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The Last of Us Makes an Egregious Pivot Under the Guise of Positive Representation

Episode 3’s queer love story feels more condescending than beneficial.
  • Nick Offerman in The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
    Nick Offerman in The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

    [Spoilers abound for The Last of Us Episode 3, "Long Long Time," and both The Last of Us games.]

    In the decade since its release, much has been written about representation within The Last of Us video game and, even more notably, its sequel Part II. The series has garnered as much praise for its handling of queer relationships in the midst of an apocalyptic scenario as criticism about the way the games approach everything from race to trans characters.

    For the uninitiated, the game’s teenage protagonist Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson in-game, with Bella Ramsey portraying her in HBO’s TV adaptation) is queer, having had experiences with other women in both games. She's far from the only queer character in the series, though the only one the player actually controls in the game, as the rest float in and out of her life and that of Joel (voiced by Troy Baker in-game, with Pedro Pascal taking over in the show). This was made explicit largely through the DLC for the first game, titled Left Behind, which tracked the time that Ellie spent with her best friend Riley prior to the events of the game, and featured a widely praised kiss between the two girls. It’s a brief but necessary moment of intimacy in a world and narrative that has been overwhelmingly tragic and a precursor for relationships to come. 

    But there is one other memorable queer figure in the first The Last of Us game — one whose entire persona is to be as off-putting as possible. Some might think of this as bad representation, while others may find pleasure in watching a queer individual surviving, however miserably, in a world in which few can exist. That man is Bill.

    Voiced and mo-capped by W. Earl Brown in game, with Nick Offerman taking over the role in the series developed by Craig Mazin and TLOU creator Neil Druckmann, Bill is a character that exists in two distinct forms. The original Bill was an exhausting assh*le whom you'd be only too happy to get away from. That is precisely what his partner, Frank, does before the events of The Last of Us, abandoning Bill after over a decade together. 

    The way Bill talks about Frank in the game is coated in heartache — describing him namelessly as “a partner,” “somebody that I cared about,” and “somebody I had to look after,” before adding that “in this world, that sort of sh*t’s good for one thing: gettin’ ya killed” – but it isn’t clear what happened to Frank, outside of him leaving Bill, until the one-two punch of exploring Bill’s Town. This is all we know of Frank until we discover his dead body, a rope wrapped around his neck in order to avoid succumbing to the cordyceps brain infection. Bill is noticeably shaken, somberly saying his partner’s name aloud, and then, “He was my partner. And he’s the only idiot who would wear a shirt like that.” 

    Minutes later, the player finds a note that Frank wrote. It reads:

    Well, Bill, I doubt you'd ever find this note cause you were too scared to ever make it to this part of town. But if for some reason you did, I want you to know I hated your guts. I grew tired of this sh*tty town and your set-in-your-ways attitude. I wanted more from life than this and you could never get that. 

    And that stupid battery you kept moaning about — I got it. But I guess you were right. Trying to leave this town will kill me. Still better than spending another day with you. Good Luck, Frank.

    This is the tale of Bill and Frank. It’s a tragedy, through and through, and the kind of minor narrative that doesn’t just color the world that The Last of Us takes place in, but becomes an irreplaceable bit of foreshadowing for how Ellie herself will navigate a later relationship. Despite its brevity, there’s a weight to the way that Bill, in spite of loving someone, was still his own worst enemy in a world where everything around him was trying to kill him. This is who Ellie herself will one day become, even if she doesn’t know it yet. 

    Despite both iterations of the character living in a town on their own, surrounded by traps of their own making for safety and comfort, showrunner Craig Mazin’s approach to the character is astoundingly different to game creator Neil Druckmann’s original design. It imagines a world where, in spite of the overwhelming disaster around them, Bill and Frank (the latter played by Murray Bartlett) are in a loving and happy relationship. Bill’s curmudgeonly behavior is still there, but he’s now more of a lovable, if often frustrated, oaf; the kind of man who allows Frank to take control and invite people (like Joel and Tess) over for casual patio meals and conversations. They listen to Linda Ronstadt together, quibble over what kind of exterior home design to have, and even cook elaborate meals for each other. In other words, they’re a perfect gay couple, a “normal” gay couple, in a world in which the mere thought of taking care of someone else is something of a death sentence. 

    Perhaps the greatest change to this narrative is in the way it ends in Episode 3, "Long Long Time," which aired January 29. After a decade of being together, Frank has come down with an unnamed illness that he says was incurable before the pandemic and certainly remains so now (and how he was diagnosed with it, I’ll never know). Frank decides he wants to end his life after spending a perfect day at home with Bill. Bill, in turn, also choses to die by suicide, because he has lived a full life and does not want to go on living in a world without Frank. As they die together in bed, they no longer have any purpose in the tale of Joel and Ellie. 

