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Unexpected Tenderness in “The Last of Us” Offers Grist for Radical Politics

Post-apocalyptic TV dramas don’t have to be cynical or atomizing — they can inspire a politics of care and mutual aid.

Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman in "The Last of Us."

I believe that the stories we tell about societal collapse are important — even when they are wholly fictional representations of collapse, like the one offered in the post-apocalyptic TV drama series “The Last of Us.”

The capacities that we imagine people may have, or suddenly lack, in moments of crisis, help inform what we expect of other people, and what we imagine is possible in the wake of disaster. We certainly need imagination in our own, very real apocalyptic moment, because the story that we are currently living is not going well.

Some of the most politically interesting storytelling happening in television is happening in the context of horror. The Korean television show “All of Us Are Dead,” for example, focuses on the ways young people collectivize and refuse to abandon each other during a zombie apocalypse — even as they are abandoned by the government and most authority figures.

But too many fictional representations of apocalypse rely on tropes about disasters reliably bringing out the worst in people. For some shows, such cynicism eventually creates a spoiler effect. Of course helping that guy is a mistake. Of course you shouldn’t pick up that hitchhiker. Of course that person pleading for help is setting you up to get robbed, or worse. Of course, of course, of course. These stories hammer home the notion that these are all inevitably bad ideas because we are the worst.

I have come to resent such storytelling, not simply because it’s lazy and does not align with my experience of humanity, but also because it’s boring. How many stories that add up to little more than “trust no one” can one person stand?

Unexpected Tenderness in “The Last of Us

Given my longstanding frustration with this fundamental pessimism (and effectively right-wing orientation) within apocalypse narratives in mainstream pop culture, I found myself unexpectedly moved and excited by the unexpectedly tender turn that “The Last of Us” took this week with the airing of its third episode, “Long, Long Time.” And it turns out I was not alone — the episode received an immediate and overwhelmingly positive response from viewers.

“Long, Long Time” gave us something we needed — a vision of hope and beauty amid devastation. In these times, we need stories that tell us we can find joy, love, and belonging, even as the world falls down.

To be honest, before the show’s third episode, I was close to losing interest in it. Everything was well made, well produced and well acted, and yet nothing felt truly compelling. Sure, there were flashes of good horror and drama: the elderly neighbor beginning to transform in the background as young Sarah sits close by, unaware; Tess sacrificing herself to save Joel and Ellie from a horde of fungi-infested zombies. But those flashes were not enough.

Maybe I have simply watched too many characters scramble or kill their way through their newly zombified town, or maybe I’m just burnt out on the introduction of characters who I barely get to know before I am expected to experience their death as an emotional blow.

The show’s apocalyptic threat — a fungal contagion that eventually bursts through people’s skin (leaving some looking like walking planters), with infectious tendrils sprouting from people’s orifices, or any open wound — is certainly unsettling to look at. But amid its tragedies and spectacles, there was nothing in those first two episodes that my heart or mind felt inclined to grab onto. I did not expect to enjoy the show’s third episode, but I am hard up for new shows, so I decided to give “The Last of Us” one more chance. Then, the episode “Long, Long Time” changed everything.

As a self-contained story within the show’s larger narrative, “Long, Long Time” introduces us to two new characters, allows us to experience their joy, as well as their fears, and gives us something that is rarely found in the zombie subgenre: a happy ending.

The episode also offers us something else that is too often lacking in apocalyptic stories: tenderness.

Visions of Apocalypse Can Help Us Face How Inequalities Structure Our Lives

Our real-world reality of life on Earth in 2023 is not as terrible as the reality faced by characters in “The Last of Us,” who are wandering, scavenging and trying not to become hosts to a zombifying fungal infection.

But like the unnamed characters in episode three who are rounded up and executed, presumably because there is no room for them in a Quarantine Zone, many of us are participating in a death march. And like those characters, many of us are haplessly cooperating with authority, mostly because we don’t know what else to do.

The scene where Bill (Nick Offerman), a middle-aged white man and prepper enthusiast, hides in his secret bunker as his neighbors are rounded up by the government serves as a reminder of the unevenness of our society.

Watching Bill hide in his bunker, I couldn’t help but reflect on how some of us were able to remain safer by staying home at the start of the pandemic, while others were expected to work, or were warehoused in various sites of social disposal where COVID and its consequences were all but inescapable. The bunker scene was important because it implicated Bill, and many of us, as passive observers of injustice.

While I don’t see many parallels between Bill’s life choices or personality and my own, I cannot deny feeling a pang of guilt as I watched that scene, as someone who has worked from home throughout the pandemic, and as someone who has shelter during the storms that climate change has brought. I am not rich, or even “well to do,” as my mother would say, but compared to many people in this world, during our current apocalypse, I may as well be Bill in a bunker.

And just as Bill is spared the sight of what ultimately happens to his neighbors, whose bones we later see in a ditch, I am aware that my place in the scheme of capitalism, bordering, housing status and more means that I am spared a view of many of the everyday horrors that the maintenance of capitalism, borders and imperialism creates.

