, when you’re playing as Joel, Ellie is struggling emotionally. When you come across an obstacle that requires you to use a boost—something you and Ellie now do frequently—you press the button to initiate the maneuver. But this time, Ellie isn’t summoned as usual. Joel looks around confused, to find Ellie sitting on a bench, lost in thought. The boost is canceled as Joel goes to calmly nudge Ellie out of her ruminations. It’s jarring for a game mechanic you’ve come to take for granted to be canceled mid-play. You feel just as caught off guard as Joel is.
The Last of Us’s use of game mechanics to give us a direct line into their characters’ psyches is what makes the games the innovative triumphs they are. But TV just can’t put you in a character’s shoes in quite as literal a way. That’s why, when the show was announced, I was skeptical that it could capture the spark of the games, even if it followed the games’ plot.
But Mazin and Druckmann surprised me. Instead of trying to translate the games’ untranslatable storytelling mechanics, the show makes us feel Joel’s internal conflict in a completely unexpected way: By focusing on stories that neither Joel nor Ellie are a part of.
The Last of Us’ third episode, “Long, Long Time,” is seemingly self-contained. It starts with the misanthropic Bill (Nick Offerman) boobytrapping his evacuated small town, Home Alone-style, so he can live out the zombie apocalypse in solitude. He accidentally ensnares a passerby, Frank (Murray Bartlett), who, with his zest for life, needles his way past Bill’s walls and into his heart. It’s a moving tale about a man who starts off thinking that the only way to survive is living alone, and who ends up understanding that the reason we survive is for other people.
Although the episode is a masterpiece in its own right, what makes it brilliant as an adaptation is how it plays into the context of the larger show. At the end of the episode, Joel and Ellie stumble into Bill and Frank’s house long after the lovers have died. Bill has left a note “to whomever, but probably Joel,” telling him that “men like you and me are here” to protect “the one person worth saving.” For Bill, that was Frank. And, for Joel, Bill assumes it’s Joel’s partner, Tess, not knowing that she died at the end of the previous episode. As Ellie reads the note out loud, Joel grabs it from her right before she gets to Tess’s name, leaving both Joel and the audience to fill in the blank with Ellie’s instead. The two leave in Bill’s car, playing the song Frank coaxed Bill into singing all those years ago. Joel and Ellie are unaware of the significance of its lines: “I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time.”
This isn’t the first—or last—time the show will do this. The Last of Us show takes the game’s story beats and loosely forms them into a series of vignettes about human connection: some involving Joel, some Ellie, many neither. But even if the characters don’t witness those events directly, even if they never learn their details at all, the stories hang in the air like spores. Joel and Ellie are altered by their presence. But for us to be altered by these stories too, just passing through them is not enough.
Ensemble shows have been doing deep-dives into multiple characters forever. (Lost was structured that way 20 years ago.) But The Last of Us isn’t an ensemble show. In plot terms, the only characters who matter are Joel and Ellie. It’s rare for a show about two people to invest such attention, depth, and airtime into what are ultimately one-off side characters.
This bold choice makes up for not having that controller in your hands, for not letting you feel your avatar and their world by choosing your way through their story. The details of Bill and Frank’s lives in the game, for instance, are mostly discovered through missable interactions. Do you happen to find Frank’s goodbye note? Do you bring the note to Bill (who survives Frank in the game) in order to see his reaction? Do you wait around to see Bill crumple it up? The missableness of these moments gives you the feeling that they exist in a living, breathing world that you (the player) are moving through as your character. But TV can’t make you walk in the characters’ shoes. So instead, the show takes all the feelings fighting it out in Joel’s head and fills the outside world with them. Each vignette represents a different approach to Ellie that Joel could take. Should he stay as numb as he’s been since his daughter was killed? Should he do what Tess urged him to and “save who you can save”? Will he follow in Bill’s footsteps and love his person the way she “want[s] to be loved”?
On the show, we’re not playing Joel, but we are experiencing the world as he is, turning all these possibilities over in our heads. By the time we get to the show’s climactic moral decision, we’ll be as preoccupied as he is by questions of love. That’s the genius behind the show’s storytelling: It achieves the same effects as the game, through almost opposite means.
In the show (but not the game), people infected with the zombifying fungus are all connected underground, able to affect each other across miles. “You step on a patch of Cordyceps in one place,” Tess explains, “and you wake more than a dozen somewhere else.” Just as one infected influences another miles away, Joel is influenced by the stories he barely touches. Like Joel, everyone is alone and yet connected, struggling to find love no matter how much the world makes them suffer for it. That’s not just true of these characters, but of us as well. Bill and Frank’s story touches Joel on the screen, and a universe away, it touches us too.