The Last of Us Episode 3 review: One of the best TV episodes of all time

A still of Bill in The Last of Us Episode 3HBO / Naughty Dog

The Last of Us Episode 3 is essentially the Up montage in slow motion against the backdrop of an apocalypse; proof that love will be the last ember alight at the end of the world.

“Everyone I have cared for has either died or left me. Everyone – f*cking except for you.”

If life as we know it ever collapses and falls into fungal disrepair, how will we define salvation: sanctuary in a physical space, peace of mind in a sea of panic, or a sense of purpose when there’s no order?

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The Last of Us Episode 3, an all-time achievement in TV storytelling, is the answer: whether it’s fate, happenstance, or luck, love can be found in anyone, anywhere, if you open your heart to the notion. It muffles the chaos, numbs the pain we’ve manufactured and maintained, and, “from an objective point of view, it’s incredibly romantic.”

Spoilers for The Last of Us Episode 3 to follow…

The Last of Us Episode 3: Joel and Ellie hit the road

There’s no harrowing cold open this time; the horrors of Cordyceps are well-established already, from life-endangering paranoia to the click-click-clicking of the infected.

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We pick things up with Joel and Ellie on a hike to the home of Bill of Frank; Joel soothes his battered, bloodied hands in the cold water of the creek, while Ellie tries to warm up under his jacket. Through gritted teeth, maybe, but his instinct to care for her already has whiffs of being paternal.

Last time, Tess was forced to sacrifice herself after being bitten. Joel’s grief has clearly manifested in anger towards Ellie, and she’s not having it. “You made a choice… don’t blame me for something that isn’t my fault,” she tells him, which earns a pensive nod in return.

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They set off and head for an old store where Joel stashed some things a few years back. While he “hones in on it”, Ellie has a look around. She finds a Mortal Kombat II machine (a lovely Left Behind Easter Egg), and in the basement, an infected man whose fungus has merged him with rubble, doomed to spend an interminable existence groaning into the void. Ellie is curious at first, but she affords him the mercy of death in the end.

The duo’s dynamic is often amusing. Ramsey’s Ellie is sparky and inquisitive, still managing to find novelty in the remnants of a society she never experience, while Pascal’s Joel is so perfectly calibrated he feels like a real person. It’s the simple things, like stumbling on the crash site of a passenger plane and Ellie being immediately jealous of Joel. “Dude, you got to go up in the sky,” she says, to which he replies: “Well… so did they.”

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Liane Hentscher/HBO

We get a brief rundown of how the virus spread in the first place, which is exactly like the game: Cordyceps mutated and got into the food supply, infecting flour, sugar, and other global brands. The tainted food hit store shelves, and within a single day, “everything was gone.”

Joel suddenly realizes he has two choices: the short way or the long way, and for Ellie’s sake, he wants to go the latter. Like any kid, Ellie reacts accordingly: she needs to know about the former. What she finds isn’t a reward for her curiosity: it’s a grave of people burned to a crisp. They weren’t even infected. Searching for a reason, “Dead people can’t be infected,” Joel tells her.

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The Last of Us Episode 3: Bill meets Frank

A charred rainbow blanket flashes the show back to 2003 in the immediate wake of the outbreak. While Lincoln is evacuated, its citizens carted off to face a fiery demise, Bill (Nick Offerman) hides in a bunker underneath his basement, kitted out with CCTV monitoring, guns, ammo, magazines, magazines, and more.

He emerges from his survivalist den to find nothing, nobody – Bill, him, and himself. He sports a smile and begins his plan, raiding every store and gas plant in the area to secure a long-lasting, quiet life for himself, including head-splattering booby traps around his house. In a show where the laughs have been curt, this is a gleeful montage; I could have watched him build his little slice of the American dream for another 15 minutes.

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Four years later, in 2007, a mysterious man stumbles into a pit near his fence. His name is Frank, and he just wants to get to the Boston quarantine zone and have a hot meal. Frank promises not to tell any “bums, hobos, or vagabonds”, and Bill obliges. His happiness is reframed; for the first time in years, he’s useful – even necessary – to someone besides himself.

A still from The Last of Us Episode 3Liane Hentscher/HBO

He cooks him lunch – rabbit, fresh tomatoes, and more – that’s just as mouth-watering as Studio Ghibli’s food porn; the glistening of the moist tomatoes, the tenderness of the meat. “Everything tastes good when you’re starving,” Bill mumbles, but Frank firmly states: “Not like this.”

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There’s a warm, understated chemistry to them at first, which reaches a crescendo when Bill plays music from Linda Ronstadt. “Who’s the girl you’re singing about?” Frank asks. “There is no girl,” Bill replies. “I know,” Frank says, and the two kiss in a euphoric embrace. Even when the world’s gone to sh*t, people are drawn together.

