[Editor’s Note: By the very nature of a “recap”, there will most certainly be spoilers in these weekly pieces, we didn’t think to mention that with the premiere, but we will keep a “SPOILER WARNING” label at the top of these weekly recaps for the rest of the season. Thank you and sorry if we spoiled anything for you!]
The first two episodes of HBO’s The Last of Us have really been a textbook example on adapting a video game into another medium while keeping the emotional core of what drives the narrative, cast actors embodying their video game counterparts while also bringing a new tilt on what they are all about. It’s been smooth sailing. Knowing ahead of time that Episode 3 was seemingly going to focus on the complex character of Joel’s contraband suppliers, Bill and Frank, and that this was going to wildly change to what people were familiar with in the game, I was slightly skeptical. It really is a humbling feeling to be completely wrong. Episode 3 is the BEST so far in what is turning out to be HBO’s crown jewel show and is perhaps one of the most emotional and gut-wrenching episodes I have watched in years.
We get a quick catchup with where Joel and Ellie are post-City Hall explosion/the death of Tess as they end up venturing to a rest stop to pick up some supplies Joel left hidden a long time ago. Ellie come across an infected that is fused with some rubble below the store. Her demeanor, cutting the creatures forehead as if she were torturing it right before she stabs it in the face, calls back to her facial reaction to Joel pummeling that FEDRA solider at the end of Ep. 1. You can see the feral side of nature taking over and it’s a tease of what’s to come for this character later into S1 (and Season 2 if we want jump ahead here – TLOU was renewed after Ep. 2 grew viewership over Ep. 1, a great sign). As Joel and Ellie leave the store and come upon a mass gravesite of bones and personal belongings, we essentially shift into what this episode is all about, the tale of Bill and Frank.
Cut to 2003, where we meet Bill (Nick Offerman) waiting out the evacuation of his town of Lincoln, Mass. After FEDRA cleans out the place, he emerges from his bunker of weapons and survival gear and begins to prep Lincoln as his own large base of operations. After four years of living the solitary life, someone falls into one of his traps outside town. Meet Frank (Murray Bartlett), who Bill is overly cautious with initially but after learning he is not infected and his entire party is dead (they were making their way to the Boston QZ), he decides to offer him lunch. After a very fancy meal, Frank moves toward the piano. Frank attempts to play a Linda Ronstadt song but offends Bill with his singing. Bill takes over and has the play style and voice of an angelic creature. Both men are feeling it, and they decide to not hold back, and embrace in a loving kiss. As they make their way to the bedroom, lay down and begin to hold each other, Frank makes it clear he is not just doing this as repayment for a free meal, but that there is more to this. Frank intends to stay, and Bill has no issues with this. Everything from the dinner forward in this scene is pure magic, with Offerman and Bartlett exuding such love and sympathy for each other as Bill and Frank, you would swear these two have been together for years. Anyone who knows Offerman as just Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation are about to get their minds blown.
We move to 2010, and we see Bill and Frank bickering like an old married couple. Frank wants to clean the town up and invite over “friends” he met over the CB radio while Bill just wants to keep the status quo. Frank ends up winning and we learn those friends are none other than Tess and Joel. After a civil but uneasy lunch outside, all four ultimately agree that they can benefit each other in partnership. I really enjoyed the brief return of Anna Torv as Tess, and the few lines and interactions she has with Frank just feels like they have been lifelong friends, while Bill and Joel have an opposite feeling of two untrusting people forced to work together to make their significant other happy. It’s some great character stuff and I loved it.
