Stories Chosen For You
As threat levels go, this may not seem on par with the Cordyceps outbreak that destroys the world in "The Last of Us," because its symptoms aren't discernible to observers or tangible.
Neither did it sweep the world overnight: Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy referred to loneliness as a public health epidemic in 2017, warning that chronic loneliness places people at greater risk of depression, anxiety and developing heart disease and dementia. The culturewide isolation posed by the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated what was already in motion. We've been hurting for a long, long time.
If the third episode of "The Last of Us" made you break out into an ugly cry, that doesn't necessarily make you one of the stricken. It simply proves co-creator Craig Mazin understands that apocalyptic fables are less about wildly speculating about the future than forcing us to confront who and where we are now.
"The Last of Us," which has been picked up for a second season, is HBO's biggest hit since "House of the Dragon." Some of its success is attributable to the phenomenal popularity of the video game from which it's adapted, but plenty of people who have never touched a PlayStation have fallen for it too. Casting Pedro Pascal's as its hero, Joel Miller, likely lured some newcomers; unlike "The Mandalorian," this drama doesn't encase him in metal.
Of course, a charismatic face only carries a story so far. A stronger explanation of why this show is defying our collective doomsday fatigue points is its insistence on pushing back against despondence. Nearly every other survival horror sells savagery, depicting humanity as more brutal than the monsters their creators dream up to devour or conscript the weak.
"The Last of Us" doesn't pretend people aren't a threat. But it also insists we're the cure.
Mazin and co-creator Neil Druckmann are making sure Joel takes his time to figure that out. As it stands, he's determined to keep his cross-country companion Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) at arm's length. Those defenses will fold, as they're prone to do when the person laying siege is a child. But the best way to crack it is to serve an example of what can be gained by letting someone in.
Mazin wrote this mostly standalone episode, titled "Long Long Time," as that instructive parable told in flashback and starring Joel's allies Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), brought together by the music of Linda Ronstadt.
In 2003, when the military arrives to evacuate Bill's small Massachusetts town, he waits them out in his bunker before emerging, triumphantly, to plunge into his dream world, a street and a life without nosy neighbors.
Offerman wasn't originally cast as Bill, but since most people still recognize him as his "Parks and Recreation" curmudgeon Ron Swanson, it's hard to imagine anyone better suited for the part. Bill, a hardcore survivalist, is basically Ron Swanson minus the joie de vivre and a lot more guns. That heightens the comedy of watching him methodically plunder a gas station, the local Home Depot and the wine store before erecting fortifications, placing traps and harvesting goodies from his raised vegetable beds.
"The Last of Us" doesn't pretend people aren't a threat. But it also insists we're the cure.
From there, his life consists of enjoying his carefully plated forest-to-table meals for one, paired with fine vintages, and occasionally watching closed-circuit broadcasts of zombies stumbling into his traps.
One of Bill's perimeter pits becomes the site of his meet-cute with Frank, who is everything Bill does not appear to be: he's gentle, refined and admittedly vulnerable. Once Bill springs Frank from that dirt hole, he tries to send him on his way. But Frank quickly cracks Bill's shield; he's so hungry, can Bill spare a bit of food before he goes? Bill relents, and three years later, they're bickering over renovations.
"Long Long Time" takes its title from Ronstadt's lonesome 1970 single, which Frank finds in a songbook he digs out of Bill's piano bench, insisting on singing for his supper. But Frank knows precisely what he's doing, using the song to disarm his reluctant host.
In this age of overused needle drops, this song's diegetic presence is as flawlessly applied as Frank's seduction. He sits down at the piano and clumsily bangs out its opening melody, singing a verse or two with tinny force until Bill can't stand it anymore. Urging his visitor to move aside, Bill takes his place and, with the feathered grace the composition calls for, conveys its poignant poetry as the songsmith intended.
This also exposes Bill's survivalist front as a camouflage hiding a desolate cavern Frank leaps into. Bartlett's onscreen glow is never lovelier than when Frank rewards Bill's serenade – "Love will abide, take things in stride/ Sounds like good advice, but there's no one at my side" – with a silent teardrop.
Bill and Frank originated in the video game, although players only get to know one of them; Frank is only mentioned in passing as Bill's absent "partner." It's implied that they were in love, although never confirmed. The TV drama fills this story gap by writing a vibrant romance for them and placing it front and center, showcasing the breadth and diversity of Offerman's dramatic palette. His range shouldn't surprise anyone who watched him in "Devs." The brightness Bartlett infuses Frank with isn't uncharacteristic of his capabilities either; skewering that gleam with lances of bitterness won him an Emmy for his work in Season 1 of "The White Lotus."
