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‘The Last of Us’ episode 3 is a perfect bottle episode of television

Why 'The Last of Us' episode 3 is a front-runner for best TV episode of 2023

If you’re a longtime television fanatic like I am (and who isn’t?), you’re probably familiar with the term “bottle episode.” These self-contained hours of a series usually attempt to tell a very specific part of the show’s story, usually semi-detached from the main plot of the season. Think “Fly” from “Breaking Bad” or “Pine Barrens” from “The Sopranos.” Bottle episodes are sometimes limited in their setting, and they have a small cast of characters. In the past, a bottle episode’s purpose would be mostly financial: showrunners would have to scale their story down a significant margin for the week so as to not run over the network’s requested budget. In the streaming era, especially on a powerhouse platform like HBO Max, a bottle episode is more of a creative endeavor, an opportunity to step away and smell the flowers (or, in this case, the strawberries).

Bill and Frank share a peaceful moment in solitude

In this week’s episode of The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic world we’ve gotten acclimated to through the eyes of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) changes perspective.  The hellscape of Boston in the aftermath of the cordyceps infection has created a lot of other survivors with stories to tell besides just our two protagonists. One such survivor is Bill (Nick Offerman), an ultra-prepared recluse with nothing to lose. He doesn’t have a purpose in this new world like Joel and Ellie do, at least not until it falls right into one of the booby traps he has outside of his compound. Four years after the beginning of the end of the world, Bill finds a man named Frank (Murray Bartlett) outside, begging for a reprieve from the morbid conditions of the apocalypse. Bill reluctantly lets Frank into the house for a quick dinner and a shower, and he expects the stranger to be on his way immediately after.

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Frank can sense that Bill is missing one key piece to the survivalist puzzle, though: love. The two men find solace and intimacy in each other’s arms, and for the next 40 minutes or so, the audience gets to be a bug on the wall throughout the remaining 16 years of their lives. They endure intruders attempting to break down and take what they have. They meet Joel and Tess (Anna Torv) in 2010, and thanks to Frank’s poking and probing of Bill to allow visitors to their neighborhood, the four create a sort of alliance, maybe even a friendship. But Joel is a minuscule section of Bill and Frank’s lives in the scheme of this love story. These men find out that sometimes dire situations bring about the best times in life. Even with the infected roaming around the outskirts of their existence, Bill and Frank discover a romantic bond they never had before. They receive a purpose and reason to wake up and fight another day. It’s absolutely some of the best LGBTQ+ storytelling in years.

Tragically, the timeline fast-forwards to 2023, and Frank has been relegated to a wheelchair, perhaps with ALS. It’s ironic when non-apocalyptic disease is what forces a character to meet their maker rather than the supernatural or the science-fiction of it all. Frank has asked Bill to assist in a suicide that night, to which Bill decides to join him. Their lives truly began together, and they end together. It’s one of the most poignant and well-paced stories put on TV in a very long time, and a reminder of how revelatory this show has been in the first three weeks.

Joel and Ellie arrive at Bill and Frank’s seeking supplies and aid on their way to meet Joel’s brother in Wyoming, and viewers might immediately realize the strong parallels between the two sets of characters. As long as you have someone by your side, it can make you feel like the world is just beginning rather than ending. With six episodes left of this first season, it’s hard to think of another show that has so perfectly executed its plan from the onset of the season than “The Last of Us.” “Long, Long Time” is a self-contained episode that was absolutely necessary to continue to build this special world we’re now a part of, and it’s also aptly named. It’s an episode I’ll be thinking about long after the credits rolled.

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