They go to bed together, and Frank learns Bill hasn’t slept with a man before. “I’m gonna start with the simple things,” Frank says, “I’m not a whore, I don’t have sex for lunches… so I’m gonna stay a few more days.” It’s a tender scene, neither under nor overplayed – it runs the full gamut of erotic emotion.

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The Last of Us Episode 3: Bill and Frank meet Joel and Tess

We skip forward a further three years to 2010, and Bill and Frank are in the midst of an argument. The long and short of it is this: Frank wants to tend to the surrounding homes, but Bill thinks it’s a waste of “resource management.” Frank thinks they’ll make friends and have them over, Bill says “there’s no friends out there.”

But Bill didn’t know Frank has been talking to a “nice woman” on the radio – and so they meet Joel and Tess in their early days of smuggling. Tess and Frank are light and affable, Joel and Bill are edgy and slightly irritable. Frank dubs Bill a “paranoid schizophrenic”, and he quips: “I’m not a schizophrenic.”

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An image from The Last of Us Episode 3Liane Hentscher/HBO

Joel offers Frank his help, noting how his fence is a few years from falling apart. “There’ll be raiders,” he warns. “We’ll be fine,” Bill replies. Little do we know, it was clearly the beginning of a frosty friendship.

We skip to 2013, and Bill and Frank are growing up. “I’m sorry for getting older than you… I was never afraid before you showed up,” Bill tells Frank. Offerman’s performance is so delicate, always seeming to balance full-on affection with slight hesitation.

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That night, after feasting on strawberries, raiders make their fateful arrival in Lincoln. Of course, they’re mostly caught by Bill’s assortment of booby traps, with flamethrowers coating them along the electric fence. Bill tries to pick them off, but takes a bullet to the gut. Frank brings him inside, and Bill tells him: “Call Joel… you can’t be here alone. He’ll take care of you.”

The Last of Us Episode 3: Frank’s last day

Ten years later, Frank is wheelchair-bound and frail, spending his days painting while Bill tends to their quiet life around him. He’s slow, in constant pain, and ready to go. One morning, Bill wakes up to find him in his chair. “I promise I’m gonna stay up, because this is my last day,” he says.

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“There wasn’t anything to cure this before the world fell apart… give me one more day,” he says. “Do you love me?” he asks Bill. “Then love me the way I want you to.”

These words begin the most heart-wrenching sequence of TV you’ll see this year, scored by Max Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight. Their last hours are perfect: they walk around the town, they get married, and Bill cooks them one final meal. Using the music from Arrival is a bit of a hail mary, but when it connects, it’s a knockout. As soon as the deep tones of Richter’s strings play, I was holding back the tears.

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Murray Bartlett as Frank in The Last of UsHBO

Then comes the real blow: Frank asks Bill to crush the remainder of his pills into a glass of wine, but unbeknownst to him, it’s an act of euthanasia for both of them. “This isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play,” he tells him.

“I’m old, and I’m satisfied, and, and you were my purpose,” he says. “I do not support this… I should be furious. But from an objective point of view, it’s incredibly romantic,” Frank says.

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Bill wheels Frank to their bedroom, and their final moments together are kept offscreen. We’re spared the horror of their deaths; the grotesque reality of their dying cuddle would be too much to bear. Instead, we get to live remembering the love that blossomed, and the peace they found in one another.

The Last of Us Episode 3: Joel and Ellie arrive

When Joel and Ellie arrive, an air of disquiet surrounds Bill and Frank’s encampment. Joel knows something is off, and soon enough, Ellie finds a note addressed “to whomever, but probably Joel.”

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In his final letter, Bill somewhat acknowledges Joel as a friend. “I never liked you, but I guess we were friends,” he wrote, also telling him to “protect Tess”, as there’s always “one person worth saving.”

Frank left everything to Joel, including a working truck. Ellie sneaks a gun into her bag, and they set off once more, with Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Long Long Time’ – the same track Bill serenaded Frank with – playing softly on the radio. The episode ends with the truck riding off into the distance, as the camera pans back through Bill’s open window; their death, no matter how tragic, built the foundation for a new bond.

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The Last of Us Episode 3 review score: 5/5

The Last of Us Episode 3 belongs in the same untouchable echelon as Ozymandias and Pine Barrens; it’s one of the greatest episodes ever committed to television, and pop culture history will honor it as such.

The Last of Us Episode 4 will be available to watch on February 5 in the US and February 6 in the UK. You can check out the rest of our coverage here.