Last of Us Just Broke a Major TV Rule — and Disproved a Common Belief
After long-haul episodes, Episode 4 is short and sweet.
The Last of Us has always been advertised as a prestige series. It has the legendary Sunday night time slot held by Game of Thrones, the showrunner of Chernobyl, and a cast of high-profile actors. But the biggest indication that this series was in a different league was its runtime: Episode 1 ran at an almost feature-length 80 minutes. It looked like things were back to normal with Episode 2, but then Episode 3’s standalone story was another 80-minute saga.
Episode 4, however, bucked the trend. Some fans may have been disappointed by its brevity, but the move made the series all the more impressive.
Long runtimes have been the calling card of prestige cable and streaming shows. Unbeholden to advertisers and crowded schedules, such shows are free to take as much time as they want to tell their stories. But the longer a series goes on, the more common it is for episode lengths to succumb to pointless bloat. Stranger Things’ episodes hovered around 60 minutes for its first three seasons, but Season 4’s episodes ranged from 65 minutes to a whopping 142-minute finale. That’s one minute shorter than The Avengers.
The Last of Us could always stumble into the same trap, but so far that hasn’t been the plan. The 80-minute premiere was initially meant to be split into two 40-minute episodes, but at some point they were merged to allow for a more thorough introduction to the world.
Episode 4 could have easily gone down the same path. Between its plot and its meaty cliffhanger, it’s clear it was only one half of a larger story. Instead, the episode was only 46 minutes. And even though there wasn’t a single Infected and all of our characters were left in limbo, it still made for a satisfying bit of television.
Episode 4 proves that inflated runtimes aren’t a prerequisite for prestige TV. Instead, the art of a good television episode is in telling part of a larger story that still feels self-contained. Sure, 80-minute marathons are good for special occasions like a barn-burning premiere or a touching diversion from the source material, but efficient storytelling is more impressive and important than maximalism. Take Episode 4’s introduction of Kathleen: we don’t know everything about her, but the interrogation scene quickly and seamlessly establishes that she’s a ruthless leader looking to avenge her brother.
Shorter episodes are a welcome relief to busy viewers and a good way to cut the chaff from bloated stories. Time restraints may make the creative process difficult, but they’re a great way to ensure that only the best ideas make it to the final draft. Sometimes, that means dividing what would be yet another long story into two shorter episodes that each feel fully formed.
The Last of Us is streaming on HBO Max.