The Last Of Us franchise is full of beautiful queer representation. Bill and Frank’s on-screen adaptation was a leap from the source material and hopefully foreshadows the care the series will give to the rest of its queer characters.
Naughty Dog released The Last Of Us in 2013, two years before same-sex marriage was legalized across the United States. The original game, its DLC, The Last Of Us: Left Behind, its sequel, The Last Of Us Part II, and now HBO’s on-screen adaptation all include instances of powerful and authentic queer representation.
Neil Druckmann, the creator of the games and one of the show’s writers, wants the series to tell a “universal message about love,” and I think his queer characters are a manifestation of that goal inside the greater story. Here’s who we’ve seen so far and what their portrayal holds for the rest of the series.
the last of us writers were like “hey joel needs a car. what if we write the most touching and heartbreaking hour of television in the world”
— zach silberberg (@zachsilberberg) January 30, 2023
A series high of 6.4 million people tuned in to Episode 3 of HBO’s The Last Of Us this week, and all of us left devastated. This episode takes a break from Ellie and Joel’s perspective and flashes back to the start of the apocalypse, following a survivalist named Bill, played by Nick Offerman. He holes up in a secret basement as the military clears out his neighborhood, then raids all the local shops and a Home Depot and fortifies his home with traps and fences.
In the game, we only meet Bill for a brief time (and get some excellent banter between him and Ellie). Joel and Ellie traverse his booby-trapped city block, fighting through hordes of infected so that Joel can collect on some “favors” Bill owes him, and they can get a working vehicle. This episode is the biggest leap from the source material, offering a full retelling of Bill’s backstory.
Back in the show, three years later, Bill hears a man calling out from the yard who fell into a concealed hole in the ground. His name is Frank, played by Murray Bartlett, and he’s a lone survivor from a group of 10 trying to make it to Boston after the Baltimore Quarantine Zone collapsed. Bill reluctantly lets him inside, allows him a shower, and makes him a home-cooked meal of rabbit paired with a Beaujolais Villages red wine.
Bill is noticeably awkward through their entire first meeting, which takes a turn for the romantic as Frank starts to play a Linda Ronstadt song on Bill’s piano: “Long, Long Time,” the title of the episode. We learn that Bill is not only awkward because he’s been without human contact for several years but because he’s a gay man who has presumably never shared his identity with anyone and who has a bit of a crush on Frank.
@entertainmenttonight Bill and Frank’s ‘The Last of Us’ story showed us “both sides of what love is” ❤️ #thelastofus #tlou #billandfrank #tlouepisode3 #fyp ♬ original sound – Entertainment Tonight
The two kiss tenderly and go to bed together, Frank guiding Bill through the experience with gentleness. As a gay person myself, this portrayal and implication of sex between a queer couple was nothing short of beautiful, especially given the tendency for gay representation to be oversexualized and gratuitous in the media.
Next thing we know, the couple has been living together for four years. They argue about sprucing the place up and easing up on “resource management.” Frank puts his foot down about planting flowers, fixing up the shops, and, most horrifying to Bill, having friends. We soon see Joel and Tess, more than 10 years younger, eating dinner with them in the garden. Later on, Frank surprises Bill with a patch of fresh strawberries he grew (he traded a “little” gun for a pack of seeds from Joel). Bill nearly weeps with joy when he tastes them and tells his partner that he never used to be scared before he came along.
Now it’s 2023, and the once spritely and energetic Frank is reliant on a wheelchair and has limited mobility and energy. Craig Mazin shared in the official The Last Of Us Podcast that “We didn’t necessarily want to specify [the illness] for the audience; it was either MS or early ALS, but it was a degenerative neuromuscular disorder.” One particular morning, Frank sits Bill down and tells him it will be his last day. Offerman gives a heartbreaking performance as Bill can barely handle the news; despite his reluctance to let go, Frank simply asks him to “love me the way I want you to,” and Bill obliges.
@sugruru fakegun!! gay rights but at what cost #thelastofus #tlou #billandfrank #thelastofusedit #joelmiller #hbomax #thelastofushbo #tlouhbo #fyp ♬ original sound – 💫
The two get dressed in suits, say their vows to get married, and share the same dinner of rabbit and Beaujolais Villages as the day they met, scored with a bittersweet theme composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. Bill returns to the table with another bottle of wine and pours the last of Frank’s pills into a glass. They both drain their glasses, and Bill reveals he put enough pills in the bottle “to kill a horse.” Frank simply asks that Bill take him to bed, and that’s the last we see of them.
@dharedevil this episode had me bawling #thelastofus #hbo #bill #frank #pedropascal #hbomax #foryou #xyzbca ♬ set fire to the rain – mae
We never get to see Frank alive in the game. Bill is entirely alone, bitter, and reclusive. Their mission for a working car battery leads Joel and the others to another building in Bill’s town, where they find Frank’s body hanging from the ceiling. Trying to keep himself together, Bill tells Joel that Frank was his partner (implied romantically, but often interpreted otherwise) and the “only idiot who would wear a shirt like that.” Instead of an illness, Frank suffered multiple bites and killed himself without Bill’s knowledge.
Joel later reads the man’s suicide note, — “I want you to know I hated your guts. I grew tired of this shitty town and your set-in-your-ways attitude. I wanted more from life than this, and you could never get that.” — a stark contrast to the loving relationship we saw in episode 3. In the adaptation, it’s Bill who waters the flowers and mows the lawn when Frank is no longer able, and it’s Bill who decides he can’t live without the love of his life.
Ellie reads Bill’s suicide note before they leave the house, addressed to Joel. He shares that he was wrong about the world and that there was one person worth saving. She inserts a Linda Ronstadt tape in the stereo in Bill’s truck as they ride away.
@imposingoracle Crying myself to sleep #tlouepisode3 #tlouserieshbo #imposingoracle #thelastofusepisode3 #billandfrank ♬ original sound – Michaela McFarland
This episode gives me hope that the remaining queer characters will get the adaptation they deserve. Ellie herself is revealed to be a lesbian in the game’s DLC, The Last Of Us: Left Behind, already hinted in the dialogue between her and Tess in episode 2 when she’s asked if a “boyfriend” will come looking for her. Her backstory with the mysterious Riley mentioned in episode 1 will be explored in a later episode this season, and if it’s anything like this one, I am not prepared.
“There’s a humanity to him underneath this gruff, angry, closed-off man.”#TheLastOfUs showrunners @clmazin & @Neil_Druckmann join host @TroyBakerVA to discuss finding the perfect Bill in @Nick_Offerman. Hear the full conversation. https://t.co/fSs8pbPprR pic.twitter.com/XGQ2PN3Z6e
— The Last of Us (@TheLastofUsHBO) January 31, 2023
Representation in the franchise doesn’t stop there. In The Last Of Us Part II, Ellie is in a committed relationship with another woman, Dina, who is bisexual herself. They travel through Seattle in the game and even stop in Capitol Hill (a known queer hub in the city), draped in tattered rainbow flags and occupied by dusty gay bookstores. Additionally, without getting into spoilers, a new character in the game takes care of a teenager from a rival faction. This character’s name is Lev, and he’s a transgender man (voiced by a trans man in the game!) who was exiled from his home after coming out.
The series has already been renewed for a season 2, which will likely follow the plot of the sequel game. Bill and Frank’s new storyline gives me even more hope that these characters will be honored and treated with care. In The Last Of Us, despite a world of tragedy, queer people are allowed to exist and love just like everyone else. That is what we deserve.
You can catch new episodes of The Last Of Us on HBO and HBO Max on Sundays at 9 pm ET.