Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode three as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.
Episode three of HBO’s The Last Of Us, “Long, Long Time” was a very good episode. I’m not breaking new ground here by saying that. Reviewers who had advance copies of the show have been raving about this episode for months. Best of the series is agreed by all, possibly one of the best episodes of television ever.
I don’t know that I would go so far as to say best episode of television ever. It would certainly make a top 100 of all time list for sure. How high it would rank I’m torn on, but part of that is I’d like more time to sit with it before making that decision. That’s entirely a me thing and not a show thing though.
There’s a lot of things that could be unpacked about Long, Long Time, and I’ll touch on a few of them. But one of the things in particular I want to focus on is the power of storytelling and the impact that can be had by the storytelling medium. So let’s get into it.
The Single Question That Created The Last of Us’s Bill and Frank
I’m going to try to avoid game spoilers as much as I can, but we do need to talk about the game to fully understand last night’s episode. I’ll do my best to keep it to as general as possible.
Bill and Frank do exist in the game, though their story is told in a different manner. As with many people and stories in the game, most of the information the player gets is by exploration. Do they pay attention to what they see on bulletin boards? Posters on walls? Do they find and then read letters or diaries left on desks, beds, and so on?
Another key difference in the game is that the player, through Joel, only talks to Bill. And Bill’s function in the game is to give you weapons upgrades and help you get a car battery. Now there is some character development, yes, but again through very minimal dialogue. The Last of Us is, after all, a stealth action game. Bill’s chapter is a lot of stealth and action as you navigate swarms of infected to try to get that battery which can then power a truck.
I stress the minimal dialogue because that will hopefully help you understand the impact it had when someone suggested a change. Or, not a change, but an interpretation.
The credit for Bill and Frank’s relationship goes not to Neil Druckmann but rather to W Earl Brown who played Bill in the original game. If you’re having a “Hey, it’s that guy!” feeling about him odds are high you remember him as Dan Dority from Deadwood.
As Troy Baker recounts, when W Earl Brown sat down for his first table read he noticed in Bill’s limited dialogue there was the word “partner.” W Earl Brown then turned to Nell Druckmann and asked, what did Bill mean by "partner?"
To which Neil Druckmann replied, what do you think it means?
And thus Frank, Bill’s gay, male, romantic partner was born.
Now I don’t mean to undersell Neil Druckmann’s role here. Obviously the fact that he was open to such changes says a lot. In fact, this was a not insignificant change because it wasn’t what was originally planned or recorded for the story. Originally Bill was straight, with the evidence of his straightness being made clear. But because it had been made clear, and because the nature of filming meant that Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson could record the dialogue establishing Bill’s sexuality long before W Earl Brown came to set, that meant Neil Druckmann not only had to be open to the change but to the increased work involved in implementing that change.
Which goes to what I was talking about last week regarding the type of directing Neil is used to. The example I used was changing Ellie’s favorite color, but this is an actual example: graphics had to be changed and Troy and Ashley brought back to set to rerecord that dialogue. (I won’t spoil it for those unfamiliar with the game but for those who are familiar it’s the dialogue that happens in the truck after they leave).
The fluidity - and the production environment that allowed Neil to be fluid - of storytelling for a video game meant that Neil could take a suggestion on the fly and implement it. Now Frank and Bill’s story in the game was, as I’ve already said, very minimal. However, it existed and for a game released in 2013 that was not nothing. And if you want to understand just how significant this tiny bit of queer representation was for gamers, you need only look at how a far too large segment of the gaming population is still pissed that Neil put gay people in a game. (At least of those who didn’t take the other option, which was to refuse to believe that Bill was gay at all in spite of the evidence. Which again goes to prove how little narrative there was. If a player missed a key piece of information in their exploring, they would never know the nature of Bill and Frank’s relationship at all.)
So I think it’s worth thinking about that, and thinking how one arguably off the cuff question resulted in a small amount of queer representation in a historic game that then, over a decade later, turned into a beautiful expression of queer representation on television.
The Significance of Bill and Frank’s Story in HBO’s The Last of Us
The thing about The Last of Us - both show and game - is that it is not an apocalypse survival story. It’s not a zombie story either (and oh my god shut up the segment of the internet which immediately crawls out of the woodwork to go “THEY’RE NOT ZOMBIES!!!” They’re shambling things that used to be human that are trying to eat people. Calm down.)
Frankly, the thing about The Last of Us the game wasn’t even the game. As stealth adventure games go, The Last of Us did not bring anything new to the party from a games perspective. Yes, the AI controlling NPCs was more advanced, as I mentioned last week, but the mechanics of “hide from enemy NPCs when you can, use your limited resources wisely” was not new to the game nor did The Last of Us innovate it. This compared to another 2013 game, Outlast, which also had a stealth mechanic but added in the ability for the player character to hide in lockers and under beds if they were lucky. (Or 2014’s Alien: Isolation which did Outlast one better by having the enemy AI eventually twig to how lockers make good hiding spots.)
