Naughty Dog built The Last of Us on a bedrock of science fiction tropes, one showrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin easily reconstructed for their HBO adaptation. Many of the references are obvious: Joel and Ellie are successors to the familiar Lone Wolf and Cub protector/straggler dynamic, while the zombie of it all speaks for itself. But The Last of Us episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” marks a new blip on a trope timeline that feels far less obvious: the power of a sweet, sweet strawberry in the worst of times.
In “Long, Long Time,” doomsday prepper and Cordyceps survivor Bill (Nick Offerman) finds his world rocked when Frank (Murray Bartlett) shows up at his doorstep. What starts as a meal evolves into a loving, long-lasting relationship filled with the romantic highs, heated fights, and the sweet gestures of a normal-times marriage. While the episode’s been lauded for deepening the game’s portrayal of Bill and Frank’s unspoken-in-the-games relationship and tearjerker ending, it’s the little moments that really let it spark. The one that stuck out to me: To crack the hard shell of his loved one, Frank trades a gun to Tess (Anna Torv) for a few strawberry seeds and surprises Bill with a well-tended garden. Bill sinks his teeth into one of those post-apocalyptic strawberries and, damn, it’s juicy. Bill’s face says it all: That’s the stuff. Strawberries.
The scene is easy to read: The strawberry, in all its glory — aromatically sweet, tart on the tongue, maybe even a bit leafy — is the fruit of a former world. From the decay of a fungal overgrowth erupts new life, the strawberry. And not only is the ground fertile enough to allow for rebirth, 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 alone in finding solace in the strawberry. In 2021, writers Lana Wachowski, David Mitchell, Aleksandar Hemon found humanity in the form of strawberries in The Matrix Resurrections. In that long-awaited sequel, Neo reunites with his old pal Niobe in the blossoming underground society of IO. Since Neo was last unplugged from the Matrix, humankind has brought life back under the scorched skies by extracting the code for familiar bits of everyday life and reassembling the digital bits into genetic code. While nothing is real in the Matrix, this reverse-engineering process allows IO scientists to re-create a true luxury: the strawberry.
Twenty years before The Last of Us or The Matrix Resurrections, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens remixed J.R.R. Tolkien’s own reflection on the joys of Middle-earth to make the strawberry even more important to two hobbits on an impossible mission, in a moment that at least feels apocalyptic. In The Return of the King, at one of the lowest moments on the journey to destroy the One Ring, Sam asks Frodo to revive his spirit through sense memory.
“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?” he asks. “It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields... and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Frodo admits that he can’t. He can’t feel much of anything. To which Sam basically replies, Screw that, let’s go. There’s no greater motivator on the hills of hell than the strawberry. (Funnily enough, in Tolkien’s manuscript for The Return of the King, Sam pokes Frodo to remember the taste of rabbit, and only in the chapter “The Grey Havens” does the author reflect on the Shire’s delectable strawberries and cream — Jackson and his co-writers lifted the delicacy for use in their version of the scene.)
The strawberry-as-symbol craze has already iterated beyond the fruit itself. In HBO’s Last of Us-like 2021 post-apocalyptic drama Station Eleven (based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel), Jeevan (Himesh Patel) phones his ER doctor sister Siya (Tiya Sircar) as a viral pandemic begins to explode across Chicago. Her warning is immediate: It’s too late to run — shelter immediately and barricade the door. But amid the anxiety spiral, Siya also finds time to reminisce with her brother about their childhood years. This might be the last time they ever speak, so why not recount the time Jeevan “barfed strawberry Yoo-hoo on Jenny Kemkin”?
Later in the episode, Jeevan scrambles for groceries in a last-ditch effort for survival, but lingers when he’s caught in a memory vortex. Strawberry... Yoo-hoo...
There is no shortage of the strawberry as a symbol of purity throughout time, from the let’s-eat-strawberries-instead-of-people messaging of Soylent Green to multiple Shakespeare plays to the Bible, at least based on some interpretation. Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 drama Wild Strawberries, in which an ailing doctor reflects on his winding life as he prepares for death, feels especially apt to the collective understanding of the strawberry as a fruit of Good Times; in Swedish, the title Smultronstället is literally “the wild strawberry patch” but figuratively an idiomatic phrase for a place or moment in time associated with a feeling of great happiness.
But in a streak of post-apocalyptic fiction, the more classic representation of the strawberry as a pure organic entity feels more like what Bergman was chasing: a symbol of what was, tasted again, but only as a fleeting morsel. The Last of Us, tropiness of it all, leans right in and takes a bite of the feeling.