The Last of Us episode 3 review: "An early contender for one of 2023's best episodes"

The Last of Us
(Image: © HBO)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

The Last of Us sidesteps its main story in favor of a touching portrait of Joel's friends Bill and Frank. You may question its placement in the series, but few will argue its quality – a new benchmark for the HBO series to try and beat.

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Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us episode 3 follow. If you haven't caught up, look away now!

What makes a great episode of television? Is it its ability to emotionally blindside a viewer? Does it tell us something new about the human condition? Or should it leave an aching hole in your hearts when all is said and done? The third episode of The Last of Us, 'Long, Long Time', achieves all three with a surprise standalone portrait of a couple living out their days at the end of the world – even if it doesn't quite mesh with what's come before it.

So, no, this isn't Joel and Ellie's story. While the pair bookend the episode, with Tess's death still hanging in the air and forming much of the emotional crux of their brief scenes together, this is someone else's story entirely. It's a brave, potentially foolish, move to completely switch perspectives so early on in the series. Thanks to the strength of Craig Mazin's writing and two performances that will be on voters' lips come Emmy season, however, the risk pays off big time. This is Bill and Frank's story – and it's The Last of Us' best episode yet.

Bill (Nick Offerman, in career-best form) is a survivalist who manages to evade the grasp of FEDRA on Outbreak Day in 2003. From there, he slowly turns the town of Lincoln into his own personal compound, replete with traps, motion sensors, and cameras.

Bill's fortress, and his gruff façade, is soon pierced by Frank (Murray Bartlett), an arrival from the destroyed Baltimore QZ. After a bonding session over a 1948 antique piano and a beautiful rendition of Linda Ronstadt's 'Long, Long Time', the two couple up and The Last of Us plays out the entirety of their relationship from start to finish across a gripping, sentimental 75 minutes.

The Two of Us

The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

The decision to show the whole of their time together through time skips – the tender beginnings, the conflicts, the tragic ending – gives it the air of a wistful daydream. It's aided, too, by the location: Lincoln itself feels like the sort of suburbia ripped out of Americana, the blue-sky paradise where doors are unlocked, and fresh cherry pies are left on windowsills.

In fact, the whole episode is awash with the kind of stillness from director Peter Hoar that elevates minor moments into significant ones. The brief interlude with strawberries – and Bill's childlike laughter at tasting one for the first time in years – feels just as important as their first kiss and speaks to the human connection that gives the episode its eventual crushing emotional impact.

So, when Joel and Tess pop in for a powwow over smuggling arrangements, it feels like old friends showing up at your doorstep – and it wisely tells us more about each character: Bill and Joel are more alike than they'd care to admit; Frank is overflowing with joie de vivre at the thought of community, and Tess is clearly the one who wears the trousers in her relationship with Joel. For one brief moment, they are a family. In a series filled with darkness, it's heartening that it still finds time to look for the light.

It's in the final act, though, where the episode moves from something special and towards all-timer territory.

Frank, now terminally ill with what appears to be cancer, plans out "one more good day." Offerman, who physically transforms over Bill's two decades from a guarded figure to a giant teddy bear of a presence, says all that needs to be said with his huge, sad eyes. It's the sort of acting tic – the complexity of loss, love, and acceptance in a single look – that separates the great performances from the merely good ones.

As Bill decides to take a concoction of pills that could "fell a horse" alongside his beloved, it feels as if we've lived their entire lives alongside them. Bill was always a man of multitudes and complexities – a man who could skin a rabbit, but also know which red wine to pair with it – but it's his final walk through the door, so different to the awkward man who stumbled into his first meal with Frank, that encapsulates the paradoxical cocktail of joy and sadness as the two spend their final night together. 

We see, clearly, that Bill is now a man comfortable in his own skin – and content with the years he's spent with Frank. The strawberries, the paintings, the memories all come flooding back in that final trip to bed. For once, an extended runtime works, stretching out each scene to create a touching tableaux of their time together.

Being Frank

The Last of Us

(Image credit: HBO)

Make no mistake, 'Long, Long Time' is a stunning self-contained episode, but a nagging question persists: what was it all for? Outside of Bill's farewell note telling Joel to "save one person" – and we'll see how that plays out as Joel begins to soften towards Ellie – it has no real bearing on the overarching story The Last of Us is trying to tell.

Its placement as the third episode arguably disrupts too much of the rhythm The Last of Us has been trying to establish. Some truly outstanding curveballs – think The Leftovers' 'International Assassin', Lost's 'The Constant', and The Sopranos' 'The Test Dream' – are similarly experimental works that, crucially, arrive far later in their runs, each drawing on the weight and presence of seasons' worth of character development. Here, we have a sweet, serene hour to fall back on – but nothing more beyond that.

Yet, despite the minor grumble, The Last of Us should be applauded for its gut-punch of a chapter. It undoubtedly fleshes out one of the game's most overlooked characters in Frank and, through Nick Offerman, Bill is afforded a warmth and humanity that was pushed aside in the source material by his bristly, cantankerous nature and juvenile jokes about 'sticky' porno mags.

For many, this will rightly rank high as an early contender for one of 2023's single best TV episodes. It deserves that sort of acclaim and it's to the show's credit that, though Bill and Frank's time in Joel’s gravity was brief, he – and us – will miss them all the same. 

The Last of Us streams Sundays on HBO and HBO Max and Mondays in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. For more from the HBO series, check out our guide to the major Last of Us episode 2 changes from the games and a terrifying look at the Cordyceps fungus. Discover when the next episode is dropping with our Last of Us release schedule

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Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.