Big deviations in the source material for adaptations can be a scary thing. The history of movie/TV adaptations is littered with examples of where this has gone horribly wrong. Every now and again the right combination of magic comes along that sees such changes not only succeed, but manage to transcend the original story. The third episode of The Last of Us does exactly that.
The latest episode of The Last of Us, “Long, Long Time,” made a pretty bold departure from the game by offering fans a deep look into the lives (and backstory) of Bill and Frank. It also served as a drastic departure from the show’s primary story, as the focus shifts largely away from Joel and Ellie who are recuperating from the sudden loss of Tess. Instead, we get an hour’s worth of Bill and Frank, a pair of characters in the game you never actually see interacting together. The result is possibly the best episode of television I’ve witnessed. Seriously, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
I won’t detail the whole episode here for you—you can read io9’s recap here—or belabor the need to build monuments to Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett (as awards aren’t nearly enough for the performances they gave). If you haven’t played the game, or it’s been a while since your last playthrough, you may not realize how big a deal this is. Moreso, how this major change actually works better with the themes of the story than the original approach.
In both the game and show, Bill is portrayed as a paranoid “doomsday prepper” who ends up entering into a smuggling/trading deal with Joel and Tess over the years. In the game, Frank is only ever mentioned and it’s evident he and Bill had a falling out some time before our main characters show up. Later on, Joel, Ellie, and Bill end up stumbling upon Frank’s corpse in an abandoned house, the man having hanged himself after getting infected. The only thing left behind is a suicide note addressed to Bill, in which Franky clearly states dying alone was preferable to another day with his “partner.”
Bill is clearly upset about it, but rather than seeing it as a moment for self-reflection, he takes it as proof his ways are correct. Bill uses the discovery of Frank’s body as an example for Joel that one should avoid attachments in this new world, stating, “Once upon a time I had someone I cared about. It was a partner. Somebody I had to look after. And in this world that sort of shit’s good for one thing: gettin’ ya killed. So, you know what I did? I wisened the fuck up. And I realized it’s gotta be just me.”
There’s no deeper insight to Bill’s backstory presented in the game. By the time his part of the story is done, gamers are left looking at him as something of a cautionary tale. A fate to be avoided as Bill’s fear turned into a self-fulling prophecy, leaving him more alone than ever before. It’s a downer.
The show, however, flips that entirely on its head and instead gives us a story of love and joy. Episode three showcases the human ability—and need—to find connections in the face of terrible things, and the folly inherent in Bill’s original attitude. In doing so, it breaks through the bleakness of the world, which the first two episodes so expertly established. Bill now serves as an example of what survivors (Joel specifically) should strive towards.
Because the show has done such an excellent job of sticking to the game’s story, with minor changes overall, the sudden departure was all the more shocking. The result is something far stronger and engaging. “Long, Long Time” goes down as a shining example of how making changes when adapting a known story is sometimes necessary.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the game. I fell in love with it when it originally released, and continue to love it through every playthrough (including one going on right now as a result of the show). As is the case with so many things, The Last of Us game is a product of its time. Though we like to think we’ve made sweeping progress since the early 2000s, even in 2013, prominently featuring gay characters/stories in mainstream projects wasn’t a thing. The relationship between Bill and Frank in the game largely comes down to heavy inferences rather than anything overt. I know of plenty of gamers who never made the connection at all!
That’s just how it was. Hell, even today subtle references to queer storylines are frequently met with backlash and anger from those with nothing better to do than record furious YouTube videos in their cars. By changing things up for the show, and showcasing Bill and Frank’s journey as a beautiful love story instead, it’s almost like we’re getting the version the creators always intended. It’s a chance to do something more meaningful with the characters that’s more inline with the story’s messaging.
Being that I’m not a gay man, I can’t exactly speak to certain elements, but even on the “outside” it’s obvious queer stories rarely get the “happy ending.” When they do, it’s often a bookend to the trauma they’ve endured/overcome in order to make it happen. With Frank and Bill, we got to see them as their best selves even though it happened during the worst times. They had their share of struggles and arguments, as any couple would, but they were allowed to live—and die—on their terms.
It’s touching in many ways, especially when you consider the history of closeted men. Both Frank and Bill are old enough to have witnessed the AIDS crisis in the gay community. Now here they are, once again facing a different kind of threat, but as Frank says, “Older means we’re still here.” And that’s not to mention how Outbreak Day takes place in 2003, a full year before gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts. This makes Frank’s resolve to be married before accepting his death all the more meaningful.
Ultimately, the end result for Joel and Ellie remains the same in both the game and the show. They get a truck, a battery, and head off for their next destination, never to see Bill again. The changes made for the show, though providing the same outcome, bring the story’s overall themes into sharper focus.
As the story has been discussed over the past decade, too often I feel many forget what The Last of Us is really about. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the cynicism and terror of the landscape. Between the disparate human groups (whose depravity in the face of survival makes them even more dangerous than infected) and the dictatorial military now serving as a “government,” it’s easy to look at the story as little more than a grimdark, dystopian tale. It’s a tough mindset to shake, especially within the game. The story is interspersed between periods of gameplay in which you’re forced to trudge through this terrible wasteland and kill everything in your path before they kill you (often in very brutal fashion). Even without the combat, a primary aspect of the gameplay is scavenging through the remains of the dead to find supplies. At every turn, you’re confronted with death and the worst that humanity has to offer.
But remember: for all the bleak cynicism, the story of Joel and Ellie is one of hope. Hope that the world can be better, even if it’s only in your small corner of it. This theme comes up a number of times in some of the game’s more memorable dialogue; Tess’ “save who you can save” and Joel’s eventual “no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for” spring to mind immediately. The point of The Last of Us isn’t that people will do whatever is necessary to survive, it’s that mere survival isn’t enough. In order to truly live, you have to find your own peace.
The ending in The Last of Us Part II (which I won’t spoil for those just now getting into the story because of the show) makes this abundantly clear, as Ellie confronts what peace means for her and what she’ll have to sacrifice to attain it. Being alive in these dire times isn’t the same as living. Without hope there’s little reason to go on. Joel learns this throughout his journey, much the same way Ellie does, and through them the player comes to terms with it.
By changing the story of Bill and Frank from the game, The Last of Us show actually feels like it’s sticking closer to those overall themes. Bill is no longer another cynical plot device used in Joel and Ellie’s story, serving as a “warning” to Joel about what may lie ahead for himself if he can’t find a reason to keep fighting. Instead, Bill is an example of what could be. Bill’s words to Frank after their final dinner makes it clear their story isn’t a tragic one, but one of hope and joy: “I’m old, I’m satisfied, and you were my purpose.”
In a way, Bill’s love and final act (summed up in the note Ellie finds) gives Joel permission to open his heart once more—to understand how peace can be attained even in the bleakest situations. In short, it gives Joel hope when he needs it the most. When given the choice between the hate-filled loner in the games, or the man who found peace and purpose while encouraging others to do the same… I’ll choose those strawberries every time.
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