The Last of Us, episode 3 review: Nick Offerman elevates zombie drama to Sopranos status
This review contains spoilers of episode three
It is very clear what HBO wants us to think about the third episode of its post-apocalyptic epic, The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic). That it is, at a stroke, one of the greatest episodes of TV drama in the modern era. That it breathtakingly undercuts every conceit of the “zombie” genre to create a piece of chamber theatre every bit as brilliant as anything The Sopranos or The Wire had to offer. That it will be remembered in “best of” list for decades to come. That it will dominate next year’s awards season.
Alas, thanks to an achingly spare script from Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin, two delicately crafted performances from Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, and a quite stunning deployment of a Linda Ronstadt song, it is all of the above.
Mazin, with fellow showrunner Neil Druckmann, has taken a fragment from the original video game and breathed life into it in the most extraordinary way. The episode is bookended by the trans-American odyssey of our heroes, Joel and Ellie (Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey), but the meat of it involves Offerman’s doomsday prepper, Bill, as he transforms his mother’s genteel suburban home outside of Boston into a fortress.
We spool back to 2003, as the fungal outbreak takes hold and ends civilisation as we know it. Heavily bearded, even more heavily paranoid and misanthropic, Bill is in his element, turning his picket-fence neighbourhood into a one-man apocalypse paradise, complete with hot water and a finely stocked wine cellar.
When Bartlett’s urbane but dishevelled Frank, a wanderer from Baltimore, turns up begging for food, Bill – and the viewer – has no idea of his intentions. And there, in a world of flesh-eating monsters, murderous gangs and fascistic authorities, unfolds a love story of suppressed yearning and unexpected tenderness. The scene in which Frank insists on playing Ronstadt’s Long Long Time on Bill’s mother’s vintage piano is at first suffused with a queasy, house-invader atmosphere. When Bill, aghast at Frank’s awful singing and playing, performs the song instead, it is a moment to break the heart of even the flintiest conspiracy theorist.
Bartlett is reliably charismatic, but it is Offerman who brings the true heart to the blood and guts saga, filling Bill with the air of a man who can’t believe his luck, yet can’t believe what he’s doing. The world ended and he fell in love. We’ll remember this one for a long, long time.