‘The Last of Us’ Presents an Achingly Beautiful Gay Love Story
This post contains spoilers for this week’s episode of The Last of Us, “Long, Long Time.”
The latest chapter of the story is bookended with sequences featuring the series’ only two ongoing characters at the moment. With Tess gone — though she appears in flashbacks later in this episode — the series is leaning harder than ever on the Lone Wolf and Cub dynamic between Joel and Ellie that Pedro Pascal already has some familiarity with from his work on The Mandalorian. Ellie is a lot more verbal than Grogu (just as Joel is a whole lot more expressive than Mando), but it’s a similar contrast of taciturn combat-readiness and childlike wonder. For all the darkness of the world in which Ellie was raised, she is still fundamentally an eager, easily excited kid, who looks upon things we take for granted. When they come across a wrecked passenger jet, Joel talks about how annoying air travel could be, while all Ellie can think about is how amazing it would be to go up in the sky. At the end of the episode, they climb into a battered old Chevy pickup that does not impress Joel, while she compares it to being in a spaceship.
The Joel/Ellie interplay is given something of a funhouse-mirror reflection in the segment that takes up the bulk of the episode’s extended running time, in which we meet a grouchy loner who views the ruined world as a paradise, and a far more outgoing man who can’t help but feel sad about everything that’s been lost.
Meet Bill and Frank, the subjects of an incredible, and incredibly unlikely, post-apocalyptic love story.
The episode is many things, all of them great. But perhaps first among them is how — like the casting of Pascal himself as Joel — there is absolutely nothing wrong with typecasting if both the part and the typecast actors are good enough. If Bill and Frank were characters being created from whole cloth for the series, as opposed to being adapted from the game(*), it is not hard to imagine the stage directions in the script describing libertarian survivalist-loner Bill as “a Nick Offerman type,” and the gregarious and cultured Frank as “a Murray Bartlett type.” Instead, the show gets the actual Offerman and Bartlett. And just as The Mandalorian could get away with casting Timothy Olyphant as Jetpack Raylan Givens because nobody plays that archetype better, The Last of Us gets enormous value out of the shorthand that comes from, for instance, inviting Offerman to play a slightly less cartoonish and infinitely more damaged version of Ron Swanson.
(*) My understanding is that Frank is already dead when Joel and Ellie encounter Bill, while Bill is played by the great character actor W. Earl Brown. Who I imagine would have also been marvelous playing the role in live-action.
We meet Bill moments after Joel has explained the pile of human remains that they’ve just found to Ellie. Because resources were so scarce in those early days of Cordyceps, FEDRA soldiers would simply massacre anyone that the quarantine zones did not have room for, to prevent them from becoming infected. (Unlike on other zombie shows, the dead do not rise from the grave here.) We cut from a glimpse of the tattered scraps of a woman’s dress to the healthy, living version of that woman and her baby boarding a FEDRA truck on September 30, 2003, days after the world ended, afraid of her current circumstances but oblivious to her impending government-sanctioned murder. The soldiers finish clearing out the town, or so they believe, because Bill is the kind of hardcore doomsday prepper who has a bunker hidden below his basement for just this eventuality(*).
(*) A funny joke later in the episode: Frank tries objecting to Bill’s conspiracy-nut belief that the pre-fall government was made up of Nazis, and Bill considers the current fascistic state of things and replies, “The government are all Nazis!”
Once everyone is gone, Bill is like a kid in a candy store, taking whatever he needs or wants from his neighbors’ homes, the local hardware and liquor stores, even managing to get the power back on because no one is guarding the New Bedford Natural Gas plant. Soon he has a heavily-protected compound with vegetables growing in the garden, chickens to provide eggs and other forms of protein, and no one to bother him.
But for all that Bill seems to be enjoying himself — when he watches on a security monitor as one of his traps takes out a zombie approaching the property, he smugly says that the spectacle never gets old — it’s hard not to think about what a lonely existence this must be. However painful it has been for Joel to carry the memory of his daughter over the last 20 years, at least he has been around other people. Ellie was indoctrinated at a FEDRA school, but at least around other kids. At a certain point, even the most anti-social person in creation must crave some kind of human contact.
But it isn’t until Bill finds a helpless Frank trapped in a backyard pit — which Bill has dug to catch zombies and/or raiders — that we realize just how lonely Bill was even before he became the only person for miles and miles.
