Spoilers for The Last of Us episode three ahead
Hitting many of the same narrative beats, recreating iconic shots, and expanding upon the original digital design with painstakingly hand-built sets, HBO’s The Last of Us had, through its first two episodes, deliberately and closely echoed the postapocalyptic game on which it’s based. From the beginning, the question of how the adaptation would eventually set itself apart was twofold, a matter of both when it’d shift directions and to exactly what degree. Enter Sunday’s third episode, “Long Long Time,” which is a decades-spanning and near-feature-length love story that “explodes expectations,” as one of its stars, Nick Offerman, puts it to Vanity Fair.
In the game, Bill is a minor character whose survivalist bent comes in handy when it comes to helping protagonists Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) on their perilous cross-country journey. He’s encountered briefly through Joel’s perspective, entering the enclosed mini safe town Bill has built for himself as he claims to contentedly live in isolation. “You come to realize that he’s actually lying,” says game creator Neil Druckmann, who developed the series with Emmy winner Craig Mazin. “There was something Bill cared about more than survival—there’s this other man named Frank.” Frank is not a speaking role in the game; the relationship between him and Bill is only subtly alluded to. But here Mazin saw his opportunity to put his stamp on the Last of Us show, to give viewers “a breath” after two intense and bloody opening episodes, and to buck expectations. We’ve been on the run with Joel and Ellie, and finally viewers get to sit down and stay awhile with Bill and Frank.
“I said, ‘Neil, I’ve got a crazy idea,’” Mazin recalls. “And he was like, ‘Do it. Let’s see how it goes.’ And off we went.”
In “Long Long Time” we meet Offerman’s Bill in 2003, the show’s earliest ongoing timeline so far, as the episode begins. His survivalist paranoias improbably come true as the world starts melting down. Singularly equipped to, yes, survive in the world that nobody but him saw coming, he constructs a bunker and an entire electrical ecosystem around it to live comfortably for as long as he wants. As this origin story goes, he finds a stranger lurking outside his property, starving and dirty and (so he claims) not infected—Frank, played by Murray Bartlett. After confirming, Bill reluctantly lets the man in for a shower, a meal, and a glass of wine. They realize they’re attracted to each other—the blossoming of a romance that the episode, directed by Peter Hoar, charts with gorgeous and heartbreaking specificity through the end of both their lives. Not exactly typical video game stuff.
“It was about showing both the passage of time and the creation of a functioning relationship that implied that two people could have success in this world,” Mazin says. “Regardless of the nature of their love, whether it’s romantic or platonic or parental, not everything has to end badly. And they really do have a happy ending as far as I’m concerned.”
Veterans of TV known for their more offbeat characterizations, Bartlett (The White Lotus) and Offerman (Parks and Recreation) pull off something magical in just a single episode, believably developing a relationship that initially feels new and exciting and strange, then turns worn and a little cranky and genuinely profound. The chemistry is natural and quiet, the depth of the performances intricately woven between them. Bartlett secured the part in an audition, and Mazin was able to cast Offerman—an acquaintance—after another actor couldn’t commit due to scheduling. In fact, Offerman himself first had to say no due to timing, only for the role to work out when it came back around.
“Craig told me that they took a good look at Murray and said, ‘Oh man, we’re going to need some counterpoint to this guy,’” Offerman says and then laughs. By this point, White Lotus had made Bartlett an Emmy-bound star. “Imagine seeing Indiana Jones and then your agent is like, ‘So they want you to be in a relationship with the guy with the hat and the whip,’” Offerman says. “How did I get here?”
The coup of “Long Long Time” comes down, in many ways, to just how quickly it establishes deep intimacy between the men. Bartlett and Offerman say that Mazin’s script laid much of the groundwork for allowing them to jump in, find that particular romantic texture, and then pop out for the main story to continue progressing. (The episode ends when Joel and Ellie, planning to hand Ellie off to the couple’s capable care, arrive at the house and find them dead.) “We were set up for success,” Bartlett says. “Some of these scenes are very vulnerable and very delicate. We were lucky enough to have someone [in Hoar] who would just tread very carefully in maneuvering us in the right directions to tell the version of the story that we wanted to tell.”
It’s all in the little details—flashes of a life partnership taking place years apart. After they meet, we see them make love. Mazin, who is not gay, says it’s “the first sex scene I’ve ever written in my career.” The creator leaned on queer collaborators on the episode like Bartlett, Hoar, and others to ensure it and similar moments felt authentic and specific to these characters: “I do believe when you’re writing outside of your familiarity, it’s important to do your homework and to also have people nearby who are being paid and working with you—not just your friends that you’re bothering—who can say, ‘Actually, this is better, this would be more true.’”
Offerman and Bartlett fell into a dynamic easily and in good humor. “Murray liked me, I’ll go that far,” Offerman says dryly over Zoom, with Bartlett smirking beside him. (“I liked you enough, dude,” Bartlett replies.) They approached the naked scenes, both literally and figuratively, “meticulously,” Bartlett says, zeroing in on upending tropes of “these two rugged guys in a postapocalyptic world.” They both chuckle recalling one key moment that marks a time jump of several years, with the two characters bickering like an old married couple—a signal that their love has lasted. “When we burst out of the house screaming at each other into the street, to me, it’s such a triumphant memory,” Offerman says. In one of the final sequences, Bill walks in from his garden while Frank, who now uses a wheelchair and is ill with some unnamed malady, is painting. They take each other in. “There’s no words,” Bartlett remembers of shooting the scene. “It’s a beautiful moment.”