Waking up on Monday, it was immediately clear that The Last of Us had aired a future classic. The acclaim was relentless, with many sharing their appreciation of the HBO video game adaptation’s latest instalment next to the water cooler, via social media, and, in this writer’s case, on the tube. Fans yet to view the episode were urged to “prepare” themselves – and for good reason: “Long, Long Time” was marvellous and moving as hell. It was beautifully written and impeccably acted. It was worthy of all the hype; I just wish I hadn’t been privy to the adulation beforehand.
*Spoiler alert – you have been warned*
It’s odd for a new TV show to depart from its format as early as episode three, but that’s exactly what The Last of Us did. Viewers who tuned in when the episode went out live, whether in the US on Sunday night or in the UK first thing on Monday morning, were left blindsided by the story at its heart: a two-decade love story between two men who fall in love after the cordyceps outbreak destroys civilisation.
This gear change would have come as a surprise to those expecting the action to remain with lead characters Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsay). Instead, it flicks the pages back to flesh out an earlier chapter of a romance between a pair of lonely souls – Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) – from their first strained encounter to their deaths. Those unable to watch the episode immediately, though, would have had that detail spoiled, and would have sat down knowing that what they were about to watch would be different than what they might have otherwise expected: in any other post-apocalyptic show, Bill’s abrasiveness may have got the better of him, and may have even led to Frank’s untimely murder before their love could develop.
Viewers would also have realised, too soon, that the 75-minute-long instalment, directed by Peter Hoar, has been branded one of the best in TV history.
But all of this could have impaired some people’s ability to find it quite so brilliant, which is not a slight on its quality. “Long, Long Time”, titled so due to the Linda Ronstadt song of the sane name featured in the episode (no doubt getting Spotify streamed to high heaven), was another masterclass from screenwriter and co-creator Craig Mazin.He has once again proved critics are wrong to disregard someone over their past credits – before becoming one of TV’s most acclaimed showrunners with hits like Chernobyl, he wrote two Scary Movie films and the Hangover trilogy.
That said, there’s no getting around the fact that viewing an episode of TV, in the knowledge that what you’re about to be watch has been so acclaimed, can take the shine off the thing. It’s the nature of the beast in the social media era, when discussion is hard to avoid from the second a new film or TV episode out there. It’s wonderful to see the work being heralded, but is a few days of discretion really too much to ask?
The most surprising thing about the episode, for non-players of the video game, anyway, wasn’t its events, but its placement in the series. It’s a bold decision to depart from the main plot so early on when you’re trying to maintain interest from viewers who might still be deciding whether to watch on. It definitely paid off. But organically discovering that reveal for yourself is a key part of the experience. As a wise man (Alex Turner) once sang: “Anticipation has the habit to set you up for disappointment.” He has a point.
When Lost began, I was 13 and barely used the internet. Watching each episode was like delving into the unknown – some might not have been as good as others, but, when those big moments came, it was their unexpectedness that helped make the series my favourite ever. This week in particular, I’m yearning for a time when this was the norm; I doubt we’ll ever experience a show in the same way again.
It’s the very definition of a first-world problem, but I think we should all think twice before forewarning someone that the next episode is a “special” one. Most people loved The Last of Us’s third episode; I just think they could have done without the heads up.