The Last of Us is pretty much a staple in any gamer-bro's diet, especially if they chug down Mountain Dew like its water. Joel and Ellie are like the dynamic duo, the yin and yang, the Leon and Mathilda (The Professional) of the gaming world. The game came out in 2013 on PlayStation 3 and was hyped up to the max, which sought to capture players’ hearts by placing the father/daughter-like relationship at centre stage of the experience and moulding every other aspect of the game around that relationship. And boy, did it deliver! It received perfect scores from gaming review outlets and sold almost 17 million copies worldwide. It's no surprise that The Last of Us is considered one of the greatest video games ever made.
However in March of 2020, fans of the video game were ecstatic to hear that a TV series adaptation of the franchise was in the works at the firmly established television network HBO. Having been responsible for producing critical masterpieces such as The Sopranos, Chernobyl, Westworld and the blockbuster fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, most fans were more than satisfied, and somewhat relieved, that big daddy HBO was taking care of their beloved The Last of Us TV series.
The Last of Us TV series, helmed by franchise's creative director Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, known for his work on Chernobyl and The Hangover movies, brought relief to fans around the world. And now, as of March 2023, the first season of the show has been a major hit, with over 30 million viewers tuning in to watch the 9 episodes released over 3 months. The series has impressed fans, newcomers, and critics alike, receiving an impressive 8.9/10 on IMDb and 96% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing.
The first season of The Last of Us TV series was based entirely on the 2013 video game and its prequel DLC, Left Behind. It followed Joel and Ellie's journey across a post-apocalyptic United States as they searched for those who wanted to use Ellie's natural immunity to the zombie cordycep virus to manufacture a cure. On the way to their ever-changing destination, the characters would come across all sorts of threats, both human and infected alike through the stunning yet desolate landscapes of post-apocalyptic America. However, the TV series wasn't a complete copy of the game. Neil Druckmann, the creator, intended to deviate from the original game only if the new direction was better than what the game offered.
Change can be scary, especially for die-hard fans of any video game franchise. So, when The Last of Us TV series deviated from the original game, fans were understandably skeptical. Sadly, catering to fans' desires seems to be a rarity in the entertainment industry nowadays. However, the deviations in the TV series adaptation of The Last of Us, in my humble opinion, did an excellent job of adding and subtracting from the original narrative to create a refreshing version of events that was meaningful. Episode 3, "Long, Long Time," was a prime example of this. It focused on the love story between Bill and Frank, Bill being a naturally pessimistic and severely paranoid survivalist, and Frank a cheerful and witty lone survivor who comes across one of Bill’s traps on his way to the Boston Quarantine Zone.
The episode spanned 16 years of what would turn out to be one of the best romance stories TV has produced in recent memory. It was an organic portrayal of true love that avoided generic romance tropes. What made the episode special was its contrast to the story of Bill and Frank in the original game. Therefore, this article will be exploring the nuances of what the story of episode 3 did for the narrative of The Last of Us season 1 as whole, Joel’s inner journey throughout the course of the first season and what it offers in comparison to the original story of the video game. Let’s jump in.
Bill and Frank: the video game
After the self-sacrificial death of Tess, Joel’s former partner in crime and fractured love interest, Joel & Ellie make their way to an old friend of Joel in hopes this friend would assist them in acquiring a vehicle for the long journey ahead. This friend of course is no other than Bill. While making your way into this seemingly abandoned town called ‘Lincoln’, you come across makeshift boundary walls, little notes containing strict reminders relating to the upkeep of the town’s defences, welcoming signs for potential visitors reading “You Will BE SHOT”, and explosive trip wires for anyone, or anything, who dared to wonder too deep into Bill’s little sanctuary. At that point, it would probably be safe for the player to assume that Bill is not the most stable of individuals and does not take kindly to strangers. In fact, Joel characterises Bill in this manner himself when warning Ellie about his peculiar personality, describing Bill as a good guy who, “takes some time warming up to”.
After being rescued by Bill from a large group of infected subsequent to getting snagged in one of his inventive traps, the player, along with Ellie, gets to meet Bill for the first time. Immediately Bill comes off as the embodiment of the environment he created for himself within his hazardous fortress of a town. He is incredibly pessimistic, resentful, emotionally self-isolated and occasionally talks to himself as a result of being a wilful loner. However, despite his ostensible disagreeable nature, Bill is surprisingly quick to be convinced to assist Joel & Ellie in fixing up a car for them. During their search for a working battery, they encounter infected and seek refuge in an abandoned house where they find a noosed corpse wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Frank.
At this point, the player finds out from an emotionally scarred Bill that Frank was his life partner, who after stealing Bill’s battery to leave town and getting infected in the process, hung himself to avoid turning into a mycophobic’s walking nightmare. Bill’s response to seeing his former love’s corpse was quite simple, “Fuck him”. A note left behind by Frank to Bill can be found after scavenging the house.
The note showcased the contrasting personalities of the couple. Bill, who is a paranoid shut-in who lives to hate the world, and Frank who perhaps saw more to love about life and what it had to offer. This is also showcased by Bill’s only other reference to Frank earlier on in the journey, where he urged Joel to ditch Ellie and go at life alone. In his own words of wisdom to Joel, having someone you care about is: “good for one thing, getting you killed”.
