Why HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ rewrote the love story of Bill and Frank
In “Long, Long Time,” the latest episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” we enter Bill’s never-before-seen romantic life. Fans of the game may notice some big deviations from the source material, as characters are given reimagined lives.
In the game, we meet Bill only briefly, as protagonists Joel and Ellie pass through his town in hopes of scrounging together a working vehicle for their journey across a post-apocalyptic America. We discover Bill wasn’t always solo — his romantic partner, Frank, died by suicide after becoming infected. The game doesn’t linger on these details long, with only small nudges and insinuations through dialogue and text, but there’s a sense that the relationship ended bitterly.
In comparison, we meet a more vulnerable Bill (played by Nick Offerman) in the TV show, who spends nearly two decades alongside Frank (Murray Bartlett) as they build a peaceful life together while the outside world fights for survival during a zombie apocalypse. This peek into their mostly tranquil life, which the game never offered, is more than welcome, especially when extended happiness — let alone between a queer couple — is so rare in this universe.
It’s a change showrunner Craig Mazin said he came up with to “go deeper” with Bill and Frank, and to offer a “breather” after two quick-moving, action-oriented episodes. It’s also a solution to translate a gameplay-heavy section of the game to the big screen. During the writing process, Mazin told Neil Druckmann, co-creator of the show and game, that he was “about to write something [Druckmann] would not recognize.”
“As much as I loved playing it, I thought maybe we would do something wildly different,” Mazin told The Washington Post in a recent interview. He recalled feeling impressed by the game’s revelation of Bill having a partner, explaining how it’s unexpected, especially because of Bill’s presentation as a “paranoid nutter” and a “cranky, very straight-acting, annoying guy.” He’s not someone you’d necessarily expect to have a romantic backstory, Mazin said.
“There was this tragedy to the way it ended,” he said. “And I thought, ‘well, what if we actually go really deep into that? And it doesn’t necessarily have to end the same way as it ended in the game. It can end quite differently.’”
The change to Bill’s story gives us new context for who he is, who he becomes, and the positive effect he’s had on others. But it also brings us to a new conclusion, with Bill and Frank growing elderly and Frank eventually falling ill. Unable to care for himself, his quality of life wanes, and he requests a wedding ceremony the two can celebrate together that ends with Frank taking his own life. To Frank’s surprise — and perhaps to the audience’s as well — Bill consumes enough pills “to kill a horse” alongside him.
The story is heartbreaking, but Mazin considers it nonetheless hopeful.
“We had a chance to ask: what happens when a character in this world is actually, relatively safe?” Mazin said. “What do they do? What do they need? Can we give somebody a happy ending? And I think they have a happy ending. I do. They win. They get this whole life together. And when it ends, it ends on their terms as they desire. It’s also important to show to the audience that there was a chance for things to be okay, and for love to flourish, and to conclude well.”
Rather than having to fight for their love, Bill and Frank simply exist together. For Mazin, it was an opportunity to delve deeper into more perspectives of how love can manifest in the post-apocalypse.
“I wanted to explore this fundamental thematic dichotomy that comes up over and over as we watch the series, and that is that there are two very different kinds of love,” Mazin said.
Mazin explained that the way Frank shows love is, as the character says in the episode, by “paying attention to things,” as he performs renovations on the town, plants beautiful gardens, and occasionally surprises Bill with these to show affection. Bill, on the other hand, shows love through protection. As they grow closer, a profound fear of loss is felt, particularly by Bill, one that is reminiscent of how Joel cares for Ellie. “I was never afraid before you showed up,” he tells Frank in a moment of vulnerability.
Exploring these new perspectives became possible as Mazin, Druckmann, and the rest of the crew worked to build a cinematic experience that expands the fictional world of the games. Mazin saw this episode as another chance to “give context to the time that happened between outbreak day and where we are now in the story.” These stories beyond Joel and Ellie give viewers a chance to experience “The Last of Us” in a reimagined light. In some cases this has worked well, while others are more heavily debated. Perhaps we’ll see more of these kinds of stories as the series continues in the months ahead, and beyond in its second season.