    It’s hard to explain what makes this such a cloying decision in the context of the TV adaptation. "Long Long Time" is the kind of standalone episode that has become commonplace in prestige shows: a one-off about a minor character who has some barely tangible relationship with our protagonists and how their story reflects on the rest of the series. But it does more of a disservice to TLOU show as a whole than contribute something worthwhile. The change marks one of the most egregious pivots away from the show’s core story — that of Joel and Ellie — that feels like an explicit attempt to court praise. 

    To date, each episode of The Last of Us TV series has had an incongruous narrative aside as a cold open. In the premiere, it was a 1960s conference wherein scientists do an exposition dump about how airborne and fungal pandemics work to an in-studio audience that just stares blankly. For the second episode, it was an extended aside in Jakarta that existed only to explain that there was no chance for a cure out there (and that bombing places would be a better idea). Rather than have one of these cold openings, the third episode marks the first time a tale outside of Joel and Ellie’s purview is woven into the series as the bulk of an episode’s length, barely bookended by the protagonists’s travels.  

    To call "Long Long Time" saccharine is something of an understatement — it's the kind of overly sentimental romantic tragedy (if you can even call it that) whose every single beat is telegraphed from the get-go. Peter Hoar, who directed the episode, presents this all with an exhaustingly heavy hand, removing any real stakes for the characters that might exist in the world by simply moving onto the next scene of domestic mundanity or vague danger as soon as he can. The episode breezes through a decade of watching these characters interact, undercutting any attempt at emotional or narrative growth for these characters, and neither Offerman nor Bartlett can sell any of the emotional weight of their relationship. 

    Some might find the pivot in tone and narrative to be refreshing, and the series has already been praised by critics for delivering a gay love story, but the tonal shift from bitter loss to loving oasis feels disingenuous. Part of the issue is that removing Bill from Ellie and Joel’s path entirely is a miscalculation, making him worthless as a character and just as expendable as any of the nameless figures who have had no purpose other than expository dialogue, under the guise of expanding the show and game’s limited narrative worldview (a focus that I’d argue is the games’s greatest strength). But even more damning is that Mazin and Druckmann seem determined to revise an existing narrative to provide what they consider “positive representation” in order to avoid the very concerns about queer characters that once plagued The Last of Us games. 

    For a game series that has generated an abundance of controversy surrounding its queer characters, The Last of Us actually excels at this brand of representation (as opposed to its questionable handling of race). The second game’s introduction of Lev (voiced by Ian Alexander), a trans man on the run from the authoritarian religious sect that doesn’t accept his gender, resulted in one of its most interesting characters (as well as overall arcs for the way it navigates the relationship between him and the game’s other protagonist Abby). However flawed Druckmann’s characters are — Ellie in particular — they aren’t exclusively defined by their queerness, having motivations and desires that extend beyond their romances. 

    What makes the TV series’s pivot to straightforward romance so strange is that it feels fundamentally opposed to the world Druckmann has created with his games. The creator has never painted a particularly pretty picture with his depiction of relationships in the midst of a dying world, but they always felt sincere. The journey that Ellie and Dina, her love interest for the majority of The Last of Us II, go on is something truly breathtaking in a game riddled with issues, slowly developing from a crush to a kiss and, long after, a life together raising a child. But it’s the ending of the second game, in which Dina abandons their shared home after being confronted with a partner whose self-centered whims lead her down a self-destructive path of vengeance, that really leaves an impact. 

    The parallels between Ellie and Bill may go over the heads of some players — particularly because his role is primarily relegated to a small portion of one game, and Ellie grows up so much across the two full games — but looking at them alongside each other reveals a pair of queer individuals whose personal baggage got in the way of having meaningful relationships, thus leaving them to survive alone in a world in which they once had someone to love. In the games, they are not mirror images of each other, but Bill’s presence in Ellie’s life, however brief, serves as something of an ignored warning to a teenage girl: You can lose love as easily as you can find it. 

    This is what makes the series’s change so frustrating. Mazin and Druckmann reduce a layered queer narrative that extends past any one character into a glorified romantic drama that means nothing beyond the time it is on screen. Watching the episode, it feels as though the writing became stuck in 2003, which is when the fungal pandemic hits in the show, resulting in the kind of gay love story that would have been groundbreaking TV back then, but is now just wearisome. There is no purpose to the episode other than to convince audiences that the series cares about telling inclusive stories. That The Last of Us sacrifices some of its most nuanced storytelling in this pursuit isn’t just a damn shame, but the kind of revisionism under the guise of positive representation that feels more condescending than beneficial. To settle for a narrative this bland and dated, one determined to wring tears while both metaphorically and literally burying its gays — because, yes, stripping them of any narrative purpose is a thematic burial before their actual on-screen deaths, is flat-out mortifying, particularly in a world where more and more nuanced and complicated queer characters come to life every day.

    The first three episodes of The Last of Us are streaming on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.

    TOPICS: The Last of Us, HBO, Bella Ramsey, Craig Mazin, Murray Bartlett, Neil Druckmann, Nick Offerman, Pedro Pascal, Peter Hoar