It’s only January. It is way too soon to talk about The Last of Us’s third episode, “Long Long Time,” as the best episode of 2023, let alone the best episode of The Last of Us, right? Right. But! Is it too soon to declare it the best episode of 2023 and The Last of Us, so far? Not from where I’m standing.
Following an opening two installments that demonstrated astounding fidelity to the video game it’s based on, The Last of Us breaks the mold with its riveting third episode, a 75-minute meditation on life and love in the not-quite-a-zombie apocalypse. Driven forward by powerful performances from TV treasures Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, “Long Long Time” marks the biggest departure from the Last of Us source material to date, offering a very different look at the video game characters of Bill and Frank, to the point that they may as well be show-only inventions.
While their origins are very much rooted in the game, Bill and Frank’s HBO debut (tragically short-lived as it may be) imbues the TV series with something that not even the fungus-free Ellie (Bella Ramsey) has managed to instill in Pedro Pascal’s Joel quite yet: hope, in an otherwise hopeless world. Of course, by the episode’s end, “Long Long Time” also manages to leave the audience completely wrecked. It’s still The Last of Us, after all.
The episode begins in the aftermath of a different wreck: Tess (Anna Torv), gone but not forgotten following her explosive sacrifice play. Joel would prefer if Ellie forgets all about her, but Ellie evokes Tess’s name all the same: “Nobody made you go along with this plan. You needed a truck battery or something, and you made a choice. Don’t blame me for something that isn’t my fault.” Fair enough, Joel probably thinks, but doesn’t say aloud, as the two reluctant companions set off to link up with Bill and Frank, two of Joel and Tess’s business partners outside of the quarantine zone, who are better equipped to deal with a precocious child than the tragically childless Joel.
The journey to Bill and Frank’s is a relatively peaceful one. No explosions, no deaths, unless we’re counting the clicker Ellie examines and then stabs in the head at a local gas station. (Not just any gas station, mind you, but a Cumberland Farms! Consider it one last tip of the Red Sox cap to the New England faithful.) Despite no imminent danger, ghosts lurk throughout Joel and Ellie’s trek. They walk past the ancient wreckage of a plane crash, busted and overgrown like everything else in the greater Boston area. They talk about theories surrounding the Cordyceps outbreak, with Joel throwing his lot behind “the big bread theory.” They reach a makeshift graveyard littered with the bones of uninfected individuals, executed for fear of overcrowding the quarantine zones—ironic, given humanity’s current place on the endangered species list.
“Why kill them? Why not just leave them be?” Ellie asks, not understanding why these folks had to die. Joel’s heartbreaking answer: “Dead people can’t be infected.”
Fifteen minutes of television have elapsed at this point. With an hour still on the clock, The Last of Us pushes into another window of sorts, tripping backward in time all the way to the start of the outbreak. We see soldiers round up a group of people on a truck, the same people whose bones Joel and Ellie will someday meet on the side of the road. But just when it feels like the show’s about to dive into the backstories of these soon-to-be corpses, the action instead shifts to someone else entirely—someone who is very, very alive.
Enter: Bill, the veritable Ron Swanson of the apocalypse. It’s not just because the heavily bearded man comes to us courtesy of Parks and Recreation alum Nick Offerman. It’s also because this heavily bearded man acts exactly as one would expect Offerman’s Ron to under similar circumstances, with grim-faced badassery and a deep stockpile of supplies. The proud survivalist watches surveillance camera footage of soldiers rounding up the people of Bill’s town, Lincoln. (Another elaboration from the game, where it’s literally named “Bill’s Town.”) When he’s satisfied that they’re all gone, Bill emerges from his underground bunker and sets about his new life, securing supplies, boobytrapping property, eating lavish home-cooked dinners for one, and otherwise generally thriving at the end of the world.