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The Last of Us, Episode 3 marks the first major deviation from the game – and it couldn’t have gone better

Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann took us on a journey of what it means to protect and risk in the latest episode – and provided nuance the game never could.

I know that the ‘curse of video game adaptations’ has long been broken, but I did not expect The Last of Us to potentially provide us with one of the best episodes of TV in 2023. Yes, that’s a dramatic statement to make this early on in the year, but a character study of this flavour – bold, subtle, heart-warming and heart-rending, all in equal measure – doesn’t come along all that often.

Protagonist duo Joel and Ellie only bookend this episode; they’re supporting acts against the backdrop of Bill and Frank’s love story – a story that bloomed like fungus on the dank, bleak set of a world that’s falling apart. Joel (with a bruised body and a broken heart) plans to stop off at a compound owned by the two men as he comes to terms with his new life, smuggling people instead of products.


Could this be one of 2023's best episodes of TV? Yes.

After a brief bit of contextualising, we’re whipped back to 2003. To the beginning of the end, when the cordyceps first began to wrap its tendrils around mankind’s future and drag it writhing into the dirt. Bill, back then, was just a lonely, run-of-the mill doomsday prepper, well-equipped to deal with this unprecedented biological apocalypse. He had everything he needed to bunker down and live out his life. Well, the shadow of a life at least. Equipped with a gas mask, an intricate CCTV system, and enough firepower to repel an entire army, he was set for life in this nice little walled community. He even raided the wine store. It could be worse.

Four years later, the most unlikely thing happened. An intruder broke down the barriers around Bill – metaphorically and physically. His charm, his vulnerability, and his appreciation for Bill’s taste in nice things allowed him to slink coyly through the lonely, angry man’s barriers. And make a home for himself inside. A well-cooked rabbit (paired nicely with the refreshing acidity of a vintage beaujolais, no less) set the scene, and a completely unexpected amateur rendition of Linda Rondstadt’s Long Long Time carried it forward.

Bill and Frank fell in love. Galvansied by the tragedy of everything they’d lived through so far, the two became close. But trauma isn’t forgotten lightly, and even in the most mundane of everyday conversations, Bill’s mistrust and hostility to the outside world would show. An optimist, and a coy orator, Frank managed to get his nails under Bill’s carapace and pry it off – letting his untended, but tender, heart breathe in the air of this unsuspecting utopia they’d made for themselves.

It's really not that hard to get gay intimacy right.

This is not the Bill that Joel meets in The Last of Us, Part 1. This is not the same Bill we know from the games. That Bill – more weathered, more angry, more parable – served to highlight one terminus for Joel; a man ensnared by his own bitterness, shaped by anger, ruining the lives of those around him because he refused to move out of the emotional stasis created by his daughter’s death.

Bill, in the game, drives Frank to suicide. It’s subtle, and a lot of it is dealt with off-screen, but Bill and Frank are caught in a relationship shaped by resentment and control, and Bill’s rejection of the outside world – even with a man he loves as much as Frank at his side – causes the latter to attempt to flee this prison of his husband’s making. Only to get bitten, and kill himself before he can do anything to affect Bill further.

Linda? I barely knew her.

The TV show version of this relationship still ends in tragedy, but there’s a dark romance to it, really. Frank instead contracts cancer, and wishes to see out his days with a marriage, a nice meal, and a long, long sleep. Bill – at once only pragmatic and clinical about the application of his heavily guarded resources – is seen watering the flowers as Frank sits and tries to paint. As a viewer, you quickly become aware that this nicely-kept home, protected and nourished in equal measure as both men grew to fit into the gaps in each others’ lives, will become their mausoleum.

A joint-suicide later, this tragic – yet somehow achingly beautiful – love story draws its last breath. And all to the soundtrack of Max Richter’s impeccable ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, too – perhaps one of the most affecting and beautiful bits of musical accompaniment I’ve seen in TV in years.

The lesson Joel learns from this? Soften up. The message in the game, as we watch Bill’s life crumble as he realises there’s nothing you can do to keep the outside world from getting in, is "don't be like me". In the TV show, it’s less of a parable. It’s more compassionate, more self-knowing, and more reflective. It does more justice to Bill’s obvious intelligence, and doesn’t believe the love he had for Frank. "I learned that people like us have a purpose," he writes – explicitly – in the note he leaves for Joel. Here, he is a guide – not a warning.

This story represents The Last of Us’ first major deviation from the games, and it absolutely sticks the landing. Letting these two men have agency over their death – and enjoy a positive, nice story – is a change that works really well. Yes, Druckmann and Mazin are quite literally ‘burying their gays’, but they’re doing it in a way that allows them peace and dignity in the context of a world that would take that away from you in a heartbeat.

Leaving us seeing Joel and Ellie drive away, looking through the open window of Bill and Frank’s bedroom, lets us see things from their perspective. It lets us hope that, maybe, Bill has helped Joel find a better path – even if it’s not the easiest one.

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