Praise Pours in for Gay Love Story Episode of 'The Last of Us'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday January 30, 2023

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in HBO's 'The Last of Us'
Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in HBO's 'The Last of Us'  (Source:HBO)

The latest episode of HBO's post-apocalyptic drama "The Last of Us" centers on a gay love story — and everyone's going nuts for it.

The Jan. 29 installment — titled "Long Long Time," and scripted by series co-creator Craig Mazin — tells the story of a gay survivalist named Bill (Nick Offerman) and his long-time partner Frank (out actor Murray Bartlett), who have not only managed to survive a global pandemic (and the brutal governmental response to it), but also help run a smuggling operation that moves vital supplies through what's left of civilization. It's in the role of smugglers that the couple tangentially intersects the larger story, which follows main characters Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) on their journey across a ravaged America.

But while Joel and Ellie do play a part in the latest installment, the focus is on the history of Bill and Frank's life together — a romance born in tragedy that blossoms in a decimated world and reaches a bittersweet conclusion when Bill opts to die alongside the ailing Frank rather than live without him.

"The episode is many things, all of them great," Rolling Stone raved in its recap, going on to praise the casting of Bill and Frank by saying, "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."

Esquire, too, mused about the casting choices. "Bartlett, an openly gay actor whose most famous roles have been as gay characters in 'The White Lotus,' 'Welcome to Chippendales' and 'Looking,' is a well-chosen scene partner," the magazine's writeup noted. "There's a good chance Bartlett will be playing a gay character: the idea that Offerman's character might be too blossoms as delicately as the pair's relationship."

In the source material — the 2013 video game of the same name — the relationship is there, but if players blinked (or simply didn't catch on), they were liable to miss it, Polygon noted. In a game segment called "Bill's Town," Joel and Ellie team up with Bill to avoid zombie-like victims of the pandemic — which has turned much of the world's population into mindless cannibals — and Bill's backstory with Frank is revealed when the trio discover Frank's body. The two are lovers in the game, as well, but Frank had left Bill some time before. "He got bit, they learned, and wanted to die before turning," Polygon recounted.

The nature of Bill and Frank's relationship is communicated through a brief snippet of ambiguous dialogue ("He was my partner. And he's the only idiot who would wear a shirt like that.") Moreover, Polygon noted, "There's a note the player can pick up near the body, but it's easy to miss."

The article went on to reflect, "It's a harsh contrast to the Bill and Frank we see in the show, where a tender love grows in the apocalypse.... It's a romance that makes for one of the best episodes of 'The Last of Us,' and stands out among prestige TV, too."

But not everyone was a fan of the TV version's take. Primetimer was skeptical about the use of an entire episode to tell the story of guest characters, and critical of the way the adaptation handled the gay characters and their relationship.

Recalling that the original video game "garnered as much praise for its handling of queer relationships" as condemnation for how it handled subjects from "race to trans characters," Primetimer critiqued Mazer's alteration of the gay couple's trajectory, saying that Mazer's adaptation "imagines a world where, in spite of the overwhelming disaster around them, Bill and Frank... are in a loving and happy relationship," and summarizing that relationship by calling Bill and Frank "a perfect gay couple, a 'normal' gay couple, in a world in which the mere thought of taking care of someone else is something of a death sentence."

Calling the episode "saccharine" and "cloying," Primetimer went on to say, "The change marks one of the most egregious pivots away from the show's core story — that of Joel and Ellie — that feels like an explicit attempt to court praise."

What did you think of the way HBO's adaptation told the story of Bill and Frank?

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.