The Last of Us is, first and foremost, a love story. HBO’s adaptation of Naughty Dog’s video game classic is ultimately a tale of finding purpose through devotion, and eventually, dealing with the grief that comes with it. In Long Long Time, the series’ latest episode, this concept is bottled into a mostly self-contained narrative about Nick Offerman‘s gruff doomsday prepper Bill and his music-loving romantic partner Frank, played by The White Lotus‘ Murray Bartlett. It’s an incredibly beautiful, sentimental hour of television, perhaps one of the best in recent memory, that leaves a truly indelible mark on the franchise and everything it stands for.
For those that are not familiar with The Last of Us outside of the show, let it be known that Long Long Time is the first episode of the series to deviate immensely from the original source material. In the game, Joel and Ellie come upon “Bill’s Town” to find its titular resident living alone in a bitter state of self-preservation. Frank is mentioned, but never seen, as Bill’s former survival partner who moved elsewhere after a major falling out, and the game’s protagonists are forced to work with Bill alone to infiltrate a Clicker-infested high school on the other side of town for important truck parts. It’s only after this that the player discovers Frank’s decaying corpse, a note left behind revealing he was infected and consequently committed suicide, taking a lasting hatred for Bill with him to the very end.
This works well in the game as a means of communicating to the player what danger lies in refusing to make a human connection. Through interacting with a broken Bill, and seeing what has become of his life and the town he lives in, both the player and the game’s characters begin to value companionship just a little bit more. In the way a video game functions, there is no chance for the story to flesh out Bill and Frank’s relationship further. It has to be something the player, as well as Joel and Ellie, stumble upon in the midst of gameplay. With a series, however, the creatives are not confined by the restrictions of player-controlled storytelling. They have a unique opportunity to explore the full history between lovers Bill and Frank, and in taking it, they subvert every expectation the viewer has going into the episode.
Long Long Time is, at face value, a heartbreaking short story for The Last of Us newcomers to digest. Much will be said about its arresting nature, and rightfully so. Yet, it’s the way the episode fits into the larger narrative that’s truly striking, especially to someone who appreciates the grand scheme of character development. At first, Long Long Time seems to be a diversion from the main plotline, giving the audience a backstory for the next big name to join the show. Offerman had been advertised heavily as part of the series, and it’s intentionally made to seem like Frank will meet a tragic end to tie Bill’s arc in with the rest of the, admittedly, depressing project. However, once it becomes clear that Bill and Frank’s time together will instead end full of love and happiness before Joel or Ellie can even get to them, viewers are made to question what the idea behind the whole flashback was.
The purpose for the entirety of Long Long Time, aside from the obvious, hits home not long after, and it’s absolutely brilliant. Although not literally, the episode – like the whole series – is still about Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us uses Bill and Frank’s story as an hour-long allegory for the show’s protagonists, and it all comes together as soon as Ellie reads Bill’s suicide note to Joel. Time exists to put the show’s leading duo on track and somehow manage to develop their own unique relationship in leaps and bounds without having them on screen for most of the runtime. On top of this, Time expertly toys with longtime fans’ preconceived notion of Bill as a resentful loner to draw them into its trap, and uses the shock of its eventual subversion to hammer home it’s point tenfold.
Long Long Time does with its expansion of the Bill and Frank saga exactly what the game did with Joel and Ellie’s long trek through Bill’s Town and its high school, but it sends the message with far more grace and humanity. It reassures viewers that, even when HBO’s take on The Last of Us strays from what’s expected, it will get its characters where they need to be and maintain the spirit of the franchise while doing it. A masterful display of all the best storytelling techniques, and an exciting indicator of where the show can go next.