The Last of Us — Five stars
There’s no shortage of contenders for the title of the greatest television episode of all time. The one touted most often is Breaking Bad’s ‘Ozymandias’, which featured several pivotal developments, including the death of Hank.
Game of Thrones fans cite several possibilities, including ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ and ‘The Winds of Winter’.
Others would plump for the True Detective season one episode ‘Who Goes There’, which features a brilliantly choreographed and directed six-minute raid scene shot in a single uninterrupted take.
There are many more contenders from other series (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men et al) but these things are always subjective, of course. Ask 10 different people to pick a “winner” and you’ll probably end up with 10 different answers.
But there’s no doubt that episode three of The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic, Monday) stakes as strong a claim to absolute greatness as anything that’s come before.
It’s a stunning triumph of acting, writing and directing that touches the emotions of the viewer deeply in a way nobody could really have expected from a dark, scary, post-apocalyptic drama series based on a dark, scary, post-apocalyptic game.
It opens straightforwardly enough with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) continuing their journey in the aftermath of the death of Tess (Anna Torv) last week.
They happen upon a ghastly spectacle: an open mass grave filled to the brim with skeletal remains. Joel tells Bella that these were uninfected people murdered by government troops years before, simply because there was nowhere to house them.
A close-up of a baby’s blanket flapping in the breeze leads us back to 2003, the year the pandemic erupted. The baby, wrapped in that blanket, and the mother cradling the infant in her arms, are among the hundreds being herded, unwittingly, to their own slaughter.
One person escapes the cull: a doomsday prepper called Bill (Nick Offerman). When the coast is clear, Bill emerges from the basement of his suburban home and proceeds, over the course of weeks, to turn the place into a fortified compound.
Any zombies stumbling through the nearby woods will encounter trip wires connected to guns hidden among the trees. Should they somehow manage to get past these, they’ll be fried to a crisp when they trigger the gas-powered flame-throwers Bill has rigged up to the high fence that surrounds his property.
One day, a dishevelled wanderer called Frank (Murray Bartlett), who hasn’t eaten in days, falls into a trapping pit Bill dug near the fence. Bill is wary of the stranger; having established that he’s not infected or armed, however, he agrees to bring him in and treats him to a beautifully cooked dinner, complete with a bottle or two of fine wine.
As Bill lets down his guard, you find yourself waiting for Frank to make a sudden, violent move and reveal his true self. Instead, writer Craig Mazin delivers something wholly unexpected: a tender love story, unfolding over 20 years, about two lost men who find joy in a world that’s all but disintegrated.
Their initial bonding happens over Linda Ronstadt’s song Long, Long Time, which proves to have a bigger significance than it seems to at first.
We move forward to 2013. Bill and Frank, now a solid couple, are having a few differences.
To Bill’s bewilderment, Frank thinks they should make some friends.
In fact, he says he’s been talking to “a nice woman on the radio”. This turns out to be Tess, who pays a visit, bringing Joel with her.
The way Bill and Frank’s standalone story intersects with the larger narrative is truly a dazzling feat of storytelling.
Having struck up a working relationship with the two men, and done some bartering, Tess and Joel depart, the latter warning Bill he needs to beef up his protection, because “the raiders will come”. And they do, but are repelled.
The last segment of the episode is set in 2023. Bill is feeling his age. Frank is terminally ill. The final 20 minutes represent some of the most profoundly moving TV drama I’ve seen in years.
This is an episode that will be remembered for a long time. If The Last of Us is this good after just three episodes, how much better might it get in the ones still to come?