The Last of Us and The Haunting of Bly Manor Find Queer Normalcy in the Face of Imminent DoomTV Features
“Then love me the way I want you to.” / “I’ll feel everything for the both of us.”
In the midst of the apocalypse and a supernatural curse, both HBO’s survival drama The Last of Us and Netflix’s second Haunting series entry The Haunting of Bly Manor showcase the beauty of queer love in a world filled with insurmountable pain. Each of these series take a single hour, in Episodes 3 and 9 respectively, to catalog queer domestic bliss, ending with (almost) all of their central queer characters growing old and gray, having lived a complete, fulfilling life. For both Bill and Frank, and Dani and Jamie, each couple was able to find a small sense of normalcy—some might even call it mundanity—in the face of impending doom, all while anchoring beautifully devastating queer love to the backbone of each series.
In many ways, The Last of Us’ “Long, Long Time” and Bly Manor’s “The Beast in the Jungle” are heartachingly similar. In The Last of Us, lonely doomsday prepper Bill (Nick Offerman) takes vagabond Frank (Murray Bartlett) into his gated-off town (safe from the cordycep-infected humans or any bloodthirsty uninfected) for a hot meal and a warm shower. A lunch then turns into a lifetime as we watch the two men fall in love over the course of the episode’s extended 80-minute runtime. In Bly Manor, au pair Dani (Victoria Pedretti) and gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) leave the manor after Dani allows the vengeful Lady in the Lake spirit to inhibit her body in exchange for the life of Flora, the young girl Dani was responsible for at Bly. Episode 9 showcases Dani and Jamie’s love story, departing from the haunted manor and allowing the audience to watch as these two women fall in love and build a life together.
While each series’ straight counterparts see their lives falling apart and their endings unhappy—Tess’ unrequited confession to Joel, and Hannah and Owen’s love that could never be were both gut-punches in and of themselves—The Last of Us and Bly Manor offer a gentle respite for their queer couples. Bill and Frank’s tentative love begins with a heartwarming moment of intimacy during their first night together, which then evolves into afternoons spent gardening and meals with friends. Dani and Jamie’s love bloomed in the earlier episodes, but Episode 9 allows them to finally become the couple they had always wanted to be, away from the cursed manor and grounds of Bly; they move in together, they visit with old friends together, and they build a life together. Each couple even eventually exchange rings, despite neither pair actually being allowed to wed in their respective eras (The Last of Us takes place throughout the early aughts, with Bly Manor being set in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s). In each ring exchange, Frank and Dani’s sentiment is the same, but Dani puts it to words, “I know we can’t technically get married, but I also don’t really care. We can wear the rings, and we’ll know.” These slices of wholesome and happy queer life are extremely meaningful and important, especially as the world around each of these couples collapses in on itself, either from its infectious outbreak or from the looming threat of a spirit hanging over their heads. In a world where pain and suffering is the default, whether it be for the entire world in The Last of Us or specifically for those touched by the Lloyd family in Bly Manor, queer love is not only just allowed to bloom, but allowed to flourish and thrive.
However, even with its sweet and realistic portrayals, each series knows that in their cruel worlds, nothing can last forever. Each of these couples knows that they are living on borrowed time, and it’s that looming tension that makes their interactions feel like they are walking on eggshells at times, while also adding to the depth of each stolen moment. Maybe the most important part of what makes these doomed romances work is the fact that, in each case, they were always fated to end tragically; each moment becomes all the sweeter since Bill, Frank, Dani, and Jamie each know that every kiss, every dinner, every conversation could very well be their last.
