The Last of Us is at its best when it diverts from the game
Episode 3 is the first time the show has managed to subvert our expectations.
By: Adam Starkey
At last, The Last of Us has taken a big swing.
The HBO series has been widely hailed as the best video game adaptation ever – a statement that, while dismissive of Netflix’s Castlevania and other titles, is hard to argue with. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are perfectly cast, the production design screams prestige, while the clickers are as unsettling as you could hope for. For everyone that’s played the game, this is likely how you imagined its translation to the small screen and it's no surprise it's quickly been renewed for season 2.
A faithful adaptation, however, isn’t always the most riveting. When many scenes are replicated shot-for-shot from the source material, the show can feel like a rigid cover version instead of a standalone composition. This might be the point entirely. When you have sales surging by 230 per cent for the recently released The Last of Us remake, a safe, direct adaptation might be the smartest move to onboard those who don’t typically engage with modern video games.
By the third episode’s conclusion though, any cynicism around the show’s creative merit can largely be given the finger (or the fungus). If the first two episodes followed the same mould as The Road, The Walking Dead and countless other post-apocalyptic fiction, episode 3 is when The Last of Us soars beyond the genre’s rudiments. Crucially, it proves how exciting this adaptation can be when it’s unshackled from the source material’s linear track.
In the episode, after a catch-up with Joel and Ellie’s whereabouts, we shift back to the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. It’s here we’re introduced to lone survivor Bill (Nick Offerman) who, after dodging the evacuation of his hometown by FEDRA soldiers, sets up the place as his personal trap-laden facility to keep infected, and everyone else, at bay.
His closed-off paranoia is challenged by the arrival of Frank (Murray Bartlett), a wandering survivor who falls into one of Bill’s traps. After he reluctantly throws some generosity Frank’s way by offering a shower and a fine dining breather, the episode relaxes into a tender, affecting gay love story which supercuts through the years of their relationship. Everything from their first kiss, domestic spats, first encounter with armed raiders, up to their heartbreaking – yet in the apocalyptic circumstances, fortunate – deaths in old age.
It’s a beautiful examination of a life-changing relationship, rooted in both the wider tragedy and the humdrum squabbles. When an intimate sex scene cuts to a sweary yell three years later over Frank’s insistence on maintaining the surrounding properties, it feels like a natural, lived-in depiction of coupling up in the apocalypse. After the shared experience of our own pandemic, the pair’s strive for civilised normalcy against extreme conditions rings with added resonance.
The way it depicts a mature gay relationship is an understated revelation too. When LGBTQ representation largely skews towards coming-of-age stories, hook-up culture, or tragedy in the AIDS crisis, there’s something powerful about seeing a gay couple endure and grow old together against the backdrop of a world-ending virus.
In many cases, portrayals of older gay couples in TV have previously been confined to comedies, from outdated camp stereotypes in Vicious to Grace & Frankie’s tale of two husbands who come out later in life. In comparison, Bill and Frank’s dynamic in The Last of Us feels like a grounded, defining new benchmark.
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On all fronts, this is the first time the show has managed to surprise against expectations in the game and sci-fi TV conventions. In the original game, Bill and Frank’s relationship isn’t seen at all, with only thinly sketched notes and hints in the dialogue that leave a fleeting impression at best. At the main emotional beat, when Bill is faced with Frank’s dead body, his brief mourning is quickly sidelined as Joel and Ellie rush to their next escape.
Without having to be locked into Joel and Ellie’s perspective, the TV adaptation has the opportunity to explore the world of The Last of Us through characters off the beaten path. Co-creator Neil Druckmann has said this episode was born out of that mentality, and a desire from co-creator Craig Mazin to prioritise "character drama" moments.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press, Druckmann recalled Mazin saying: "What if we told this whole other story of this thing that’s hinted at in the game of this Bill and Frank relationship? What if we flesh that out and build this beautiful story of the love these two felt for each other and we can jump around throughout the years in a way we couldn’t in the game?"
The decision to amplify Bill and Frank’s relationship feels especially pointed in light of the franchise’s history. In 2020, the game’s sequel made headlines after it was subjected to review bombing from a small vocal contingent who, among other criticisms, took umbrage with the game’s expanded LGBTQ diversity. By reframing Bill and Frank into the spotlight, whose relationship was originally a passing footnote, this episode feels like it realigns two overlooked characters into the series’ esteemed roster of diverse representation.
The Last Of Us, unfortunately, doesn’t quite reach these stellar heights again in the coming episodes, instead opting for the traditional route. It’s understandable, yet this third episode is an exciting demonstration of what’s possible when the show dares to step out from the game’s shadow. The sooner a bolder and more daring second season digs into the cracks, the better.
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