The Last of Us’s gay love story breaks new ground for an entire genre

HBO’s thrilling post-apocalyptic drama took a detour this week to chart the tender romance between Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). It’s an incredibly bold move, writes Louis Chilton, one that represents the very best of what adaptation can achieve

Tuesday 31 January 2023 10:25 GMT
Love after the apocalypse: Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in ‘The Last of Us'
Love after the apocalypse: Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in ‘The Last of Us' (HBO)

Two men meet after the collapse of society. One of them falls into a booby trap, hidden outside the wire-fenced border of the other man’s suburban ghost town. He is bedraggled, hungry. The other man shows sympathy and invites him in for a meal. There is tension in the air. The threat of violence. And yet, the opposite happens – they fall in love. For nearly two decades, these men grow old together, away from the plague that has decimated the world. Eventually, they die together.

This beautiful, heart-pinching story is the focus of “Long Long Time”, the third episode of The Last of Us. Up to this point, HBO’s post-apocalyptic video game adaptation had been a violent dystopian nightmare. There were brutal fights. Traumatic deaths. Viscerally upsetting monsters. At the heart of it were Joel (Pedro Pascal), Tess (Anna Torv) and 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey), picking their way through a ravaged society. In “Long Long Time”, Joel and Ellie’s story is reduced to bookends. For the majority of the near-feature-length episode, we are focused on the gentle, life-affirming relationship between Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). When we meet Bill, he is a misanthrope – a “Don’t Tread On Me” survivalist who finds himself shockingly adept at navigating life after the fungal armageddon. Frank is softer, and more open, and starts to bring out these qualities in his new partner. As the story progresses, through a series of years-long time jumps, their tentative romance evolves into a lasting, meaningful love. When you hear the phrase “zombie horror”, is this what comes to mind?

The idea of indulging such a tender, humanistic love story among the brutal genre trappings of post-apocalyptic horror is a bold one, and all the bolder for arriving so early in the series. Authentic, loving romances between two men – especially men over the age of 40 – are seldom explored in any mainstream media, let alone within the brittly macho conventions of genre fiction. For a flagship big-budget drama that’s raced its way to 20 million-odd viewers to even attempt a story like this is pretty much unheard of. That it has managed to pull it off so brilliantly is a whole other marvel.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that such an episode was devised for HBO, the TV network that has long been at the front of the pack when it comes to depicting same-sex relationships on screen. Series such as Six Feet Under, Looking and High Maintenance contained some of the finest and most credibly realised depictions of queer relationships in TV. Fans of the superlative Last of Us video game (released in 2013) and its 2020 sequel will also point to this original source material as setting a tonal precedent. As with the series, the games were able to deftly splice poignant, down-to-earth character studies with far-fetched sci-fi horror; both games, particularly the second, were also lauded for their richly developed queer characters and themes.

But with episode three, The Last of Us has gone further than the games ever did. It’s just so unexpected. So heartwrenching. So patient with its storytelling. The casting, too, is terrific. Offerman’s character initially seems like the sort of grizzled, libertarian “man’s man” that the actor has come to epitomise since first finding fame as Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson. And this is the case, to a large extent – but there’s also a powerful vulnerability to him. When Bill and Frank first sleep together – in a breathtakingly intimate and well-acted scene – Bill confides that he had never had sex with a man before. (It is obvious to us, and Frank, before he says it.) It’s the most emotionally exposed I’ve ever seen Offerman be on screen.

Nick Offerman as Bill in ‘The Last of Us’
Nick Offerman as Bill in ‘The Last of Us’ (HBO)

Frank’s journey, on the other hand, may be less transformational, but Bartlett stills turns in a wonderful performance. After winning turns in Looking, Tales of the City and The White Lotus, he’s fast becoming one of the medium’s most prominent gay actors.

As the episode nears its end, and Frank becomes incurably sick, the couple’s last scenes together are profoundly moving. (Reports of TV critics being left in floods of tears have been rife ever since screeners were disseminated.) They live out one last perfect day together and then euthanise themselves. For a show that has already shown it’s more than willing to revel in a grimy on-screen death – death by gunshot, death by explosion, death by bludgeoning, death by tentacled kiss – The Last of Us affords Bill and Frank’s deaths a powerful dignity. We see no bodies, just an open window. The episode is, among other things, a subversion of the much-criticised “bury your gays” trope. Here, yes, are two gay characters who die. But they are perhaps the only people in the post-outbreak wasteland that we have ever seen truly living.

Murray Bartlett as Frank in ‘The Last of Us’
Murray Bartlett as Frank in ‘The Last of Us’ (HBO)

It’s noteworthy, as well, that the storyline also represents the first major plot deviation from the games. In the 2013 game, Bill does feature – but we only meet him in the present, as a kooky, cantankerous loner. We later learn that his lover, Frank, hanged himself after becoming infected, and left behind a letter explaining that he did not in fact care for Bill at all. Discarding this twist in favour of the TV series’ balladic love story represents the very best of what adaptation can achieve. It doesn’t just mimic, it expands, both in imagination and spirit.

More than anything, the third episode of The Last of Us is a heartening reminder that TV can still surprise you. That there are still stories left to tell. Come for the grisly zombie violence, of course – but stay for something thrillingly different.

‘The Last of Us’ can be watched on Sky and Now in the UK

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