The actors' complementary chemistry makes watching their intimacy develop over time into treasure. Bill could have subsisted by himself indefinitely, but at every turn, Frank makes him live fully. He shows Bill how to express love physically, but also aesthetically, turning Bill's neighborhood wasteland into a private shabby chic utopia. "Paying attention to things, it's how we show love," Frank says moments before enraging Bill by announcing that the two of them are going to make friends.
"We don't have friends, Frank. We will never have friends because there are no friends to be had," Bill seethes.
Frank's already been talking to Tess (Anna Torv) over their radio, so Bill's anger is pointless. Soon she and Joel are visiting Bill and Frank and establishing a trade partnership. Tess and Frank are friendly; Bill and Joel are not, because they are the same. (He eventually admits to Joel that he never liked him, "but still, it's like we're friends. And I respect you.") Their alliance strengthens both parties.
In the end, it isn't raiders or infected that do in Bill and Frank but an enemy they can't defeat. Yet their last stand in the face of it doesn't hold one splinter of sadness. Summing up their time, Bill simply tells Frank "You were my purpose."
Since "The Last of Us" pegs civilization's collapse to 2003, that means YouTube, Facebook and Twitter never came to exist in this world, and neither did their means of simulating friendship or algorithmic influence over what we watch or how we think. Even the video games that Ellie marvels at are designed to be played by two people standing next to each other. Forging bonds, platonic and otherwise, is a face-to-face endeavor, as it once was for us. As Bill and Frank's ballad shows us, connection is a risk. But it can be more advantageous than siloing ourselves off from others.
Druckmann, whether he meant to or not, endorses that notion by making the Cordyceps' interconnectedness central to their dread. It isn't simply the threat of death by a brain infection that's frightening, but the Cordyceps' ability to communicate through a web similar to the mycorrhizal network in forest soil. The Cordyceps is stronger than us because it works as a unified force or a hive mind. We, its prey, are simpler to divide and overpower.
Misanthropy is easy, though. That's why it's a typical feature of the broken hero profile. People striding across treacherous movie and TV landscapes, unwilling to risk the weakness that anything other than self-reliance might expose, seem so fierce. When we're feeling confident those characters have an outsize appeal, but dark moods can transform such figures into arguments for withdrawal, giving loneliness the illusion of strength. Other people are unreliable; other people will only slow us down; other people are Hell, and isn't there enough of that to go around?
Bill's choice to take a chance on Frank contradicts that bitterness. The audience witnesses their full relationship; Joel is only privy to parts of it. But that stanza is enough to break something open in him. There is always someone worth saving and protecting, Bill tells Joel in his farewell message. "That's why men like you and me are here," he writes. "We have a job to do."
The words are terse, capturing how Bill wanted Joel to see him, always a lone soldier ready to singlehandedly take on the apocalypse. Many scenes before that, "Long Long Time" reveals the truth of Bill's strength as he sits beside a strawberry plot Frank planted to surprise him.
Holding Frank's hand, he admits, "I was never afraid before you showed up."
Those words are at best rough approximations or terms of art, used to describe amorphous sets of phenomena that cannot easily be crammed into two opposing buckets. At worst — and given the political and cultural tendencies of the 21st century to this point, we should always go with "at worst" — they are dangerous oversimplifications, desperate attempts to make a murky situation where no one and nothing is what it seems to be fit into some borrowed or invented template from World War II or the Cold War or the American Revolution or God knows what else.
I've made a version of this argument before, on the basis that those words give both sides too much credit for internal coherence — "in both cases, what it says on the box is not exactly what's inside" — and also that their definitions have been stretched to the point of meaninglessness.
When we try to describe the intensely polarized partisan conflict in the United States and the renaissance of the authoritarian far right in Europe and the war in Ukraine as all being aspects of a global "democracy versus fascism" smackdown, I'm afraid we reveal that we don't know what the words mean, and that in fact they may not mean anything.
Consider, for instance, that almost everyone presents themselves as standing up for "democracy," as they claim to perceive it. Republicans who want to rig elections, nullify the popular vote or limit the franchise to people like them certainly do, and if we look at the troubled history of so-called democracy in America, we may be compelled to admit that they have a point.
In the recent midterm elections, it was rhetorically useful (and somewhat surprisingly so) for Democrats to define themselves as defending democracy against the kinda-sorta-fascists who seek to destroy it. To be clear, I'm at least partly sympathetic to this argument, but as is customary with the Democratic Party, it's an entirely negative case: Vote for us because we're not the mean, crazy Nazi bigots! We promise we will do something about worsening inequality and widespread corruption sometime very soon! But right now we need to hand-wave you on to the next election and the one after that, which will decide the future of our country!
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have sometimes used the word "democracy" to describe their semi-shared agenda, for heaven's sake, while making clear that what they mean by that is something quite different from the decadent, corrupt and declining "liberal democracy" of the West. If that sounds categorically preposterous to right-thinking people like you and me, it's nonetheless a highly effective troll, aimed directly at the uncomfortable fact that we don't know what the word means and have never been able to fulfill its hypothetical promises. The truth of the matter is painful: Our "system" unquestionably has more of the external markings of democracy than theirs does, but its internal functions are severely compromised.
