The Last of Us Changed the Game, and Delivered One of the Year’s Best EpisodesPhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Features The Last of Us
Spoilers for Episode 3, “Long, Long Time” are below.
For its first two episodes, The Last of Us stuck to closely adapting the acclaimed videogame it’s based on, making only some subtle changes. But the third episode, “Long, Long Time,” delivered a loving gay romance amid the zombie apocalypse—which is not exactly how it was initially written in the game. The story is not only a success as a compelling LGBTQ+ love story, but it also gives much more weight to two characters who were ancillary to the game’s plot. Now, the story of Bill and Frank has become integral to the journey of Joel and Ellie. It’s a masterful departure from our preexisting expectations from executive producer Neil Druckman and showrunner and series co-creator Craig Mazin.
After the episode catches up with Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) following the explosion at the State House, the year flashes back to September 30th, 2007. We are introduced to Bill (Nick Offerman), a self-proclaimed survivalist, who has filled his house with supplies and weaponry to survive even the most extreme disaster. As he watches the streets empty of the last healthy inhabitants, Bill transforms the surrounding area into his fortified compound, complete with traps to keep the infected away.
Four years later, Bill discovers something in one of his traps. Initially, he suspects that an infected has fallen in and he has to dispose of it, but inside is a man named Frank (The White Lotus actor Murray Bartlett) who has become trapped attempting to locate the quarantine zone in Boston. After some negotiating, Frank convinces Bill to invite him in for a meal before continuing his journey. But something happens that neither of them anticipated. While dining with Bill, Frank discovers another side of the survivalist, and following a tender rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s “Long, Long Time” on the piano, Bill gives himself to Frank and they begin a lengthy romantic partnership. Frank can enter Bill’s protective shield, and although it’s kept Bill alive throughout tough times, it’s also made relationships impossible.
The relationship between the two men is a big departure from the videogame, and represents the most drastic change thus far in the TV show. In the game, Joel and Ellie are looking for a car and they decide to visit Bill, as Joel’s finally going to collect on some favors that Bill owes. Bill doesn’t have a working car on hand, but on the outskirts of his compound, they can likely collect everything they need. Frank isn’t alive when the players finally meet him; due to a falling out with Bill, Frank decided to go it alone. But having been infected by the Cordyceps, Frank hangs himself. He left Bill with a suicide note that implied that Frank “hated his guts,” and it’s obvious that Bill is hurt after this discovery. Bill’s sexuality isn’t specifically defined in the videogame, it’s more contextual thanks to in-game discoveries: Ellie finds a gay pornographic magazine from Bill’s safehouse, and Frank is referred to as Bill’s partner.
After making good on his promise to provide Joel and Ellie with a working vehicle, Bill confirms that he’s now square with Joel. Bill’s fate is undefined, but given his commitment to survival, there’s a good chance he survived until old age. The chapter is known as Bill’s Town, the entire segment in the game is built around traditional game mechanics like shooting and stealth, having to navigate through an infested school, focusing on primarily how the game plays over the need to flesh out the story for Bill. That wouldn’t have worked for TV, and it became an opportunity for the story to take a different direction, and Druckman and Mazin took it.
Instead of showing a failed relationship between Bill and Frank, the show allowed their love to flourish through the years. Frank continues to push Bill to open up, explaining the possibilities that could come to them if they let some other people in. Frank imagines having lunch guests, something that sounds downright impossible during the zombie apocalypse, but they’re able to make it happen at their compound. That’s when they first meet Tess (Anna Torv) and Joel. This new relationship will not help Bill and Frank expand their minuscule social circle, but allows them access to new goods that they could never obtain from the confines of their home. For example, in the year 2013, Frank surprises Bill with homegrown strawberries. He was able to obtain the seeds from his friendship with Tess, and the sheer joy of tasting the sweet berries can be seen on Bill’s face. This sequence above all others showed just how much Offerman and Bartlett gave to their performances.
Nothing lasts forever though, and when the year finally turns to 2023, it’s discovered that Frank has a terminal illness and is deteriorating quickly. One morning, Frank presents Bill with his final wish, they’ll spend one last perfect day together, and then Frank will take all his medicine and fall into an eternal sleep. Max Ritchter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” accompanies Frank’s final day, and like how it was used in the Denis Villeneuve movie Arrival, it’s a potent arrangement for tears. The two men exchange rings and become married, reminisce on the life they’ve made together, and have an exquisite final meal that mirrors their first. Only after Frank has taken the liquid death concoction does he discover that Bill has also taken the lethal amount of drugs. Despite having the means to live longer, Bill had his entire world opened up when Frank entered his life and doesn’t wish to go back to those lonely days. They go into the same bed that they first made love in all those years ago, and let sleep take them to the afterlife.
In videogames, death is often associated with failure. According to an article from The Los Angeles Times, Mazin wanted an opportunity to show a situation where death meant victory. That these two men, who’ve been in love for so long, were able to go out on their terms; that’s what winning is.
When Joel and Ellie arrive, they believe they’re going to find Bill and Frank still living their days out happily. Instead, Bill has left a suicide note for Joel, essentially telling him he can have anything, but that he should use those supplies to keep Tess safe. For Joel, that note is a reminder of what he couldn’t save, first his daughter, and then Tess. Now, Joel will have to focus that energy on keeping Ellie safe. The last shot is of Joel and Ellie driving away while the audience looks on from the window. Not only is this shot reminiscent of the menu screen in the videogame, but perhaps it’s the true beginning of Joel and Ellie’s adventure.
“Long, Long Time” was a radical departure from the videogame and made this chapter of the story all the better. While Ellie never got to interact with Bill in the show as she did in the game, this change gave justice to minor characters: Bill became a multifaceted character who showed true growth, while Frank was given much more to do as an actual flesh and blood person outside of the “Bury Your Gays” trope. The reason it works as well as it does is thanks to the commitment from the actors, Offerman and Bartlett, and how it innovates from the source material. If “Long, Long Time” is any indication of the changes in storytelling ahead, then I can’t wait to see what else Druckman and Mazin have in store.
Max Covill is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.
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