Could We Love More Deeply Amid Collapse?

Storytelling affects our notions of what is possible, our beliefs about human nature and even our sense of our own potential. Given these realities, it’s unfortunate that so much apocalyptic fiction models a dim view of human potential. Assumptions that people will become hysterical, violent, and only look out for themselves amid crisis lend themselves to right-wing and authoritarian ideas about how people should be managed during a crisis. In addition to propping up bad politics, such stories also disregard the well-documented reality that many people respond to crises with caring, prosocial behaviors amid catastrophe — as we saw at the start of the pandemic, when so many people joined mutual aid efforts.

To explore the fragility or durability of such efforts (even if one eventually came to cynical conclusions) would at least engage with reality, but many apocalyptic stories simply bypass questions of human potential, and how we might care for each other, disregarding themes that are crucial in our times.

The idea that is explored in episode three of “The Last of Us” — that amid collapse, it is possible to love more deeply, and exercise more care than one ever thought possible — is a beautiful and urgent one. In a moment when disabled people are being treated as disposable and unnecessary to society, a remarkable depiction of queer love, wherein a character who becomes disabled is not only not abandoned, but rather cherished, feels downright transgressive — in the best way.

At the beginning of the third episode of “The Last of Us,” Bill knows enough not to trust the government, which has resorted to mass murder to curb the pandemic, but he does not warn his neighbors. In fact, as Bill later acknowledges, he is so antisocial that he is actually happier after all of his neighbors have been removed. In fact, his lack of attachment or regard for others gives Bill something that might sound enviable in a world so collapsed: a life without fear.

Sure of himself and his skills as a survivalist and a fighter, Bill moves through the world smugly, amused when zombies are killed by the traps on his well-fortified perimeter — until he meets Frank (Murray Bartlett). When Frank gets caught in one of Bill’s traps, we know neither character’s name and have no real sense of where the story is going.

More cynical television shows had conditioned me to expect Bill’s decision to help Frank to be a mistake. The show had illustrated Bill’s prowess as a survivalist and his lack of regard for others. Even as the story began to indicate that a shift toward romance was in the works, I didn’t trust it. The hints of attraction and Frank’s obvious flirtations all felt like the setup for a predictable lesson on never letting your guard down.

When Bill sat down at the piano and sang a few lines from Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time,” I was half expecting Frank to stab him in the back or crack him over the head with a hammer. I imagined that in the next scene, we would see Ellie and Joel happen upon the compound, now run by its new owner, Frank.

In my defense, Bill was not presented as a character bound for romance, nor do we, as the audience, wish him any particular happiness early on. But when it becomes clear that his connection with Frank is genuine (for me, it was the kiss that sealed this), my hopes for the story, and perhaps my hopes in general, got a boost.

Bill was not the kind of character I was likely to root for: he was portrayed as a white male prepper who didn’t give a damn about his community. But when his romance with Frank began, my investment was deep and immediate. Why? In a society where we have become isolated, siloed and, in many cases, deeply lonely, unlikely human connection is, in of itself, hopeful.

And in truth, as easy as it is to dismiss or judge Bill, he also represents tendencies that many of us have experienced, or that we may fight against in difficult times. While most of us wouldn’t be happier if our neighbors were carted away by the state, many of us have witnessed injustice from a place of comfort and failed to act, or worse, felt no inclination to act. Many of us have, as a reflex, isolated ourselves and attended to our own needs, when we had the means and potential to help others.

In a sense, the idea that Bill could be redeemed through love offers the hope of redemption for us all.

At the start of his journey, Bill bristles at the idea of caring for others. But after meeting Frank, he falls in love, makes compromises, rediscovers the taste of fresh strawberries, and finds his life’s purpose, as he understands it: caring for and protecting Frank. In post-apocalyptic horror, we often see people devolve into more terrible, selfish versions of themselves. But in Bill’s case, we see a character soften and become more tender. I think that progression and growth, in the context of collapse, was one of the most poignant aspects of the episode: the idea that disaster can mean learning to love more deeply.

According to Chris Begley, author of The Next Apocalypse, Bill’s evolution captures something authentic about how people survive apocalyptic events. “Having something to live for is critical for survival,” says Begley. “Our survival instincts do not automatically kick in, and persevering can seem overwhelming, or just not worth it. In Frank, Bill found the thing that gave him a life beyond survival.”

In a television landscape where collapse is usually depicted as bringing out the worst, most self-serving impulses in people, we saw Bill become a better human being — one capable of conceiving of a purpose beyond his own survival.

“I used to hate the world, and I was happy when everyone died,” Bill eventually writes to Joel. “But I was wrong.”

Those words capture another hope that matters to many of us right now: the hope that our worst assumptions about other people, about the future, about how good life has the potential to be, could be wrong. It’s easy to become pessimistic in these times, but Bill reminds us that people, including ourselves, can surprise us, and that other human beings, and life itself, can be better than we would have imagined. The idea that we could lead full lives, feel “satisfied” and die well — it’s the seemingly impossible dream of an apocalyptic age.