Bill at first seems to be taking pity on Frank by inviting him in for dinner, but it’s clear almost immediately that he is taking pleasure in both the company and the chance to show off his skills as a host. And when Frank begins tickling the ivories of Bill’s old piano to the tune of the Linda Ronstadt song that gives the episode its title, Bill insists on playing and singing it himself. Offerman and Bartlett are utterly magnificent in this scene, with their faces and body language telling you the whole story about who these men were, and are, long before Frank asks what girl Bill is singing about, and a pained, melancholy Bill quietly replies. “There is no girl.” In that exchange, we understand that this is a part of himself Bill was terrified to show the world in the before times. Perhaps his closeted, solitary life is what led to his survivalist mentality. A man who hides alone in a bunker, after all, doesn’t have to worry about being rejected, by either homophobes or other gay men who simply aren’t interested. Or perhaps he hid from that part of himself because he couldn’t reconcile it with the rest of the image he had adopted. The reason doesn’t matter(*). All that does is his complete isolation, as well as his terror that this beautiful man in front of him will not find him desirable. But Frank — who seems a very social creature, and quite taken with Bill even before recognizing his host’s deep secret — does, indeed, want him, and not just because he knows that life in this house would be pretty sweet. Before they have sex, Frank says, “I want you to know that I’m not a whore. I don’t have sex for extra lunches.” By that point, we can tell that he means it.
(*) If anything, it’s perhaps only because no one else is around that Bill finds the courage to reveal this part of himself to Frank.
From there, the episode keeps jumping ahead several years every few scenes. We see them bicker in the manner all couples do over time, but also clearly take pleasure in each other’s company. We see how their relationship with Joel and Tess began, because after a while, Frank craved being around people in addition to Frank. And then we see Bill take out a whole party of raiders through years of preparation and borderline superhuman, Swanson-esque competence. Or maybe just regular-human, since he catches a bullet during the firefight, and needs Frank to save his life.
The last jump brings us to 2023. Bill has apparently healed just fine from the gunshot wound, while Frank is in a wheelchair not due to injury, but an illness that can’t be properly treated even with the help of the pills Joel’s network is smuggling up and down the east coast. In an utterly beautiful, heartbreaking sequence scored to “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter, we see the aging partners travel around the neighborhood for what Frank thinks will only be his last day on earth, but which Bill already knows will be a reasonably happy ending for both of them. When he reveals his plan for a double suicide after their private marriage ceremony, he insists, “This isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play. I’m old. I’m satisfied… And you were my purpose.”
Knowing the year in which this is taking place, and that Joel and Ellie are on their way, it’s not hard to fantasize about the notion of our two heroes arriving just in the nick of time, perhaps with some new medicine for Frank from Joel’s hidden stash, or perhaps just to convince Bill that he might have a purpose beyond his one true love. It would be a blast, after all, to have Bill travel with them for a while, or even to just get one scene between the four of them. It’s clear that Frank would have loved Ellie, and it’s not hard to imagine Bill developing a thinly-veiled respect for her in a hurry. But most of this episode is not Joel and Ellie’s story. It is Bill and Frank’s. Bill chose a life away from the world, and then gratefully allowed Frank into that life. No one else should be around for the end of it.
But in a way, it very much is a story about our two central characters. Joel and Ellie show up some time later, to find a note from Bill asking them to not open the bedroom door to find his and Frank’s decaying corpses. He has composed an eloquent note to Joel that includes this passage:
“I used to hate the world, and I was happy when everyone died. But I was wrong, because there was one person worth saving. That’s what I did. I saved him. Then I protected him. That’s why men like you and me are here. We have a job to do. And God help any motherfuckers who stand in our way.”
Bill thought he was writing a letter about Tess, but instead it turns out that he was writing about Ellie. Joel has not warmed to Ellie nearly as quickly as Bill did to Frank, but it’s clear that his stoic face is cracking with each question she asks and each joke she tells. Joel was not happy when the world ended, because that day brought the death of Sarah. But if he has been physically around other people for all these years, he has mostly kept himself alone emotionally, other than Tess. And now he’s around this girl whose every emotion is so palpable, and usually discussed by her as soon as she feels it. She needs protecting just as much as Frank did, if not more. And we see that she is already starting to break through to him. As they drive away in Bill’s truck (loaded with some supplies, but far from the entire arsenal), she puts the now-familiar Ronstadt tune on the cassette deck, and he cannot resist allowing himself a small smile as she jokes that Ronstadt’s voice is “better than nothing.”
What a fabulous, fabulous episode of television, down to that final image of the bedroom window Bill left open so that the home he and Frank made together would not be tainted by the smell of what they have become after death. There are a couple of zombies, but they appear only briefly, and are quickly dispatched by first Ellie (who finds hers trapped beneath rubble in the opening sequence at Cumberland Farms), and then Bill. This is the most convincing argument yet that The Last of Us is a show about humans first, and gory creatures a very, very distant second. And this was a wonderfully powerful, achingly human story.