The last decade of television has been no stranger to queerness, and HBO’s canon is especially familiar with placing queer characters in the forefront of its stories — think “House of the Dragon” and “Euphoria.” Nevertheless, audiences were surprised to find a powerful gay love story hidden in the third episode of a video-game-turned-television-blockbuster.
Whether because of its genre or its origins, “The Last of Us” didn’t initially appear to be penned as queer media — at least not in its very first season, which is based entirely on the first of two games in the franchise. This is because “The Last of Us Part I,” the first game in the franchise, doesn’t have the outright queer representation that its follow-up game does, so any such representation would have to be deliberately scoured for.
Yet, when “Long, Long Time” premiered, audiences were met with an emotional, character-driven love story. Bill (Nick Offerman), a manic doomsday prepper, and Frank (Murray Bartlett), a starving survivor, cross paths contentiously at first, but quickly grow to find comfort, tenderness and a love that spans decades in a newly ravaged world. For those who played the game, these characters might not have been a surprise, though the show explores them with a capaciousness that the game simply lacks.
Beyond mere standards of inclusion and representation, HBO’s “The Last of Us” crafts these queer characters thoughtfully and authentically, depicting their love without the trauma or violence that too often accompanies queer love in modern media.
How does “The Last of Us” achieve this? Well, it’s quite simple: by exempting the emotional trauma, psychological pain and physical violence that has permeated nearly all depictions of queer love in media. In Bill and Frank’s story, there’s a noticeable absence of bloodshed and violence — though, of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of conflict and struggle. Notably, the two are forced to fight off invaders, work through relationship turmoil and ultimately die together in a consensual assisted suicide. Undoubtedly, these experiences sound quite violent, but this isn’t at all how it feels watching the episode on-air. The two find compromise, enshrine their love, win against the invaders and agree to end their lives in an act of mercy (both are elderly and Frank is terminally ill).
So, while there is certainly violence in “Long Long Time,” it is not directed at Bill and Frank for being queer and is never derived from ill intentions. In fact, Bill makes an important clarification about their life together, stating clearly before their death, “This isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play.” The line feels a bit like writer Craig Mazin speaking directly to the audience, letting viewers know that this story is not one which equates homosexuality with tragedy. This is ultimately how “The Last of Us” intentionally strays from the “bury your gays” media trope; Mazin instead puts forward a storyline that cherishes and celebrates the queer love that it breeds, letting the power come from affection, rather than violence.
This is a crucial deviation from historical depictions of gay romance. According to a 2016 study by Audiostraddle of 1,779 scripted U.S. television series, only 16% of those with lesbian or bisexual female characters provided these characters with a happy ending. In response to this same issue, GLAAD’s 2016 “Where We Are On TV” report stated, “It is important that creators do not reinvigorate harmful tropes, which exploit an already marginalized community.” While it’s important to note that these reports look specifically at female lesbian and bisexual characters — neither Bill nor Frank are women, and their sexual identities are not outright labeled — it’s reasonable to look at recent depictions of queer love in television and extend this idea to the entire LGBTQ+ community.
Take HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” for example, which includes a romance storyline between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell; the former is killed in a gruesome assassination, while the latter is made to grieve his secret lover. Or “Euphoria,” whose transgender character Jules is blackmailed and emotionally abused by her own pseudo-queer love interest. On the opposite side, however, there are some quite powerful and necessary stories which counter this trope, such as Netflix’s groundbreaking adaptation of “Heartstopper.”
Noting that these forms of representation are indeed harmful, it’s also important to recognize that “The Last of Us” is not a perfect depiction of queer love or antithesis to this trope; both characters still end up dying, and both are cis white men who certainly don’t embody the entirety of the LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, “Long Long Time” is an important step in the right direction and may serve as a popular standard for challenging the ways in which the television industry views, perpetuates and celebrates queer love. Just as Bill and Frank’s love is forever monumentalized by “Long Long Time,” so should the lesson “The Last of Us” teaches us — that queer love can certainly exist disentangled from the violence that has riddled this community for decades.