The following contains spoilers for HBO’s The Last of Us.
To call previous episodes of The Last of Us, the video game-based HBO show in which a cordyceps infection passed through flour and sugar turns humans into zombies with mushrooms for faces, a food show would be like saying Hannibal Lecter is a good spokesperson for fava beans; it’s not exactly an endorsement. But its third episode, which aired last night, diverged from its main storyline to create a best-case scenario survivalist fantasy of what life could look like amid this dystopia — and how even at the end of the world, food can bring about everything that is still good: care, hope, and love.
In the episode titled “Long, Long Time,” we see that day-to-day life in a post-cordyceps world doesn’t have to be as bleak as it is within the quarantine zones, where a military authority maintains order. It features Bill, played by Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman, a gruff survivalist who hides in his bunker as the cordyceps infection spreads. Able to evade the initial military search of his home, Bill makes the emptied-out town of Lincoln, Massachusetts his. He raids Home Depot for tools and wires, takes bottles from the wine store, and equips himself with gas and electricity, creating a protected compound where he cooks himself candlelit steak dinners in relative peace, alone. “It doesn’t get old,” Bill says over one dinner, while watching security footage of an infected person being killed by one of his traps.
Then, four years later, a man named Frank, played by The White Lotus’s Murray Bartlett, shows up outside Bill’s electric fence. On his way to the military zone in Boston but with the rest of his crew dead, Frank wants rest and food. Bill begrudgingly takes him in, cooking the two of them a meal of rabbit, vegetables, and wine, after which Frank is supposed to leave. “A man who knows to pair rabbit with Beaujolais,” Frank remarks, impressed by Bill’s cooking. To Frank’s enjoyment, Bill replies: “Everything tastes good when you’re starving.”
But the table is set with crystal glasses, and the plates of fine china rest upon golden chargers. When Bill presents the plate to Frank he doesn’t just plop it down, but rests it and then does a little turn — voila. This is a meal that prioritizes pleasure amid even the most dire circumstances. We have seen Bill do this solo, but here, the sharing of food and pleasure connects Bill and Frank. It indicates a shared sensibility of enjoying life experiences, something that is no doubt increasingly difficult amid a zombie crisis. Bill, however surly he may be, is saying that even a weary traveler deserves something nice before returning to the wilds where zombies can pop out at any time.
Frank doesn’t leave. Over a few years, the two come to love each other, building a nice — given the circumstances — life in which they paint together, improve their town, and even have a garden party after making friends over the radio with Tess (Anna Torv) and Joel (Pedro Pascal), the smugglers at the center of the show’s main plotline. Thanks to this relationship, Frank trades a gun for some strawberry seeds and plants a bed of them in the yard as a surprise for Bill, whose cynicism gives way to awe as they sit together in the garden. Even in normal circumstances, a peak summer strawberry is such a delight; it’s only natural that Bill and Frank laugh with joy as they eat what we understand to be their first fresh strawberries in years. There is death and loss on an impossible level — and still, there are the sweet, warm strawberries.
In the episode, food represents the concessions we sometimes make to show love. It is the understanding that any stockpile of food Bill established for himself would go twice as quickly with another person, but wanting to share it with Frank anyway. It’s Frank secretly tending to this garden from seed in order to give Bill a gift, and it’s Bill continuing to cook elaborate meals for the two of them, even as he remarks that he’s feeling so much older — something that didn’t scare him when he was surviving alone.
Ten years later, we see Bill and Frank much older. With Frank’s will to live waning from sickness, he plans one last good day with Bill: They will get married and then Bill will cook a delicious dinner, after which he will slip pills into Frank’s wine that will end his life. As with their first meal, Bill prepares two plates of rabbit and vegetables; he places Frank’s on the table with that same loving turn, and he presents the Beaujolais as any sommelier would. We learn that although Bill stirs powder into Frank’s glass, he’d also dosed the bottle. “I’m old, I’m satisfied — and you were my purpose,” Bill tells Frank before they retreat into their bedroom. The meal is a fitting end to their relationship.
We don’t see much of Joel and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the girl Joel is tasked with protecting, during this episode, which might feel like a derailing from the show’s bigger plot arc. But the show’s divergence into Bill and Frank’s little world results in its best episode yet because it shows the point of all this struggle. Why bother fleeing from all the zombies if there aren’t little moments like stopping to share strawberries with someone you love to keep you moving along?