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Choices of Queer Love and Death in 'The Last of Us,' by Eleanor Prytherch

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Every Friday for the past several weeks, two thoughts were simultaneously running through my mind: 1) Finally it’s the weekend! 2) Oh dear, a new episode of The Last of Us is out on Sunday. When I’m obsessed with a new show and yet it leaves me dreading the outcome of every episode, that’s how I know it’s good.

The Last of Us, indeed, has proven to be one of the most captivating series to come out of post-covid television. It’s the kind of show that I couldn’t stop thinking about all week, consumed countless fan analyses and edits of, and sat in stunned silence and processed after each new episode.

The ninth and final episode came out on Sunday, March 12, and, of course, to fill the void, I started thinking about exactly what made it so good. What made The Last of Us so good, more than the suspense, the worldbuilding, the epic journey, was the love the characters had for each other and the lengths they took to carve out agency for that love, even if in unlikely ways. It’s about the choices we make for love in dangerous times.

The show is based on a 2013 game of the same title, and it loyally follows the storyline of the original game (sometimes shot for shot). It’s set 20 years after an apocalypse caused by the outbreak of a zombie-producing fungal mutation.

Joel, a hardened smuggler who lost his daughter during the initial outbreak, is tasked with transporting the orphan Ellie across the country so that her immunity to the infection can be studied for a cure. While the premise aligns with basic elements of most traditional zombie apocalypse tropes, the freshness of the show can be attributed to the creativity of the original game concept, as well as Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s unforgettable performances as Joel and Ellie. Mirroring the game play, each episode follows Joel and Ellie as they meet new characters and overcome dangers.

After escaping from what remains of Boston at the beginning of their trip, Joel and Ellie come across a well-protected village once inhabited by Joel’s friends, Bill and Frank. While in the game Bill and Frank had minimal backstory, episode 3 of the show is dedicated to the story of the two of them falling in love and living happily together on Bill’s survivalist homestead.

We see them throughout the years as they mature in their relationship, until a sick and elderly Frank informs Bill that it is his “last day.” The two both consume sleeping pills in their wine after a romantic dinner and go to bed together. This was the episode that put The Last of Us on my radar as someone who occupies a corner of the Internet that’s always on the lookout for new queer stories in the media. While heartbreaking, Bill and Frank’s love story felt like something that broke all the tropes we brace ourselves for.

We’re all too aware of the “bury your gays” stereotype: the tendency of mainstream media to kill off its queer characters, often in very painful ways. Bill and Frank were gay, and they did die. But what set them apart is that they chose their death. Everything is said in Bill’s lines to Frank after he decides to join him in dying: “I’m old. I’m satisfied. And you were my purpose.”

In a show where most of the characters meet gruesome ends, Bill and Frank made the choice to die in a way that celebrated their years of love for each other. We aren’t given any of Bill or Frank’s pre-outbreak backstory, which makes their episode more moving because we get to see them live a loving and fulfilling life together as older adults after an apocalypse. Despite everything, they had a future in the world, and when they were done, they left it together.

A counterpart to Bill and Frank’s story, several episodes later, is dedicated to Ellie and shows us the circumstances of her being bitten by an infected. The episode shares a similar structure with Bill and Frank’s, as it’s mainly told in flashbacks bookended with scenes from Ellie’s present, and it highlights a queer love story in the midst of apocalypse.

Ellie and her friend Riley sneak out to an abandoned mall, where they share an almost-normal night of teenage girl fun. But just after Ellie pleads with Rylie not to leave on a rebel mission and kisses her, they’re both attacked and bitten. Ellie and Riley’s story is even more heartbreaking than Bill and Frank’s as these two are young and were just at the start of their love story.

After the reality of their situation sets in, Riley tells Ellie that they have two options. They can either shoot themselves to prevent the infection from taking over, or “option 2:” they can make the most of the time they have together before that happens. She tells her “whether it’s two minutes, or two days, we don’t give that up. I don’t wanna give that up.” While Ellie was resigned to their death, Riley created choices where there were none. She chose the option that gave them the power to keep loving each other, and ownership over the time they had left to do that, while knowing they would die either way.

Viewers aren’t shown scenes of what happens next, although we find out later Ellie was forced to kill Riley as she began to turn. The omission of these scenes grants even more power to Riley and Ellie by leaving viewers with them in the moment they make that choice. The impression we’re given is of the agency they took for themselves in their last moments together, as well as the tragedy of the circumstance.

The show itself is a lesson in love and choices, as Ellie and Riley’s story was part of the original game, but the creators of the show decided to give Bill and Frank their own love story that they didn’t originally have.

The show was renewed almost immediately upon its debut in January, with some speculation that the storyline of the second game would be split up into two seasons. While that same feeling of anticipation and dread remains when I think about the possibilities of the next seasons, I’m even more excited to see what the show does with old and new stories. From what I can gather from the spoilers I’ve been unable to avoid, the choices only get more complicated and the love only gets darker and deeper.

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