We time jump once again to 2013. We get another great and loving interaction between Offerman and Bartlett as Frank surprises Bill with a strawberry patch he has been growing with seeds he traded for with Tess – using one of Bill’s guns as the barter piece. Later that evening, the idyllic lives of these two loving men witnesses a harsh reality. A group of raiders attempt to get into the town to scavenge for materials. Unfortunately for them, Bill is quite the trap expert and most of them are burned into oblivion or shot by Bill and his sniper rifle, but not before he catches a shot to the gut. Franks drags Bill inside as the traps take care of the rest of the raiders, and Frank attends to his wound. As the scene fades to black, I was mouth agape as I was getting the impression Bill DIED during this scene, but I was incorrect and had much more pain and suffering to endure.
Our final time jump brings us to 2023. Frank is now stricken to a wheelchair with an unnamed illness (it’s possibly hinted at that the sickness is HIV/AIDS, but it is never spelled out). Bill is now his caretaker, helping him take his daily pills, go the bathroom/take a shower, get into bed every night, etc. One morning, Frank decides he has had enough and wants to die – he wants Bill to crush a bunch of pills into his wine at dinner – but wants his final day to go how he wants. He wants to shop at the boutique store he fixed up, picking out clothes for them to wear, and even get officially married. As they finish dinner, Bill crushes the pills into the wine glass for Frank to drink. After Frank drinks, Bill quickly downs all of the wine in his own glass, leading Frank to the conclusion that the wine in the bottle has been altered as well as the wine in his own glass, sentencing Bill himself to die this very evening as well. Frank sees this as an extremely romantic gesture, and they both retire to bed. I can’t even begin to explain how many times I had to hold back tears during this entire 2023 sequence. Offerman and Bartlett were amazing before this even reached 2023, and then they pulled at my heartstrings in all the right ways as these two men who have loved each other for over 16 years decide that their wonderful and amazing relationship will end on their terms. I had better see Emmy nominations for both Offerman and Bartlett in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series category or there will be fucking HELL to pay.
We finally return to Joel and Ellie as they show up at Lincoln. They are too late to ask for help, as we already know, and Bill leaves a beautiful letter left for Joel, one in which he leaves everything to Joel and only asks him to use what he has bestowed on him to protect the ones he loves. The fact that this letter mentions Tess as the one he loves – of course Bill is unaware of her death – is a strong reminder to Joel of his failures to keep the people he loves alive, whether it be his partner Tess or his daughter Sarah. After taking a minute to absorb the emotion of the moment, Pedro Pascal’s Joel recreates the iconic dialogue moment of establishing the three rules that Ellie must follow on their journey:
- Never mention Tess and keep their past to themselves
- Don’t show anyone her bite otherwise they will kill you no hesitation
- Do what he says when he says it.
Joel, feeling a sense of need to finally come through for someone in his life, decides to drive to Wyoming where Tommy is holed up and see if he is alive/doing well and if he can bring Ellie to the Fireflies, since Tommy ran with them in days past.
As Joel and Ellie prepare with supplies and items needed and depart from Wyoming in a blue and white pickup truck (the same one from the game), Ellie slaps on a cassette tape of Linda Ronstadt she found in the glove department. As they drive off, the camera pans slowly back into a window left open in Bill’s house. It’s a beautiful image to end on and is a great callback to the main menu shot that is in the TLOU game when you boot it up.
Long, Long Time is simply an amazing episode of TV, regardless of decade or genre. It’s a masterclass in telling a story of love in a time of utter turmoil and death, to find some glimmer of light and hope in the perpetual darkness that pervades the world. Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett are lovable and heartbreaking as Bill and Frank. The ballsy move to have Bill killed off before Joel/Ellie even arrive – they interact for a decent part of the early parts of the TLOU game – could definitely have not worked in the slightest, but they replaced it with a fleshed out backstory of the unrequited love of Bill and Frank (Frank is merely a hanging corpse in the game, and is coldly brushed aside by Bill as he felt hurt that he would try to run off to the Boston QZ). We have plenty of episodes left for Joel and Ellie to shine and for Pascal and Ramsey to bring their best foot forward in their character development, but Long, Long Time is Offerman and Bartlett’s time to shine, and they burn a hole in the atmosphere.