Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers about the third episode of “The Last of Us,” which premiered January 29 on HBO.
If the hoopla surrounding “The Last of Us” has felt at all excessive through the first two episodes, the third chapter of the HBO series lives up to the weight of all the hype, laying early claim to what will almost inevitably be discussed as one of the best hours of television in 2023.
Folding a stand-alone story into the larger canvas of this dystopian, zombie-ravaged world, the show unearths a tale of love and tenderness amid the chaos and violence, while making inordinately good use of Linda Ronstadt’s haunting ballad “Long, Long Time” just to punctuate things.
Feeling almost like an episode of an anthology series – think “Tales of the Last of Us” – the centerpiece revolved around Bill (Nick Offerman), a surly doomsday prepper, who reluctantly takes in the weary traveler Frank (“The White Lotus’” Murray Bartlett, who somehow seems to be everywhere at once these days).
After sharing a meal, Frank plays Bill’s piano, kisses him, and winds up staying, well, for the rest of their lives. That culminates with Frank getting ill, choosing to take his own life after one last sumptuous dinner, and Bill deciding to join him in bidding this cruel world goodbye.
“I’m satisfied. And you were my purpose,” Bill tells Frank, who responds by saying, “I do not support this. … But from an objective point of view, it’s incredibly romantic.”
That it was, and the strains of Ronstadt’s voice should trigger renewed interest in her 1970 hit faster than you can say “Running Up That Hill,” the Kate Bush hit from 1985 that received an unexpected resurgence thanks to “Stranger Things.” (HBO, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
The real emotional wallop came at the end, when Joel (Pedro Pascal), who had known the couple, and his traveling companion Ellie (Bella Ramsey) find Bill’s suicide note, in which he speaks of “saving” Frank and how his love for him changed his morbid, cynical outlook.
“I used to hate the world, and I was happy when everyone died,” he writes. “But I was wrong.”
The final shot, through the window where they had laid down together, represented the perfect close to an almost-perfect hour of television.
Thanks to its association with the award-winning game, “The Last of Us” was burdened with the kind of expectations that almost inevitably lead to disappointment or once the media machinery kicks into overdrive, a backlash. Yet the show has met that challenge, and while the third episode is probably the best of the nine, it has company that at least comes close before the season’s over.
Joel and Ellie are on to face new dangers, and the story will continue with the no-brainer announcement that HBO has renewed it for a second season. Either on its own or in that broader context, a series-defining episode like this one is worth savoring for now, and maybe, for a long, long time.