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HBO’s The Last of Us improves on the game’s implied gay romance

The game hints that Bill is gay, but the show highlights it

Bill sitting at a piano with Franking looking over at him in HBO’s The Last of Us. Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Three episodes in, it’s clear that HBO’s The Last of Us is a faithful adaptation of the original video game from 2013 — so much so that lines and frames may have been pulled straight from the game. That’s not to say that there aren’t changes, though. Series co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann are making strategic adjustments to certain elements of the game for the new medium and to catch up to modern sensibilities. The first of those changes was with Joel’s partner, Tess, and how her story ultimately came to an end in episode 2. Whether it was an improvement is debatable, but for a show dedicated to preserving the anatomy of the source material, it was notable.

The filmmakers made another major change in the third episode, and it’s one that is unequivocally for the better.

[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us and the original The Last of Us video game.]

Bill and Frank have been mentioned offhand a few times over the past two episodes, referred to as collaborators in Joel and Tess’ smuggling ring. If you haven’t played The Last of Us, those names mean nothing to you, but for those who have, Bill, at least, is a beloved character. Bill is gay in the game, but it’s referenced so vaguely that plenty of players missed it.

The decision to keep it muted, hinted at in a single line of dialogue and a hidden letter, was both praised and criticized — it was easy to overlook, but it also avoided a lot of gay-character tropes, and allowed Bill to be a human and not “a manifestation of sexuality,” as Polygon’s Danielle Riendeau put it at the time. Naughty Dog won recognition from GLAAD for its portrayal of Bill in the organization’s list of the year’s “most intriguing new LGBTQ characters.”

The game’s storyline doesn’t avoid tropes altogether, though: It was criticized for “burying its gays.” Bill doesn’t die, but Frank does — he’s found hanging in a house. While Bill is left behind in a less secure part of town, he doesn’t explicitly die; he’s just never heard from again.

In the “Bill’s Town” segment of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie meet Bill in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a small town northwest of Boston. Bill’s clearly been prepping for a while, having strung up his part of town with a bevy of tripwires and traps that are meant to keep out humans, infected or not. (And the area around Lincoln has a ton of infected.) Joel and Ellie need help — in particular, a car. While Bill doesn’t have a car, he has parts they can use to fix a car up. As you may expect, everything goes a little nuts. There’s a lot of moving about the town and fighting off infected; it’s very intense compared to episode 3 of the show.

“Bill’s Town” is an exciting section of the game with a bunch of action — including a bloater! — but it’s also got a lot of smaller moments and quips between Bill, Joel, and Ellie; it’s clear that they all have complicated relationships, but still feel a tenderness for each other. Bill’s and Joel’s relationships mirror each other, which you can see as the chapter moves on, and we learn about Frank’s fate. After some close calls with infected, the group hides in a house. Frank’s house. That’s where they find his body, hanging. He got bit, they learned, and wanted to die before turning.

There’s a note the player can pick up near the body, but it’s easy to miss. In the letter, Frank chastises Bill for being afraid to leave the security of his area, and outright tells Bill that he hates him. Bill could never have given Frank the life he wanted to live, Frank says.

You don’t have to give the letter to Bill, but you can — and it clearly upsets him: “So that’s how you feel,” Bill says. “Well, fuck you too, Frank. Fuckin’ idiot.” Bill and Frank’s relationship in the game, depending on how players inferred it, is a tragic one, but it’s almost objectively underserved.

It’s a harsh contrast to the Bill and Frank we see in the show, where a tender love grows in the apocalypse. Episode 3 is filled with small, sweet moments between the two, and while they squabble, their arguments definitely have a different tone. It’s a romance that makes for one of the best episodes of The Last of Us, and stands out among prestige TV, too. Sure, Bill and Frank both die in the end, but it’s at the end of a challenging yet beautiful life.

The next level of puzzles.

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