In the video game of “The Last of Us,” Joel and Ellie meet Bill, a lone survivor who is distrustful and unpleasant. He makes reference to a “partner” and seems to suggest he kicked that person out, finding it better to be on his own. After fighting through infected in search of a car battery, the group discovers that that partner, Frank, was bitten by infected and hanged himself rather than turn. It seems that Frank was leaving Bill, and his suicide note is full of vitriol. “I want you to know I hated your guts,” he writes to Bill. “I grew tired of this shitty town and your set-in-your-ways attitude. I wanted more from life than this and you could never get that … Trying to leave this town will kill me. Still better than spending another day with you.”
The HBO show pulls on the thread of Frank’s desire for “more from life than this,” showing the viewer a living Frank who meets Bill when he falls into one of the traps Bill has set up around town, a town he has to himself after refusing to evacuate at the start of the zombie pandemic. Frank dives into intimacy with Bill from the moment they meet, ingratiating his way into dinner at Bill’s house. He’s excited about simple pleasures, enthusing over a hot shower, a delicious meal, Bill’s piano and ultimately Bill himself, as they go to bed together and begin a relationship. Through the years, we see Frank beautify their house and the town, make friends in Joel and Tess and generally relish in whatever life the show’s apocalypse has to offer for as long as he can. His enthusiasm brings Bill out of his loner shell, and the two have a long, relatively happy life together before, aged and infirm, they die by joint suicide.
I was surprised to find a storyline like this in “The Last of Us.” I have to admit that my view of the games isn’t positive — they are beautiful and emotional, but for me, they always come back to brutality and despair in a way I find simplistic. As I wrote in my review of 2020′s “The Last of Us Part 2,” co-creator Neil Druckmann’s work “doesn’t relish in its gory deaths or emotional suffering. It just takes every opportunity to show them, over and over, and decides that counts as saying something about them.” The games’s characters are admirably diverse; a queer storyline in the 2013 game was undoubtedly a leap forward for the medium at the time, and 2014′s “Left Behind” DLC and “The Last of Us Part 2” featured queer and trans storylines that expand video game narratives. But this diversity, to me, ultimately points back to nothing but nihilism: queer people exist in these worlds because we exist in the real world, and they suffer because everyone suffers. At the risk of being crass: I’m a queer trans man, myself. You don’t need to tell me things are bad out here.
So I didn’t expect episode 3 to tell such a positive story, or as positive a story as “The Last of Us” universe can allow. Queer representation in media has a long, thorny history; for most of the 20th century, queer characters were portrayed as villains and loners, and their lives were tragic as a sort of moral instruction. In recent times and some parts of the world, as public opinion of queerness changed and communities made strides in legal recognition and rights, the queer stories available have also changed. Television, film and books have shown queer characters in a more positive light, moving from sidekicks or punchlines into nuanced protagonists with complex lives. Queer characters have been “allowed” to be happy, which has undoubtedly helped a new generation of queer people see themselves and imagine better lives. This has led to a debate among many in queer communities about whether representation itself is the end goal, or whether positive representation runs the risk of simplifying queer lives. It’s a complicated topic with no definitive answer.
In many ways, Bill and Frank’s story embodies this debate. They’re complicated characters, especially Bill; when’s the last time you saw a queer character who was also a prepper, with a Gadsden flag and a basement full of guns? While they fall into certain gay stereotypes — a love of finer things, Frank’s knowledge of antiques, Bill’s fussiness about his home — these qualities stand as humanizing contrasts to their tough exteriors. (Their excellent butch beard game doesn’t hurt, either.) They survive and thrive in the world of “The Last of Us,” creating an abundant life while other people we’ve met so far languish in militarized cities. Most notably — and most differently than the game — they go out on their own terms. They “queer” what death in “The Last of Us” can be; in a world where everything ends in tragedy, they create the happiest ending available to anyone, gay or straight. They’re a lifeline to life itself, to an old world where people could die in more ways than just at the mouth of a zombie or the barrel of a gun.
But however revolutionary their deaths might be for the universe of “The Last of Us,” they still fall into well-worn gay death tropes. It seems that Bill is older than Frank, but Frank succumbs to an unspecified illness and ends up infirm, which ultimately prompts his suicide. If you grew up queer in the 80s and 90s, the image of one gay man pushing another in a wheelchair might look fiercely familiar from the early days of the AIDS crisis and the storytelling that came out of it. Many cis gay men of my generation believed this kind of death was inevitable, that they would die tended to by a lover or they would be the widower left behind. (Bill and Frank’s last day together in particular reminded me of the 1996 film “It’s My Party,” in which an HIV-positive man throws a party before killing himself.) Bill rebels against this trope by dying alongside Frank, but as I watched (and cried) as Bill wheeled Frank around their house and handed him his pills, I thought of how many times I had seen this scene in other movies and television. I wondered why the show’s creators chose to have Frank sicken to lead to Bill and Frank’s deaths when one or both of their ages could have been the inciting factor.
In the time in which they’re shown alive, they also exist as the only two queer people in their world. At one point they argue over having friends, a fight Frank wins by inviting over Joel and Tess, a straight couple. The viewer never sees if they have queer friends, or if they did before. This is, of course, explainable: Bill is a loner by nature, plus there’s the whole apocalypse thing, but the lone queer or isolated couple is another trope I’ve seen in media depictions. While no relationships end happily per se in “The Last of Us,” queer lives are always lonely.
In the “Left Behind” DLC, Ellie has a youthful romance with a girl named Riley; when the two are bitten by infected, they resolve to die together, only for Ellie to outlive Riley when she discovers she’s immune to the infection. In “The Last of Us Part 2,” Ellie ends up alone when her quest for revenge drives her partner Dina from her life. “The Last of Us Part 2′s” trans character Lev seems to be the only trans person in the world, and he loses his religious community, family, and ultimately his life. In the experience of many queer people in the real world, myself included, queer people might face hardship, but we have a community around us; we know people like ourselves. “The Last of Us” depicts queer people when a viewer might not expect to see them, but it still shows them in the same old ways.
I’m not going to definitely declare this “good” or “bad.” A more traditionally happy ending isn’t in the cards for Bill and Frank because it isn’t in the cards for anyone in “The Last of Us.” And queer characters don’t necessarily need happy endings to be nuanced characters or to tell meaningful stories. But while watching the episode, I thought about Ellie’s canonical queerness from the games. Joel and the viewer know so much about Bill and Frank’s queer lives, but Ellie doesn’t. Bill’s suicide note asks whoever finds it not to come into the bedroom, and so she never even sees them. If Ellie is queer in this universe, I wondered what it would have been like for her to meet them, the way she meets Bill in the game. Would it help her imagine the horizons of her own life, the way it has helped so many real-world queer people? I wondered if she could see clues of queerness, hints of herself, in Bill and Frank’s house. Bill’s suicide note is left to “whoever but probably Joel,” and Ellie says “I figured I fell into whoever” — she does, perhaps in more ways than one.
“I used to hate the world and I was happy when everyone died,” Ellie reads. “But I was wrong, because there was one person worth saving.” Bella Ramsey as Ellie stumbles over the second part here. Is she seeing herself in the note? Is she connecting with other queer people through their words, even in this tragic way, just as I did through all the books and movies and plays of my own youth? I am, of course, a real person not living through an apocalypse (maybe this is debatable; not a zombie apocalypse, anyway), and I overcame those tragic stories of my youth by forming a community of other queer and trans people. Will the same possibilities be open to Ellie? It seems unlikely, but given what Bill and Frank’s story shows us in the show, perhaps it’s not impossible.