I’m not sure if I’m hooked on new HBO zombie series, but this one episode was amazing to watch

When I first heard news about the The Last of Us, HBO’s live-action adaptation of the video game of the same name, it was, to put it mildly, a bit of a turn-off.

For my tastes in film, movie treatments of video games have never been a big draw because they’ve never turned out well in the films I have seen. (See Lara Croft, Prince of Persia, etc.) Plus, my attention span issues have precluded the video game addictions that come so easily to so many others.

Add to this the fact that The Last Of Us is essentially a zombie movie with fungi rather than, well, whatever pathogens that all the other zombie films and TV series say ended civilization as we know it.

I thought, “Oh, hell no. Not another zombie series.”

I gave up on The Walking Dead a long time ago because while the character-driven story arcs in that show could still be interesting, those plotlines had to be interspersed with far too many repetitive zombie encounters that felt like all the same old zombie encounters. There are only so many ways you can create a zombie encounter on live action video.

But I’m in one of those frustrating in-between times in my streaming choices where the series I’ve been watching have ended completely, or are at the end of a season.

And since I have HBO Max and The Last of Us seemed to be getting good buzz for the first couple of episodes, I decided to dive in.

So far it’s pretty good for “just another” zombie apocalypse show. The Cordyceps fungus angle introduces some twists that are just different enough to be interesting. (There are about 600 species of Cordyceps in the real world BTW.)

The writing and acting are good, as are the rest of the things that make a television show engaging.

But the show went from very good to outstanding in the span of one episode — the third episode, to be exact — when the showrunners decided to devote nearly the entire episode to the unconventional same-sex love story of Bill (a gruff, solitary doomday prepper) and Frank (a stranger whom Bill ends up saving and then falling in love with).

To fully understand how amazing this episode was you have to understand that their relationship was not fully defined nor explored in the video game:

If you watched ‘Long Long Time’, the third episode of HBO’s post-apocalyptic series and are only just emotionally recovering, fans of the critically acclaimed Sony exclusive got the answer to a question that has been teased and theorized about for years: are Bill and Frank gay in The Last of Us game?

Giving audiences respite from the action-packed first two episodes, we’re transported back to 2003, a few days after the fungal outbreak that would decimate much of the world’s human population. We’re introduced to Bill (Nick Offerman) a “survivalist” who establishes his own paradise in the evacuated township of Lincoln. He sets up boobytraps and an electrified fence for protection while becoming totally self-sufficient for food and, perhaps most importantly, fine wine which he looted from the local liquor store. What he doesn’t anticipate is meeting Frank (Murray Bartlett) and how they would find love, hope and purpose in a bleak world. That, ultimately, is what The Last of Us, games and series, is about. Here’s how the show diverged and expanded on their story and if Bill and Frank are gay in The Last of Us game.

When you meet Bill in the games, Joel and Ellie are in need of guidance and supplies and as a player, you have to navigate your way through Bill’s traps. Joel and Ellie end up alerting a pack of Infected and Bill comes to the rescue. After the chaos dies down and Joel explains his mission to protect Ellie as they venture across the country, Bill mentions Frank but doesn’t go much into detail about the nature of their relationship. “Once upon a time, I had somebody that I cared about, it was a partner, somebody I had to look after. And in this world that sort of shit is good for one thing, gettin’ ya killed,” he says.

Not long after, the three of them find a decomposing body hanging from a rope. Bill is visibly upset but tries to remain composed. He confirms the body is Frank and notices the body has been bitten by Infected. “He was my partner, he’s the only idiot that would wear a shirt like that,” Bill says. Joel theorizes that Frank hung himself after becoming infected, though a nearby suicide note suggests the pair had a falling out—“I want you to know I hated your guts,” Frank wrote.

After you’ve got what supplies you need, you take Bill’s car to aid Joel and Ellie’s cross-country journey. In a cut-scene, Ellie reveals she helped herself to a pile of magazines. “I’m sure your ‘friend’ will be missing this tonight,” she says and the player will notice it’s an adult magazine with a man on the cover. “Light on the reading but it’s got some interesting photos,” she jests. Joel tells her the magazine isn’t for kids. She then asks why some of the pages are “stuck together” and Joel can’t figure out how to answer her. “I’m just f—king with you,” she tells Joel and throws the magazine out the window. We never see Bill again though he is mentioned a few more times in both The Last of Us Part I and the sequel.