Therefore, after completing the section of the game with Bill, the impression he leaves on the player is that of a selfish, resentful and tragic, yet deeply good-hearted character who isolates himself from the world in order to safeguard his emotional vulnerability. A loner, destined to die with no one to remember him, with nothing to leave behind other than his tripwires and nudie magazines.
Bill and Frank: the HBO deviation
Fans eagerly awaited the portrayal of Bill in episode 3 of the TV series. Although most expected the same moody and bitter character from the video game, Nick Offerman’s interpretation surprised and refreshed viewers. Bill remains a paranoid loner with a passion for deadly traps, living in an abandoned town named ‘Lincoln’. However, the HBO version of Bill has a more meaningful role in the story, serving as a motive force that advances the plot with Murray Bartlett’s character Frank as the key motivator.
As mentioned before, episode 3 follows along the 16 year relationship of Bill and Frank. Something we only saw the tragic and cold-hearted ending of in the video game. This time we actually get to see Frank alive and well, without the noose. After being taken in by Bill, Frank is almost immediately presented as poles apart from Bill. He is charming, optimistic and an exuberant biophile who sees past the hardened shell of Bill’s brooding exterior. Bill never experienced genuine affection and love before meeting Frank, who showed him what it truly meant. He looked past the piercing grin and the anti-social demeanour, and instead saw the type of person who knew to pair rabbit with a Beaujolais red wine, who was kind-hearted enough to see to his needs and someone who knew how to play Linda Ronstadt's "Long, Long Time" as a recitation about his own loving relationship with the world that never unfolded.
Frank’s selfless and unconditional love and affection for Bill changed the previously resentful, dissociative and selfish character into someone who was a loving, attentive and lovingly compromising character with something meaningful to lose. Frank made Bill afraid again and therefore alive. Hence, when Frank developed multiple sclerosis (or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and could not live to enjoy life as he sought to any longer, Bill allowed himself to assist Frank in his suicide, dying alongside Frank in a lover’s journey end where great love defies even death.
It should be clear by now that this positive evolution of Bill’s character operates in stark contrast to the Bill we saw in the video game. Frank's final note to Bill revealed that Bill's fear of the unknown, his paranoia, and self-isolation prevented him from compromising with Frank's needs, including his need for affection and love. Bill's fear of love ultimately caused him to lose the only person who ever truly loved him. Hence, the Bill in the video game had no purpose, as he refused to allow himself to see farther than his own hate for the world and everyone in it. Frank’s suicide was the result of violence and a need to escape Bill’s hardened shell of an outlook, which led Bill to live on consumed by regret and dissatisfaction.
To understand the deviation in the TV series, one must consider the notes left by Frank in the video game and Bill's note to Joel in the show. These notes separate the two versions of Bill and highlight the role the two Franks play in the narrative. The note left by Bill in the TV series was the memorial pivot that awakes Pedro Pascal’s Joel to his own emotional self-isolation and hatred for the world he now arduously endeavours to persist in. Not the typical hero, the inherent nature of Joel’s moral ambiguity as a chief character separates him from the typical stoic father-figure archetype. He is quick to temper, emotionally isolates himself in a constant state of self-preservation and views the world through a black and white lens, never allowing himself a shade of optimism to colour in the outlines.
Joel is portrayed as a pessimistic and troubled character due to the loss of his daughter Sarah during the initial outbreak 20 years prior to the story's main events, which he has never been able to meaningfully process. This new world he now lives in represents everything that was violently stolen from him. Now, with no purpose and a semi-nihilistic outlook, Joel is in a constant struggle to find greater meaning in his life beyond distracting himself from the tragedy of his past. Therefore, Joel and Bill are very much alike and understood each other more than they cared to admit.
However, Bill found a way to cope with his fears while Joel remained lost in his own mind. Bill's note to Joel highlights this difference. His note described people like Bill and Joel as those who live to protect, save and sacrifice for those who exhibit the wonder and selfless love they yearn to see in the world, and ultimately themselves. As Bill put it, "We have a job to do, and God help any motherfuckers who stand in our way". Bill's note served as the pivotal motive force that changes Joel's outlook on what his life ought to mean. Ultimately, it enables Joel to look past his resentment towards the world, and insist upon himself to guide and protect Bella Ramsey’s Ellie in the journey ahead to whatever end. Instead of ditching Ellie at the nearest opportunity to avoid the inconvenience of caring.
This deviation represents a change of perspective for the characters involved. It shifts the purpose of Bill's character from self-pity and resentment as seen in the video game, to that of inspiration and resilience. It creates a premise for the rest story that could read as, "Greater purpose overcomes great loss". A premise that is a better fit for the character Bill and for the story as a whole, and ultimately better than what the game had to offer.
Joe Otterson, ‘”The Last of Us” Series in Development at HBO From “Chernobyl” Creator’ (Variety, 05 March 2020).
Selome Hailu, ‘”The Last of Us” Season 1 Finale Scores 8.2 Million Viewers, Reaching Series High Despite Oscars Competition’ (Variety, 13 March 2023).
Rituraj Halder, ‘“If It’s Better, We Deviate.” – Last of Us Creator Neil Druckmann Shares How They Crafted the Biggest Turn From the Source Material in the HBO Series’ (EssentiallySports, 31 January 2023).