Why that Last of Us gay love story is the most heartbreaking TV of 2023

Nick Offerman in The Last of Us - HBO
Nick Offerman in The Last of Us - HBO

Warning: contains spoilers

“Why is everyone crying?” tweeted Neil Druckmann last night. “That was the happy episode!” The co-showrunner of HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us – an adaptation of Druckmann’s enormously popular video game – knew this was going to be the episode that grabbed people’s attention and emotions. Murray Bartlett, one of the stars of episode three, titled Long Long Time, describes walking on set, with “everyone on the verge of tears – and we hadn’t even shot anything yet”. Peter Hoar, the episode’s director, would regularly look over at showrunner Craig Mazin during filming, to see tears streaming down the writer’s face. “Everybody cared so much about this. We thought it was special. We thought, ‘Let’s not f— this up’.”

Set in 2023, 20 years after a fungal outbreak has effectively turned most of humanity into zombies, The Last of Us focuses mainly on Joel and Ellie, a taciturn smuggler and a precocious 14-year-old girl, whose journey across America holds the key to humanity’s survival. While the series cleaves to the video game’s much-loved storylines and character arcs when it comes to Joel and Ellie, it takes an exhilarating leap in episode three with two minor characters, Bill and Frank.

Bill, played in the episode by Nick Offerman (best known for sitcom Parks & Recreation), is a “prepper” – a conspiracy-theory obsessed loner who evades the authorities when the virus breaks out and turns his well-heeled neighbourhood just outside of Boston into a heavily-armed one-man fortress (albeit a heavily-armed one-man fortress with a superb wine cellar). We meet Bill in the video game, as he helps Joel and Ellie escape Boston.

We meet Frank, too, but only as a body dangling from a rafter. Bill expresses regret that his “partner” is gone. Later, in Bill’s car, Ellie finds a stash of all-male pornograpy. Many games would likely have thought little about it, but gay gamers, says Hoar, “would have spotted that and reacted to it and thought and thought and thought about it”.

Turning unlikely source material into soul-thumping drama is, of course, Mazin’s calling card, having won every award going for Chernobyl. As Hoar, the British director who worked with Russell T Davies on It’s a Sin and Nolly, says: “If someone had said to me, ‘You’re going to really enjoy a five-hour drama about one of the worst human experiences known to man – people will be melting in front of you and won’t be able to stop watching’, I’d have said no way, I’m not going to watch that. So Craig was perfect for this.”

Mazin has taken slavering zombies, bearded survivalists and a collection of mucky magazines, and crafted one of the most beautiful love stories in modern times.

Over 20 years, we see Bill and Frank meet - hesitatingly - then fall in love and, eventually, grow old together. Bartlett, a recent Emmy award-winner for his role in the first series of White Lotus, has described the episode as “one of the best scripts he’s ever read” (as has Druckmann and Hoar, and several other members of the crew). “It was just so tender and unexpected,” says Bartlett. “Every department on the shoot was treating this episode with such reverence.”

The episode hinges on a scene in which Frank insists on playing Bill’s mother’s vintage piano. Despite his better judgment, Bill has allowed Frank, a half-starved wanderer, into his sanctuary, and clothed and fed him (in one lovely moment, Frank notes that Bill knows to “pair rabbit with a Beaujolais”). When Frank sits down to play Linda Ronstadt’s Long Long Time on the piano, Bill and the audience aren’t sure whether or not he is being cuckooed by the outsider.

The disquieting atmosphere makes what comes next all the more astonishing, as Bill evicts Frank from the piano stool and plays the song himself. Offerman’s tender, fractured rendition – imitated from a voice-note sent to Hoar by Mazin – will likely propel Ronstadt into the streaming charts. For last year’s Stranger Things/Kate Bush revival, see The Last of Us and Linda Ronstadt.

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as Bill and Frank - HBO
Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as Bill and Frank - HBO

The song is vital, being the moment Bill opens himself to Frank, and Frank falls in love with Bill. But Mazin couldn’t think of a song that could do it all. “I thought, oh there must be a magical song that could deliver all the following emotions, feelings and thoughts,” says Mazin. “But I couldn’t find it. And Neil couldn’t find it.” Mazin instead sent a text message to his friend Seth Rudetsky, a noted Broadway musician. Rudetsky took five seconds to respond. “Long Long Time, Linda Ronstadt. It was the best gift ever,” says Mazin. “There’s a lesson there – talk to your friends.”

Offerman and Bartlett had a singing coach to guide them through the performances – tricky for Bartlett, as he had to be deliberately bad. “Nick was worried he wasn’t going to be good enough,” says Hoar, “but the episode isn’t about perfection, it’s about heart. And what Nick did was absolutely beautiful. Craig was a wreck.” The show’s cinematographer, Briton Eben Bolter, recalls seeing Offerman’s hands shaking in between takes. Expect to see the scene replayed at several of next year’s awards ceremonies.

Not so long ago, an episode such as Long Long Time would have been called a “bottle episode” – a one-off, low-budget episode, involving only two cast members and a single location, hastily filmed to fill a gap in the schedules. However, this the HBO/prestige TV version of a bottle episode, so while the episode chiefly has one two actors and one location, there was nothing hasty or low-budget about the shoot.

The production team were unable to find a location in Calgary, Canada that could double as a genteel Massachusetts suburb, so they simply built a neighbourhood in the forest (for a 20-day shoot). Aside from that, HBO left the team alone – “no notes, no calls from the studio,” says Hoar – where Bolter, Hoar and Mazin revelled in natural lighting and naturalistic performances.

“The budget and the set were big,” says Bolter, “but scene by scene, this felt like an independent film. The spirit was more like a Sundance movie – the crew were emotionally invested, no one was complaining about what was for lunch or that this was just another job – we had complete creative freedom.”

Bartlett puts a large part of the success of the episode down to the chemistry between him and Offerman: “I love Nick Offerman and, it turned out, he loved me.” While Bartlett admits that playing Frank felt similar to other roles he had taken on in the past, Bill was something of a departure for Offerman, whose stock-in-trade is rugged or humorous. “Nick was excited to play something very different,” says Bartlett, “but he’s so perfect for this. He’s a tough shell of a guy, but he’s also incredibly sensitive and like a small child, as a person and as an actor. I always look for the child in people and with Nick the child was staring right back.”