news ‘The Last of Us’ Ep. 3 Review: ‘Long, Long Time’ Is a Masterful Love Story for the Ages

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 3, “Long, Long Time.”]

One of the best things a show can do is break the illusion that everything is a foregone conclusion. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to enjoy storytelling that makes each choice feel like just one of a wave of possibilities. Watching Episode 3 of “The Last of Us” for a second time, it’s hard not to be struck by that first meeting of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), when one single decision sets the events of the next 16 years in motion. After Frank falls in a makeshift trap Bill set up to snag would-be invaders, the gruff libertarian self-described “survivalist” decides to let in his first houseguest since at least the end of the world. That split-second choice turns out to be the thing that changes both of their lives.

In TV time, roughly 48 minutes goes by between Bill’s Outbreak Day preparation and him joining his newly-minted husband for a farewell sleep. What “Long, Long Time” is able to show in all those years in between moments in between is a pair of lives not necessarily built on milestones or the highest highs, but a series of decisions made to face life (and death) together. It’s an episode — written by co-creator Craig Mazin and directed by Peter Hoar, recently of “It’s a Sin” fame — that shows both survival and love as a process.

For the third straight week, “The Last of Us” establishes itself as great TV by virtue of restraint. Just as efficiently as Bill sets up his tripwires and generators, Mazin and Hoar paint a picture of a man accustomed to isolation and most likely content with it. It makes Bill and Frank’s first rabbit and Beaujolais dinner such an effective first date of sorts, primarily because it’s Offerman playing the realization that by letting Frank inside the fence, he’s effectively already let him into his life.

Bill’s perimeter succeeds because it’s perfectly kept. His and Frank’s partnership survives because it’s not. That messiness is there right from their first song, with the two of them each trying their hand at “Long, Long Time” itself. Frank takes a more frenzied, almost lounge-act approach, fumbling his way across the keys. Whatever the song awakens in Bill, he insists on playing it closer to the original Linda Ronstadt version. It’s slower, less forceful. The heart is there. In that moment, the two men are allowed to meet in the middle. Frank lets himself embrace a life with the amenities a collapsing Baltimore QZ could never dream of offering. In turn, Bill allows himself to be close to someone.

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in The Last of Us

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in “The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

The song is a microcosm of what works in both Bill and Frank’s story and the show overall. The strings and harpsichord are really on that specific early-‘70s razor’s edge between treacle and genuine yearning. It ends up hitting that same sweet spot as every part of the couple’s Last Day, a sequence that never tips over into a saccharine display even though it would be so easy for it to do so. And you don’t get decades of a sturdy, lasting partnership without a subtle dose of humor and some sadness too. Gary White’s lyric “That’s what someone told me but I don’t know what it means” does as much to slip something self-effacing and self-aware into something somber, the same way Bill’s comment about Joel in his goodbye letter does the same.

Frank’s explanation that paying attention is how we show love fits right in with the overall approach of Lincoln. The first time we see the whole town empty, production designer John Paino and the series’ design team make it feel like a New England backlot, a template for a carefully controlled show with only Bill’s hand on the lever. By the time Bill and Frank are having an argument outside the house some day in 2010, the signs are showing that an entire town block might be too much for two people to maintain, appearances-wise. It’s an intimate story, set against a bigger backdrop than you might expect, presented with the care that makes the passing of those years feel earned even in such a compressed timeframe. The general state of Lincoln runs parallel to their own fragility. It’s present in the rust and the flaking paint, but also in the tiny glimpses of the giant stack of sedans doubling as extra fence security, things that demonstrate an incredible amount of work to put up but after they’re done become matter-of-fact parts of the framework of their lives.

That care also extends to Offerman and Bartlett’s performances. Bill doesn’t shed all his layers post-Frank — even at the end, he still has the faint aura of a man with a Gadsden flag tacked up in his bunker. He’s also a man who could be brought to tears and giggles at the mere taste of a strawberry or tenderly dispense a set of pills with cute nicknames. Credit Offerman for being able to show Bill’s gentler side just as easily as he steps into the shoes of a no-nonsense grump who drops instant classics like “This is not an Arby’s” and “THE GOVERNMENT ARE ALL NAZIS!”

Meanwhile, Bartlett’s superpower is his eagerness, something that shines through in the best of his work on “Looking,” got molded to fit a more barbed purpose on “The White Lotus,” and ends up being the redeeming part of “Welcome to Chippendales.” Here, Frank’s Brawny Man exterior gets paired with an enthusiasm that’s present whether there are one or three people sharing dinner. Bartlett’s delivery of Frank’s itinerary for his Last Day is steady and knowing and allows for the knowledge that a chance meeting led to a good life with a good man. What both actors, Mazin, and Hoar are able to inject into that last day, without making it explicit, is the kind of work that fills in all the 16 years’ worth of emotional gaps that we don’t get to see.

Murray Bartlett in The Last of Us

Murray Bartlett in “The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

“Long, Long Time” isn’t a story built solely on emotions and aesthetics, either. Bill and Frank’s relationship is one of space and movement. Part of it is the physicality of Offerman and Bartlett playing older men who move through the world slower, commenting on how much their bodies have changed. Hoar is also shrewd about how to place them in key positions from beginning to end, starting with that first date that starts off with their table at a distance and gets progressively closer as the two men themselves do. On the pair’s final morning, we’re as far away from Frank’s wheelchair as their bedroom allows, making Frank’s journey from the bed to his chair really feel like a farewell act. Bill bringing out one last bottle of the Beaujolais is the thoughtful, teary touch that ties up their story in a nice full-circle moment. It’s also highlighted by the fact that, whether by necessity or affection, the two men are so much closer now than they were on opposite sides of the table that first midday meal.

You can almost imagine Bill talking about having someone to love in the same tones that Ellie talks about getting the chance to fly in a plane: something other people got to do but would be impossible now. “Long, Long Time” consciously includes Joel and Ellie as the bookends of this story, showing that Bill and Frank had more to offer than a fridge full of battery parts and some spare flannels. Bill and Frank and Joel and Ellie have very different relationships, but Bill’s goodbye letter does underline the greater purpose that the episode serves, apart from showing a glimmer of hope and peace and companionship in a lonely world.

It outlines a question that all apocalyptic stories raise: If everything is collapsing, what do you choose to reach for? Bill’s answer is find people worth protecting. It’s a hard message to hear for Joel, a man who we’ve just seen lose the most important person in his life in back-to-back weeks. His method of preservation is to avoid having to link his heart and his fortunes to people who could be gone at a moment’s notice. He doesn’t have the safety of high-tensile fencing.

Yet, in a completely different context, Joel deciding to shepherd Ellie out west is another one of those timeline-altering choices. Whether the two of them like it or not, their fates are now interwoven too. They’re unlikely travel buddies who vow to never share any of their pasts with each other, but now have a car and a map and a destination. And if they’re gonna be stuck with a single cassette from the Chevy’s glove box, Linda’s a pretty great companion to have over the speakers.

Grade: A​

“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.