The extraordinary TV episode everyone is obsessing over

Australian actorMurray Bartlett already won people’s hearts in the first season ofThe White Lotus.Now he’s breaking them.

The Emmy Award winner – who was little known before getting his big break as harried White Lotus manager Armond – is being showered with praise for his performance in the latest episode of HBO’s new prestige drama The Last of Us.

Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman star in the critically acclaimed third episode of The Last of Us.

Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman star in the critically acclaimed third episode of The Last of Us.HBO/Binge

The third episode of the apocalyptic video game-turned-TV series has blindsided viewers,turning swiftly from an action-packed zombie adventure tale to a tender and arresting queer love story.

The New York Times critic Noel Murray has described it as “the opening montage from the movieUp ... extended to about 45 minutes and then dropped into the middle of World War Z” andThe Guardian’s Andy Welch declared it “the single best episode of TV that will be broadcast all year”.

That’s an extraordinary claim considering the episode was broadcast in January,but fans tend to agree. TikTok is stacked withvideos of people sobbing after finishing the episode and others on social media have called it “the most touching and heartbreaking hour of television in the world”.

Variety reports the episode is the most popular of the series so far,pulling in 6.4 million overnight viewers across HBO and HBO Max – a figure that only includes US viewers,and will no doubt grow with more people catching up on streaming after hearing the hype.

The Last of Us is set in present-day Boston two decades after a mutant fungus has zombified most of the population and decimated civilisation. While the story is centred on a grizzled smuggler played by Pedro Pascal and his teenage travel companion (Bella Ramsey),this standalone episode tells the story of previously unintroduced couple Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Bartlett):a doomsday prepper and a sweet survivor who find love and build a life together in a world that’s fallen apart.

Bill has a very small role in the original 2013 video game and only briefly mentions his male partner. It’s a detail whichdidn’t go unnoticed by LGBTQ gamers,who are not always given prominence in an industry that’s often crafted for straight men.

Nick Offerman plays a doomsday prepper in The Last of Us (with more than a subtle hint of Ron Swanson).

Nick Offerman plays a doomsday prepper in The Last of Us (with more than a subtle hint of Ron Swanson).HBO/Binge

But 10 years later,this episode, Long Long Time –named after aLinda Ronstadt song relevant to Bill and Frank’s relationship,written by the series creator Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and directed by Peter Hoar (It’s a Sin) – is being celebrated as a landmark moment for queer storytelling on screen.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) trek across post-pandemic America and are forced to endure a multitude of dangers and hardships.

Unlike so many queer stories,the trauma depicted in their relationship – it’s still a show about the zombie apocalypse,of course there is trauma – has nothing to do with them being gay. And their story,which spans many years,is told with loving detail and great joy.

Many comparisons have been made between Long Long Time andSan Junipero – the Emmy Award-winning 2016 episode ofBlack Mirrorthat similarly departed from its series’ grim dystopian premise to celebrate queer love.

Proving we just can’t get enough of COVID-era existential angst,the episode has also brought the series closer to the tone and spirit of another recent pandemic-focused drama,Station Eleven:a show that was critically acclaimed for its timely interrogation of what is truly valuable at the end of the world.

And speaking toComplexthis week,Bartlett’s co-star Nick Offerman has echoed those themes,explaining why Bill and Frank’s narrative is so powerful in the context of a horror/action story.

“With people trudging towards survival ... it’s a wonderful lensing of why,” he said. “Why should we do anything? Why do we humans strive for anything? This episode beautifully answers that question. And their answer is gourmet cooking.”

The Last of Us drops new episodes every Monday on Foxtel and Binge.

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Meg Watson is a culture reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

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