Let's see this week top last week.
Episode 3 of HBO's apocalyptic drama "The Last of Us" which dropped last Sunday, is already one of the most talked about hours in TV history. If you haven't seen it — SPOILER ALERT — read no further. You want the show's astonishing left turn to come at you out of he blue, as it did millions of viewers on Jan. 29.
What's the biggest shock that a harrowing, stomach-churning doomsday drama could give you? What — after two episodes of mutant, fungus-sprouting zombies turning the U.S. into a wasteland — could possibly throw viewers for a loop?
A love story.
One that had even hardened TV critics weeping. One that has generated Emmy talk for the show's creators and the episode's central actors, Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett. One that has led to the ultimate accolade by doctrinaire LGBTQ+ advocates: Offerman ("Parks and Rec"), they've declared, is the one straight actor who should be allowed to play gay.
For all the buzz about the episode, a key aspect — the single thing that, likely, resonated the most with viewers — has received little notice.
Yes, Episode 3 is a TV groundbreaker in the depiction of same-sex relationships.
Yes, it's a smart example of how to adapt video game storytelling to TV terms (the relationship between these two characters is only hinted at in the popular "The Last of Us" video game on which the series is based). Yes, it's a late-day booster shot for Linda Ronstadt's career: her 1970 song "Long Long Time" has become a streaming sensation since the episode aired.
But what really made this episode land has to do with where we are, now, as a country. The fact that we are — in a word — overwhelmed.
Episode 3 is a sidebar to the series. The main characters, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are peripheral.
This installment focuses on Bill (Offerman), a grim, gruff doomsday prepper who — when doomsday does come -— is in his element. He barricades himself in his house, sets snares along the perimeter, and settles down to a solitary existence with a storehouse of food and guns.
And then, into one of his booby traps falls Frank (Bartlett).
He is not one of the "clickers" — the zombified humans, infected by the cordyceps fungus, that are twitching and frothing their way across the countryside. He is not one of the government fascists, trying to control them by turning the U.S. into a police state.
He's just an ordinary dude, trying to make his way North. He asks for some food, and a shower. Warily, Bill complies — preparing a dinner that is, perhaps, just a shade too nice for the circumstances. Somehow the two end up singing a Linda Ronstadt song together. They kiss.
And so — in the midst of apocalypse — begins a shy, sweet 20-year romance. The guys manage to turn their compound into, if not a little slice of heaven, a little patch of normality in a world gone mad.
They grow their garden. They have fleeting contacts with outsiders (Joel is one of them). Under Frank's influence, Bill gradually starts to come out of his shell.
At the peak of happiness, they share the fresh strawberries they grew themselves. It's a moment that recalls, intentionally or not, another famous drama of apocalypse — Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (1957). The Knight, doomed to die in plague-haunted Sweden, finds one moment of simple pleasure that makes life worthwhile: strawberries, served to him by a poor strolling actor. "I shall remember this moment," he says.
The guys in "The Last of Us" have that same moment. And when the time comes for Bill and Frank to die — get out your handkerchiefs — they do it on their own terms.
Where Bill and Frank are, in "The Last of Us," many of us are too.
Bringing it home
Not that we're killing ourselves. Not that we are beset by mushroom zombies. Not yet, anyway.
But we are besieged on all sides by pandemic, climate change, political instability that most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. The outside world seems out of control. So what do we do?
Rightly or wrongly, a lot of us are doing what Bill and Frank did. We're turning inward. Just to stay sane.
Some of us, to be sure, fight — like the show's main characters, Joel and Ellie. Perhaps that's what we should all be doing. Perhaps it's irresponsible to do otherwise.
But at home, at least, things make sense. We can try to create, within our four walls and garden gates, a little bit of the stability that is so lacking on the outside. We focus on our families. We concentrate on our hobbies. We plan our home improvements, make our gourmet meals, and discuss next year's vacation. We make a world for ourselves. And try to forget, at least for a little while, about whether the sky is falling.
Happiness is still possible: That's what Episode 3 promises. And maybe that's what people are responding to.
Happiness, even now, in the midst of chaos. In very small, personal terms.
Candide comes to the same conclusion. At the end of Voltaire's 1758 satire, the poor hero who has been through earthquakes, shipwrecks, wars, persecutions and financial ruin, decides that the only rational thing to do is stay home, to look after the little things. "We must tend our garden," he says.
That's what the two guys in "The Last of Us" were doing. What a lot of us are doing, these days.
And who knows? Maybe this year, there will be strawberries.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: 'The Last of Us' Episode 3: Bill, Frank provide one of TV's best hours