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The best TV episode of the year
The Last of Us raises the bar
Every once in a while a TV show takes a risk. Instead of continuing the storyline that’s been told so far, a sort of spinoff episode is included that does little to advance the main plotlines. Think “Beard After Hours” (S2E9) of Ted Lasso or “Fly” (S3E10) of Breaking Bad. In the case of “Beard After Hours", the episode was commissioned after Apple TV+ asked for the second season of Ted Lasso to be expanded from 10 to 12 episodes. As the first 10 episodes had already been written with a cohesive storyline, the writers decided to make two standalone episodes. “Fly”, on the other hand, is a “bottle episode”, or episode that includes only main characters and as little production cost as possible.
The third episode of the first season of The Last of Us, “Long, Long Time” is another example. It is a radical departure from the series and all zombie fiction (see my other post on zombie fiction here). It’s almost a stand-alone show-within-a-show, and it’s one of the best television episodes ever filmed.
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The episode tells the story of Bill, a Ron Swanson redux played by Nick Offerman, and Frank, played by Murray Bartlett. The two meet four years after the zombie apocalypse destroys civilization as we know it. Bill is a hardcore prepper and conspiracy theorist who has turned his small Massachusetts town into a fortified camp. Frank is an urbane romantic who stumbles into one of Bill’s traps. The unlikely pair fall in love, and the episode tells their story over the next twenty years.
The episode is a work of art. The music, the cinematography, and the juxtaposition of love and violence all meld together seamlessly. The set feels just like a small New England town. After a second viewing, the only weaknesses are that 1) there are no mountains “10 miles outside of Boston” as the opening scene claims and 2) Bill shows a startling lack of tactical ability when engaged in a firefight with a group of raiders. Otherwise, this hour-long film within a zombie show is nearly perfect.
Several themes are interwoven throughout the episode. For example, from the get-go Bill’s character has a deep appreciation of wine. This is unexpected from a guy with a full-blown arsenal in his basement. Yet the first scene we see of Bill’s house shows a stocked wine rack. Then, one of the first things Bill does after the zombies take over is liberate a case of Caymus from the local wine shop. Later, during their first dinner together, Frank remarks of Bill, “A man who knows to pair rabbit with a Beaujolais.” This line has Beaujolais trending and selling in real life. Other items around Bill’s house, such as flowers, play a symbolic role to viewers paying close enough attention.
The episode is a definite drama, but it also has some great comedic lines, including this scene that had me in stitches:
The same argument in the above video also has some great writing that exemplifies how to show by telling. Frank, the romantic, is pushing Bill to let him use some gasoline to mow the lawn. Bill is about to interrupt, but before he can Frank says, “If you say ‘resource management’ so help me I will run through one of your tripwires.”
So much information is delivered in this one line. First, it’s important to note this is the only time “resource management” is said. It isn’t something that’s been repeated in multiple arguments by Bill. Instead, the way Frank delivers the line lets the viewer know that this has been a reoccurring argument. Frank is constantly wanting to add beauty into their lives but Bill is always pushing back because of cost-benefit concerns. Rather than have a long conversation about how each of them feels, by throwing the viewer into the middle of an argument we get to understand so much of their relationship.
The episode is full of comments, glances, and Easter eggs. From the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag in Bill’s bunker to the flowers that appear around the house after Frank moves in, information is constantly being subtlety conveyed to the viewer. Nick Offerman’s facial expressions excel, especially when used in an understated way. In the only scene Bill and Frank share with Joel, the main character of the series, Joel is trying to convince Bill that they can gain from trading with one another. Bill is unconvinced, until Joel tries to trade some high-tensile wire, saying it will, “Last you the rest of your life… lives.” The last word makes Bill look up and consider, and you can tell he is realizing for the first time he needs to do what is best for them, not himself. It takes a very good actor to pull this off, and it’s done with just silent look.
It’s a great episode, and a great show. Give it a watch.