The naughty dog built The last of us on a bedrock of sci-fi tropesshowrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin easily rebuilt for their HBO adaptation. Many references are obvious: Joel and Ellie are successors to the familiar lone wolf and cub protector/laggard dynamic, while the zombie of it all speaks for itself. But The last of us Episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” marks a new twist on a trope timeline that seems far less obvious: the power of a sweet, sugary strawberry in the worst of times.
In “Long time“, apocalyptic preparer and Cordyceps survivor Bill (Nick Offerman) finds his world rocked when Frank (Murray Bartlett) shows up on his doorstep. What begins as a meal turns into a loving, lasting relationship filled with romantic highs, heated fights, and the sweet gestures of a normal marriage. While the episode was praised for deepening the game’s portrayal of Bill and Frank’s unspoken relationship in the games and the heartbreaking ending, it was the little moments that really blew it away. The One Who Got Me: To crack his beloved’s tough shell, Frank trades a gun with Tess (Anna Torv) for some strawberry seeds and surprises Bill with a manicured garden. Bill sinks his teeth into one of those post-apocalyptic strawberries and, damn it, it’s juicy. Bill’s face says it all: that’s the thing. Strawberries.
The scene is easy to read: the strawberry, in all its glory – aromatically sweet, tart on the tongue, perhaps even a little leafy – is the fruit of a past world. From the decomposition of a fungal proliferation bursts a new life, the strawberry. And not only is the soil fertile enough to allow rebirth, but in this case, the missing ingredient was love. The bite of a strawberry in The last of us is a taste of hope. (And one easily destroyed by fungal infection.)
Druckmann and Mazin aren’t the only ones finding comfort in strawberries. In 2021, writers Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon found humanity in the form of strawberries in The Matrix Resurrections. In this long-awaited sequel, Neo reunites with his old friend Niobe in the thriving underground society of IO. Since Neo was last unplugged from the Matrix, humanity has brought life back under the scorched sky by extracting code from the familiar elements of everyday life and reassembling the digital elements into genetic code. While nothing is real in the Matrix, this reverse-engineering process allows IO scientists to recreate a real luxury: the strawberry.
twenty years before The last of us or The Matrix ResurrectionsPeter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens have remixed JRR Tolkien’s own reflection on the joys of Middle-earth to make the strawberry all the more important for two hobbits on an impossible mission, in a moment that at least feels apocalyptic. In The king’s returnin one of the lowest moments of the journey to destroy the One Ring, Sam asks Frodo to revive his spirit through sensory memory.
“Do you remember the Shire, Mr Frodo? he asks. “It will soon be spring. And the orchards will be in bloom. And the birds will nest in the thicket of hazel trees. And they will sow summer barley in the fields below… and eat the first strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries? »
Frodo admits he cannot. He doesn’t feel much. To which Sam basically replies, Fuck it, let’s go. There’s no greater motivation on the hills of hell than the strawberry. (Oddly enough, in Tolkien’s manuscript for The king’s returnSam tricks Frodo into remembering the taste of rabbit, and it’s not until “The Gray Havens” chapter that the author reflects on the delicious strawberries and cream of the Shire – Jackson and his co-authors raised the delicacy for use in their version of the stage.)
The craze for the strawberry as a symbol has already iterated beyond the fruit itself. In HBO The last of us-like the post-apocalyptic drama of 2021 station eleven (based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel), Jeevan (Himesh Patel) phones his sister ER doctor Siya (Tiya Sircar) as a viral pandemic begins to explode across Chicago. His warning is immediate: it is too late to run, take cover immediately and barricade the door. But amid the spiral of anxiety, Siya also finds time to reminisce with her brother about their childhood years. This might be the last time they speak, so why not recount the time Jeevan “vomited Strawberry Yoo-hoo on Jenny Kemkin”?
Later in the episode, Jeevan scrambles for groceries in a last-ditch effort to survive, but lingers when caught in a memory vortex. Strawberry… Yo hoo…
The strawberry is not lacking as a symbol of purity through time, from let’s-eat-strawberries-instead-of-people message from soy green to several plays by Shakespeare to the Bible, at least on the basis an interpretation. 1957 drama by Ingmar Bergman Wild strawberries, in which an ailing doctor reflects on his winding life as he prepares for death, feels uniquely suited to the collective understanding of the strawberry as the fruit of Good Times; in Swedish, the title Smultronstället is literally “the square of wild strawberries”, but figuratively, an idiom for a place or time associated with a feeling of great happiness.
But in a sequence of post-apocalyptic fiction, the more classic depiction of the strawberry as a pure organic entity is more like what Bergman was pursuing: a symbol of what was, tasted again, but only as an ephemeral morsel. The last of ustropiness of it all, leans straight in and takes a bite out of the feeling.