The Last of Us’ third episode diverges from the game’s narrative to craft a thoughtful, gut-wrenching love story centered around two stunning performances from Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett
In the wake of Tess’ tragic sacrifice at the end of last week’s episode, The Last of Us season 1 episode 3 “Long, Long Time” sees Joel and Ellie reeling from the upsetting loss, and in desperate search of a set of wheels to make their post-apocalyptic road trip viable. Before her death, Tess urged Joel to get Ellie to “Bill and Frank”, who she believed would be able to help her find safety. Though the Last of Us video game uses this sequence to introduce Bill as a solo character, the series opts to instead reimagine his character as the center of one of the most well-acted one-off love stories in television history: “Long, Long Time”.
Almost entirely devoid of Joel and Ellie (save for the episode’s first ten minutes), “Long Long Time” instead follows the story of Bill (Nick Offerman) an apocalypse survivalist who takes remarkably well to the end of the world. Bill sets his survival skills and sharp instincts to good use, creating a paradise among the chaos – though his suspicious, solitary nature means he doesn’t have anyone to share it with. After a chance encounter with kindhearted wanderer Frank (Murray Bartlett), Bill reluctantly takes him in, and soon their nervous tension melts into deep love and loyalty.
Video game die-hards may have been surprised by this week’s episode – though both Bill and Frank exist as characters in-game, Frank has already died by the time Joel finds him, and Bill is riding solo. Though Bill refers to Frank as his ‘partner’ in the game, the exact nature of their relationship is never specified, so the series opting to build a romance around their characters is certainly a departure from the original story.
Undeniably, though, this is a change that works in the show’s favor – the hour-long episode is a reprieve from the brutality and chaos of the outside world, instead emphasizing the enduring hope and joy that can be found among humanity, even in our darkest hour. While a Joel and Ellie-lite episode may seem like a bold choice (especially only three episodes into the series) there’s no doubt that “Long Long Time” is incredibly effective both thematically and in terms of world-building, and in the dynamic duo’s stead, we’re introduced to a pair of new survivors to fall in love with: Bill and Frank.
In just an hour, we follow the progression of Bill and Frank’s relationship – from Bill’s suspicion and reluctance to take Frank in, to their building a home together within Frank’s town, meeting Joel and Tess, and finally (in a finale that will leave even the most stoic of viewers teary-eyed) dying together. But where most character deaths on The Last Of Us are tragic, upsetting, often violent ones, Bill and Frank go out on their own terms – old, fulfilled, and thoroughly in love with each other.
Directed by It’s A Sin’s Peter Hoar and written by Craig Mazin, what’s so remarkable about “Long Long Time” is how efficiently it functions: only getting glimpses across a 22-year relationship while still expecting emotional resonance is a tall order, especially when these are characters we’re meeting for the first time – and ones we know aren’t going to be significant again down the line.
But that’s the beauty of the episode – despite the fact that this is a one-off, the writing doesn’t operate as if it is, instead treating Bill and Frank with the respect and depth they deserve, squeezing details and character beats into every line of dialogue. Of course, though, writing can only take an episode so far – the real stars of the episode (literally and figuratively) are Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett.
For many, seeing Offerman in a dramatic setting is a jarring change of pace (most will know him from his often-meme’d turn as Ron Swanson), Bill is a demanding role for any actor, not to mention one who mostly operates in the realm of comedy. But Offerman’s performance is integral to the episode’s success – his full-bodied physicality and haunted gaze imbue the taciturn Bill with depth and sympathy far beyond what one might expect from a paranoid survivalist.
Then, of course, there’s Murray Bartlett’s ever-charming Frank, Bill’s diametric opposite in virtually every way. His innate warmth and endlessly expressive eyes pair beautifully against Bill’s hunched posture and ever-suspicious attitude, and it’s easy to understand how even someone as guarded as Bill couldn’t help but fall for Frank and his easy smile. Though Bill may be the more demanding character on the page, Bartlett brings humanity and vitality to Frank that anchors the entire episode. Without him, Frank simply wouldn’t be believable as someone who could tear down Bill’s defenses in less than a day – that’s the power of Bartlett’s charm.
Together, they make magic – every lingering gaze, every haunted smile, and every casual touch tells of immense passion and dedication. Truly, it’s hard to pick who delivers the stronger performance – Offerman’s Bill wouldn’t work nearly as well without Bartlett there to provide warmth, nor would Frank’s trusting nature seem so remarkable without Bill to remind us that yes, they’re still living in the apocalypse.
It’s hard to overstate how remarkable of an episode this is – an hour-long two-hander depicting a 22-year relationship during the apocalypse is a tall order for any series, let alone an action-drama whose main characters are barely in the episode. Between Mazin’s writing, Hoar’s direction, and the match made in heaven that is Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, The Last of Us 1×03 is an instant classic: an intimate portrait of love and tenderness in even the direst of situations.