“The word ‘partner’ is used and it’s in a limited emotional sense,” the episode’s director Peter Hoar told Entertainment Weekly of how the game hints at Bill and Frank’s relationship. “You’re like, ‘Business partner maybe?’ And this is why I love the way they told that story [in the game] because it feels like it happens just off camera and then you have to run away again, ’cause games can’t stop.”

In The Last of Us game, these are the only hints we’re given as to Bill’s sexual orientation but, as mentioned, the HBO series expands on his story significantly. In episode three, we learn Bill’s origin story of sorts. When the fungal outbreak—which would quickly decimate most of humanity—began, his town of Lincoln is evacuated. Residents are taken to quarantine zones (QZs) but if there was no room for them, they would be executed. “Dead people can’t be infected,” Joel (Pedro Pascal) tells Ellie (Bella Ramsey) upon discovering a mass grave not far from the town. Bill, however, is delighted he can finally be alone. He spends time raiding Home Depot, building an electric fence and setting boobytraps to protect against The Infected and raiders, while becoming totally self-sufficient in terms of food and, perhaps more importantly, fine wine that he procures from the local liquor store.

For four years, he lives in total solitude—which suits Bill just fine. But everything changes when Frank accidentally stumbles into one of Bill’s traps trying to make it to the Boston QZ. Cautious of his new guest, Bill offers Frank a hot meal with a fine wine pairing, a hot shower and fresh clothes. They initially bond over their enjoyment of the finer things. When Frank notices a vintage piano, he digs out a Linda Ronstadt book of sheet music and plays, clumsily, ‘Long Long Time’. Bill steps in and offers his own emotional rendition. The pair are moved and when Frank asks who the girl is that Bill is singing about, Bill says, “it’s not a girl”. They kiss and when they retire to the bedroom, their exchanges are sweet and awkward. Frank adds he’d like to stay a few more days and 16 years later, they’re still together.

There is so much that feels not usual about this in the HBO series.

First of all, they are older men who become ever older and more grizzled as the episode progresses. Just the act of showing old gay men being tender and kissing feels out of the ordinary.

Hollywood also tends to portray gay men as being urban hipsters and not sympathetically as doomsday-prepping gun lovers. Not that we need gay gun lovers in multitudes on-screen. I’m sure they exist, but not in huge quantities. I could be wrong.

I won’t give away the ending of the third episode, but I will say that it’s heart-rendingly well-crafted. It’s not a gut punch or overplayed for pathos as much as it’s just another sad story in a world now full of sad stories. But it still felt revolutionary as I was watching it, and I’ve been watching gay episodes of TV series for a very long time.

The show’s treatment of same-sex relationships and love points to other issues about the current state of our politics in this country.

We are seeing a shocking retrenchment concerning LGBT issues in the GOP specifically, and the American right-wing in general.

I have witnessed the ebb and flow of LGBT issues for half a century. Any of our successes have always brought about a certain amount of political and religious backlash. But it was a small backlash here and there, not usually the widespread systemic backlash we are seeing now.

I think the acceptance of LGBT lives in Hollywood is here to stay and no amount of posturing by right-wing congresspeople and school boards is going to change that.

They might be able to ban our books in libraries, but the time of them being able to dictate morals to Hollywood is long past. And Hollywood is a far more powerful arbiter of mores than hard-copy libraries will ever be again.

Hollywood is getting better at presenting LGBT lives as just another fact of life rather than as a political selling point. Kids growing up now, unless they have extraordinarily controlling parents, are presented more all the time with LGBT characters that are just a part of everyday life. I see that in the undergraduates I deal with at work, to the extent that I am exposed to their thoughts on cultural issues.

That is not to say that we should not be vigilant. Germany had a remarkably well-formed liberal society in the late 1920s and we all know how that turned out. The term “never again” should always be paired with “It could happen again.”

Below are two videos.

The top one is a taste of Bill and Frank’s unstated (but hinted at) relationship in the video game.

The bottom is from episode three of the current HBO series. Note that it’s a doozy of a spoiler I still can’t watch without getting teary-eyed.

Nick Offerman (right) and Murray Bartlett play Frank and Bill, respectively, in a moving episode of “The Last of Us.”

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