On the other side of the ledger, pretty much no one wants to be called a fascist these days, with the possible exception of internet edgelords like Nick Fuentes, whose apparent function in the political economy is to make extreme-right Republicans like Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene seem almost normal by comparison. I'm not suggesting that Fuentes and his ilk aren't potentially or actually dangerous — Gosar and Greene certainly are — only that in the current global and American context overt neo-Nazis serve as chaos agents who cloud our perceptions, not as points of illumination.
Consider, for instance, that Putin has repeatedly justified the Russian invasion as a campaign to "denazify" Ukraine, a patently insincere claim that contains just enough granules of deep-down plausibility to be a little bit troubling. Of course the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish by ancestry, is not a "Nazi" regime, and the role played by far-right paramilitary groups in Ukraine's defense is relatively minor. But Ukraine is also a hilariously dreadful example of "democracy," plagued by profound institutional corruption and moving decisively backward on political freedoms, civil liberties and all the indicators of social democracy.
My own sense is that while there may be good reasons for people and governments in the West to support Ukraine against Russia — the conception of a nation-state, and the right of its people to autonomy and self-determination, are modern inventions, but ones for which most of us feel instinctive sympathy — it's distinctly unhelpful to call it a grand conflict between democracy and fascism, or to pretend that clarifies anything.
In a fascinating essay for New Left Review, Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko unpacks the "decolonization" of his country in the aftermath of a "deficient revolution" that overthrew the previous pro-Putin authoritarian regime but could "neither achieve the consolidation of liberal democracy nor eradicate corruption," while worsening "crime rates, social inequality and ethnic tensions."
"Paradoxically, despite the objective imperatives of the war," he writes, Zelenskyy's government has pushed through a wide range of neoliberal reforms, "proceeding with privatizations, lowering taxes, scrapping protective labour legislation and favouring 'transparent' international corporations over 'corrupt' domestic firms." The plans for "post-war reconstruction" offered at a conference in Switzerland last summer, Ishchenko continues, "did not read like a programme for building a stronger sovereign state but like a pitch to foreign investors for a start-up."
That article, it seems to me, offers crucial guidance in understanding the true nature of the increasingly perilous U.S. proxy war in Ukraine, which may, unhappily, be more about defending a particular set of global economic interests than about anything as grand and vague as "democracy." It also may lead us toward a recognition that the left-wing and right-wing critics of that war — an unwieldy "Halloween coalition" of peace advocates and America First isolationists — make a number of important points that should not be ignored, even as that lures too many of them (as I see it) into an unacceptable moral compromise with tyranny.
But that might be too much to chew on this weekend. I'll return for now to the premise I began with: The overloaded blimps labeled as "democracy" and "fascism," which float above our flattened cultural landscape unmoored to anything real, are meant to be reassuring (at least to those of us who say we're in favor of the former) but in fact are precisely the opposite. We project our hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies onto them, but more than anything our anxieties. We don't know what they mean, we don't know which one is "winning" and, somewhere deep down, we're not quite sure which one we really want.
'Like a domestic violence situation': Former Rep. concerned about Lindsey Graham's Trump relationship
In a discussion about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), MSNBC host Ayman Mohyeldin suggested that he might be stuck in some kind of hostage situation for Donald Trump world.
"I don't know if it's just me, but does Graham look like he's being held hostage there?" the host asked after rolling footage of one of the recent Trump events. "Should we say, hey, Lindsey, blink twice if you need help? This is the same Lindsey Graham who repeatedly disavowed Trump both before he was elected, and after the Jan. 6th insurrection."
"Count me out," Graham proclaimed on the Senate floor after the Jan. 6 attack.
Former Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) noted that she remembers the times that Graham was brave enough to stand against Trump and each time he returned.
"I remember watching very clearly on Jan. 6," Hill recalled. "I was — finally, this is the moment that he's done. It's just not. It feels like a domestic violence situation. I don't know what to say, except that he really, it's pretty pathetic is what it boils down."
Strategist Basil Smikle said that Graham knows which side his bread is buttered.
"That's what's intriguing to me, that he would come out so strong, so early," he said. "When the rest of the party is struggling, not that much, but trying to figure out how to keep a distance from Donald Trump, they may want to align with the policies. And separate themselves from the man, as difficult as that might be. I'm surprised [Graham's] not taking a bit of a step back, but in my view, we are gonna have Ron DeSantis perhaps leading his own, towards his own path nomination, with his own brand of a culture war, and his own brand of draining the swamp, which might include people like Lindsey Graham."
Lindsey Graham www.youtube.com