Spoilers ahead. Love often finds you in the unlikeliest of places — and that can include in the midst of a decades-long, zombie-creating global pandemic. Just look at Bill and Frank. In the latest episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, viewers were introduced to the duo, played by Nick Offerman and White Lotus’ Murray Bartlett in the unlikeliest of ways. For context, Bill (Offerman) — a survivalist — has spent the previous several years since the Cordyceps outbreak holed up in his home in a Boston suburb. He’s content-ish. And more importantly, he’s alone. Then comes Frank, who stumbles across one of Bill’s booby traps while trying to get to safety. What starts out as a stand-off between two people just trying to survive an end-of-the-world pandemic quickly evolves, and by the time Frank gingerly asks Bill if he’s “ever done this before” (this being intimate with a man) as he timidly touches him after a shared kiss, we’re all hooked.
And so begins the true heart of one of the season’s best — and most heart-wrenching — episodes. Throughout TLOU's episode 3, viewers follow the pair as they meet (forget dating apps; in a post-apocalyptic world literal traps are the new meet-cute), tentatively connect over a shared love of music, and then proceed to share a life of 16 years together; one largely characterised by Frank trying to imbue their limited world with joy and beauty via planted strawberries, lavish meals, and stunning paintings, and with Bill, intent on keeping them safe, pretty much fighting him every step of the way. We’re given a small glimpse into their fragile almost two decades-long domesticity, a small oasis amidst the barren landscape of the outbreak.
The touching romance is also a major deviation from the titular video game, in which players are only introduced to Bill via his limited interactions with Joel. Frank doesn't appear in the game and is only alluded to (there’s long been speculation surrounding whether or not Bill and Frank were romantically involved in the game). If gamers were surprised by this more in-depth exploration, they weren’t alone. The game’s creator and co-president of Naughty Dog Neil Druckmann was similarly shocked.
“If you were to ask me several years ago, before I met Craig [Mazin, Druckmann’s co-creator], would you be okay with someone coming in and completely changing the fate of one of the main characters? I would have been like hell no, there's no way,” Druckmann tells Refinery29.
But Druckmann knew he wanted to see more Frank in the series, because fans knew there was more. “[In the game], you meet Bill and he's this hardcore survivalist, this conservative guy, and then you find out he's had this partner named Frank that he loved very much but he lost because he was too focused on survival and didn't love his partner back in the way that his partner wanted to be loved, which is appreciating life, and art, and all these other aspects that make us human,” Druckmann says.
It wasn’t until Druckmann teamed up with Craig Mazin, who created shows like HBO’s Chernobyl, that the idea of just how to explore these characters changed. Instead of learning about Bill and Frank’s relationship secondhand through Joel’s perspective, “what if instead we saw that backstory?” Druckmann muses. “You got to experience the moment they met and fell in love and then we jump through time in several instances and show what it's like for two middle-aged men to move past that moment of pure romance. And then what happens when you feel that loss at the end of a life that's been fulfilled?”
The answer to that question is, as viewers now know, you’re given an episode of purely emotional, devastating television. “This beautiful story emerged out of it,” Druckmann says. “And even though it's very, very different from the game, I was okay with that change because what we were getting in return was so beautiful for this medium, for this version of the story, and it felt like a worthwhile change.”
“Long Long Time” is arguably the best — if not most emotional — episode in an already incredible season, an adaptation that’s been heralded as “the greatest video game adaptation of all time.” For Druckmann, who helmed the original video game series, taking on an adaptation like this, when video game adaptations have historically been pretty hit and miss (and mostly miss, at that), was nerve-racking. Druckmann says he’s been thinking about this story and these characters for almost 15 years. An early potential film version petered out before he teamed up with HBO and Mazin in 2020. “I think had we stayed with [the film], it would have been a much lesser version of the show and the game,” Druckmann says. “I actually reached a point where I started thinking maybe this thing should never get adapted; because if we can't match the game or top it in some interesting way, then why even do it? It'll just be disappointing to everyone involved and everyone that worked so hard to make the game as special as it was.”
For Druckmann, it was prioritising the story over spectacle, and the relationships and connections over the elaborate special effects makeup of the infected. And most importantly, the show's core theme: love. “This is a story about love and more specifically, the unconditional love a parent feels for their child,” Druckmann says. “How far would you go to protect your kid? What kind of beautiful and horrific things would you commit in order to protect your kid? So everything spawns off of that… There was an opportunity to leave Joel's perspective and show you the people that are antagonistic towards him or show you Bill and Frank, for example, and really flesh out that relationship in order to speak back to that concept of love.”
The final product, HBO’s second most-watched series premiere in over a decade (behind House of the Dragon), isn’t only honouring the work of Naughty Dog and the hundreds of people who made TLOU happen all the way in the early 2010s, but is promising for video games now and to come. (Druckmann says there’s been a surge in interest, via the “halo effect,” in the game since the premiere.) And that can only mean good things for video game adaptations in general.
“There are certain people that are watching this show and loving it, and thinking, ‘Wait, that’s based on a video game?’ because their concept of video games is below where video games are,” Druckmann says. “There’s a wealth of amazing experiences, rich stories, and characters that exist in this other medium that some people are just not aware of. …[This is] going to start opening the doors for more people to pay attention to games, it’s going to allow talent from other mediums to come out of games, but also come back into games.”
New episodes of The Last Of Us air in Australia on Mondays on BINGE.