In The Last of Us, it’s not a nasty infected bite or a fatal gunshot wound that does Bill and Frank in, but something much more devastatingly human. Almost 20 years into their cohabitation, Frank has seemingly developed a neurodegenerative disorder, something akin to ALS, MS, or Parkinson’s, and Bill is the ever-doting partner as he takes care of Frank through his deterioration. Frank’s decision to take his own life after living one last beautiful day with Bill is heartbreaking, of course, but it also feels like a mercy. In a world so filled with insurmountable pain and anguish (that we have been subjected to in spades throughout just the previous two episodes alone), Frank and Bill’s quiet demise is a peaceful end to a quaint and comfortable existence. It cannot be understated how refreshing it is to watch two gay men grow old together. In a post-AIDS Epidemic world, it feels like a cathartic reclamation to see Bill and Frank live a fulfilling life, age in place, and then die peacefully and without suffering; it’s rare to see representation of “elder queers” on screen, and this was a beautiful and moving portrayal that allowed what is sometimes referred to as a lost generation to be represented and seen.
For Dani and Jamie, while they also get to live their lives in hauntingly beautiful and strikingly sad fashion, it is the supernatural horrors that come for this couple in the end. Dani’s deal with the Lady in the Lake allowed her to save Flora and walk out of Bly as herself, but there was always a ticking clock hanging above her head; it was only a matter of time before Viola would claim her for herself. Five years after that fateful day at Bly, Dani began to see Viola’s faceless visage in any body of water, ultimately leading to Jamie finding her staring almost in a trance into their overflowing bathtub. Then, in the middle of the night, Dani made her decision: she would not allow Viola’s heartless and violent instincts to overtake her, so she would return to the lake, as she was always meant to do. That’s where Jamie finds her the next morning, in the lake but just out of reach. Though, unlike Bill, who felt he had nothing to live for within the apocalypse without his lover, Jamie continues on, ultimately revealed to be the series’ narrator, relaying her story of love and loss to those attending a now-clueless Flora’s wedding. Much like Bill and Frank, Jamie is allowed to grow old and gray, continuing to live her life with grief in her heart, of course, but also with Dani by her side, as the episode’s final shot of her ringed hand on a sleeping Jamie’s shoulder indicated. Unlike the haunting guilt personified by Dani’s spectral boyfriend earlier in the season, Dani’s spirit is love persevering, hanging around Jamie’s neck like an old scarf rather than a regret-filled noose. The love that Jamie has for Dani allows her spirit to live on, not as a washed-out memory like she thought, but instead as a manifestation of the love nurtured during their limited time together.
In each series, the loss of a great love speaks to the greater messaging, each using these queer couples and their tragic ends to further both the plot and meaning of their season-long storytelling. While Bill and Frank, despite their tragic end, arguably got their happy ending, their demise feels like an omen in the context of The Last of Us. So early in the season, their representation of love and light in the middle of the end of the world implies that the peace they created for themselves died with them, erasing potentially the last good thing standing on this infected earth. As Joel and Ellie ride off together in Bill’s truck, away from his sheltered town and house that became a home, there is a foreboding sense of dread that the worst is yet to come for the pair as they head back out into the cruel world.
Bly Manor’s ending feels much more hopeful, especially as Dani and Jamie’s story is the culmination of the entire series rather than an expansion of the world just three episodes in. Of course, Jamie has spent 15 years without her lover by her side, but Bly Manor’s core message is clear: those that we have lost are always with us, and the burden—or the great honor—of the living is to keep the memories alive of those that have passed. In Bly Manor, Jamie tells her tragic love story, but her recount is quickly followed by Flora’s wedding, where a new love sprouts out of the seeds of tragedy and pain. The world continues on without Dani, just as it will without Bill and Frank as well, but Bly Manor’s hopeful outlook insists that with pain always comes joy, and that life will always be for the living to enjoy and the dead to linger and observe those they adore.
The absence of overt homophobia is intentional but never pandering—after all, when the stakes are that high, and the threat of rampant infected or vengeful spirits is ever-present, who could bring themselves to care? More than anything, The Last of Us and Bly Manor’s care in telling the stories of Bill and Frank and Dani and Jamie allow these shows to not only inject undeniable humanity into its high-stakes, supernatural worlds, but also to communicate the inherent universality and sincerity of queer stories. These tales of connection between two individuals that work through their differences and face the hardships thrown at them by their circumstances only to come out the other side affected but fulfilled are as human as it gets, no matter who is watching.
Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.