No, the thing about The Last of Us that made it so remarkable was the story that it was. And this is the thing that makes HBO’s The Last of Us so good as well.
I’ve talked before about how TV shows need a statement. A single sentence or two which defines what the show is. And this is not a metaphor. The statement is frequently written down either across the top of the board in the writers’ room or into the show bible - if not both.
The statement defines what the show is in its most elemental state. From there every single episode is written to come from that statement. Good TV shows, like Abbot Elementary, have a clear one. You can watch a random selection of any episode from a show with a strong statement and be able to figure it out for yourself. Bad ones, like She-Hulk, reveal the lack by how their episodes are all over the place in tone, goal, and content.
The Last of Us the game and HBO’s The Last of Us have a very clear statement. It is, as Craig Mazin confirms, on the first page of the show bible. Now the full statement (which you can hear if you click that link) is a bit of a spoiler. So for those who want to avoid any hints of what’s to come I will keep it to saying the show statement is in two parts, and the first part is “This is a love story.”
(The second part we’ll talk about when we get to the end of the season.)
All forms of The Last of Us are not apocalypse stories, they are not zombie stories, they are love stories. Those stories unfold in multiple chapters in the game, and they’re unfolding in multiple episodes of the show.
Now if you’re thinking “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Joel lost his daughter and now he’s got Ellie as a replacement, father/daughter love story, I get it” - no. I mean yes, that’s not not a part of it. But it’s not the only part.
Every person you meet in the show or the game has a love story. They are motivated by love. They are influenced by love. Familial, friendship, romantic, love of humanity in general, you name it. The apocalypse isn’t the point. The zombies aren’t the point. They’re just the background to highlight love and what love can do. The setting of The Last of Us is the black canvas that makes white paint stand out. What does love mean in an environment where everything else has been stripped away?
It becomes very significant, then, that a throwaway word in a script written over ten years ago has now evolved to become over an hour of television about two gay men living a life of love. Not only that, but a story about two gay middle-aged men growing old during an apocalypse brought about by a pandemic.
Craig Mazin wrote the episode and he’s a married straight man. However, Peter Hoar the director, Timothy A Good the editor, Cecil O’Connor the production manager, and Murray Bartlett who played Frank, are all married gay men who all had input into the writing of Long, Long Time and you can tell. Because these are all gay men of an age to understand that stories about gay men who get to grow old together were like something out of myth.
The AIDS epidemic destroyed a generation of queer people. Now arguably Bill, who lived in a small town, might not have been fully aware of that but Frank, who is presented as the one with more experience, absolutely would have been. Simply finding a fellow queer person of a certain age - yes, even back in the early 2000s even without an apocalypse - was remarkable. Connecting with that person is remarkable. Getting to love that person is remarkable. Getting to grow old with that person was a god damn miracle.
Think about that, and then think about what it means that this is the story we are given in a world in an apocalypse.
It is incredibly powerful that Bill and Frank are a story about love being beautiful. Love being something that nurtures and sustains. Love that can come with hurt, yes, but which can still inspire.
Bill and Frank’s story has a happy ending. They live to an old age and die on their own terms. That’s amazing in any world, a thousand times more during an apocalypse. It’s a story of success for us in the real world watching it and within the world for Bill and Frank. They know what the odds were for people like them even before cordyceps became a thing. They found each other. They loved each other. Love sustained them through life and eased them through a peaceful death.
And, straight though Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann might be, they are very aware that it means something that this is the love story given to two gay men.
Which is why, now that I think about it, I struggle with saying it’s the best episode of television ever. Because in my mind best episodes of television are ones you can watch without knowing anything about the show but still recognize the significance. Long, Long Time is good, but it needs the context. Bill and Frank have a beautiful love story, but it isn’t until you see everyone else’s love story that you fully appreciate all the layers there.
And we’re only three episodes in.
Things to Appreciate About Long, Long Time
There’s enough here that I don’t want to shove it down in Lagniappe, but I did want to take time to shout out some of the wonderful work done on this episode.
To begin with, Nick Offerman’s acting as Bill had such wonderful nuances to it. From sustaining that long montage by himself during all his prep work - in which we could see his glee that his lifetime of preparation for just such an emergency finally paid off - to the tiny, subtle moments of Bill connecting to Frank. I have things in my notes about Bill’s “shit, he’s cute” reaction, and “OMG the hair flip!” all the way to the trembling and hunched shoulders at the piano which made you ache for Bill’s loneliness.
Murray Bartlett, of course, also did amazing work. I think his is the one more likely to be overlooked since what was needed wasn’t anything big and showy, but rather the ability to embody someone who you knew was a person of warmth. You had to believe that Frank was someone who was made of such heart, and the ability to find a way to smile even as the world is ending, that even a misanthrope like Bill couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Murry Bartlett absolutely delivered.
Peter Hoar’s directing was also great. I appreciated how he was able to know when to go big and when to go quiet. Bill and Frank’s wedding, for instance, could’ve easily been a big emotional moment for the characters with both of them sobbing and crying. Instead it was simple. Solid. A moment where neither Bill nor Frank had to expound on how meaningful it was. Those of us in the audience could take care of the crying, Bill and Frank knew to live in the moment, especially when it was one of their last.
Eben Blotter was in charge of cinematography, and the use of natural light in particular was lovely. I haven’t talked much about the use of light in the show so far because when “Look to the light” is literally written all over the walls obviously the use of light is always symbolic. However, knowing how the story goes, I can’t touch the symbolism without touching all the symbolism. But at least here I can point out the gorgeous use of daylight, particularly as it relates to time of day and time of Bill and Frank’s relationship. During the lovely strawberry scene we can appreciate Bill and Frank’s joy even as we can’t help but notice that the bright ray of sunlight peeking through the trees is that of the sun setting.
Also pretty much everyone in sets, props, and so on did amazing work. I can’t imagine how much fun was had figuring out the way that the town would slowly age through each time jump in the story. Also I loved the subtle aspects of storytelling, such as how the pictures in Bill’s house obviously started out as his mother’s, but then over time Frank’s influence could be seen in the decorating up to and including putting his own paintings on the walls.
I also appreciated how the story included a lot of subverted expectations, and not in the obnoxious Game of Thrones way. Instead it was in the character beats: Bill is a survivalist but also a foodie. Frank is more outgoing but bad at performing. Bill sings in a higher key than Frank. Bill is out of shape but he’s not the one struck by health problems, and so on. It was the little details that added layers and I liked it.
(Also I appreciated how the show handled Bill’s body type better than the game did, since one of Ellie’s few lines of dialogue to Bill is a fat joke at his expense.)
Finally, I liked how they didn’t use a voiceover for Bill’s letter at the end. Ellie had to read it, and then when she stopped reading we were deprived of the last of it other than the glimpsed words around Joel’s hands clutching the paper. HBO’s The Last of Us continues to be a master class in perspective. In this case, Bill is gone. His voice is silent. He only lives on through those who read his words and, if someone chooses not to, then those words are silenced too.
So just - yeah. Beautifully and mindfully handled episode. Loved it.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else
- Con O’Neill was originally slated to play Bill but was unable to do it thanks to being cast on another HBO show about gay men.
- Word of God according to the companion podcast is that Frank had some kind of degenerative muscular disease like MS or early stage ALS but they didn’t want to get more specific than that. Which makes sense to me since it’s not like Bill or Frank would’ve been able to diagnose what was wrong other than to recognize the symptoms.
- You know how I know the whole thing about how stepping in the wrong spot can alert infected miles away was and continues to be an afterthought not baked into the show? Because it wasn’t included in the “Previously on…” in today’s episode. Not even when Tess’s one sentence explanation of it is made for inclusion in previouslies.
- You know how I also know it’s not baked into the show? Because Ellie and Joel were tromping through the woods, even past spots where known infected had been like the downed plane, and Joel never once reminded Ellie to watch her step.
- I like how Ellie was pestering Joel with questions during the hike. As I’ve discussed multiple times in various places I’m too lazy to link to, portraying 13 and 14 year old girls is very hard. Often it’s forgotten that this is an age where they are straddling the line of still being children while getting their first taste of being adults. Ellie’s constant questions were a great way to show that in spite of it all she is still a child.
- Shout out to Pedro Pascal’s line reading on “pancake mix.” Those two words told you everything you needed to know about how often Joel has mentally relived Sarah’s last day and how things could’ve happened differently based on seemingly innocuous choices.
- I like how Ellie was happy to find tampons even as the history buff in me wonders how likely it would be that she would even know what they were. The concept of tampons has a long history but at 20 years into the apocalypse how would a 14 year old be familiar with the disposable kind? There are a lot more sustainable menstruation solutions for that kind of world. It was still a cute moment though.
- Joel didn’t bother checking the store for infected when they got in? That’s n00b strats right there.
- My one “you didn’t ask a gay person” flag on the play in Bill and Frank’s whole section is the idea that Frank wouldn’t have been suspicious of the government back in 2003. Sure, he wouldn’t have been as suspicious as Bill. But 2003 was the height of Dubya using the attack on 9/11 to implement things like the PATRIOT ACT as well as the ramp up to the 2004 election where hatred of gay people was used as a motivator to get conservatives to the polls. Queer people and other minorities absolutely knew better than to feel safe under Dubya’s time in office.
- Tess telling Bill and Frank that she and Joel aren’t bad people directly contradicts her belief about the two of them at the time she died. Which makes me wonder if Tess was lying - which I respect - or if at that point in the apocalypse she and Joel weren’t that bad yet.
- Shout out to my friend Len Maessen for confirming the part about The Last of Us Part 1 not being revolutionary in terms of stealth and survival mechanics. Again I recommend her newsletter if you enjoy reading about the gaming world.
- Finally, rest in peace Annie Wersching who played Tess in the game. And, as always, fuck cancer.
That’s all for this week. See you next time!