The Last of Us and Middle-Aged Queer Romance

<p>Two men, Bill and Frank, sit outside in their garden eating strawberries | Source: HBO Max <em>The Last of Us</em> (ep: Long, Long Time)<br/></p>

Two men, Bill and Frank, sit outside in their garden eating strawberries | Source: HBO Max The Last of Us (ep: Long, Long Time)

I’ve always adored the concept of finding love at the end of the world. Seeing characters that, even in the most catastrophic of circumstances, choose to love and be loved in return. Maybe, it's because love often feels like a cataclysmic event, dangerous and deadly. The world surrounding these characters reflects the turbulence of choosing to be vulnerable and allowing yourself to love. 

The Last of Us delivers on this trope. The whole show delves into the theme of love: familial, romantic, and platonic, all in the face of the apocalypse. The Last of Us (2023), based on the game produced by the game developer, Naughty Dog, is a post-apocalyptic drama series, created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. It explores an alternate universe where, in 2003, a deadly fungal outbreak of Cordyceps has infected the world, turning countless victims into zombie-like creatures and destroying society as we know it. The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler tormented by his past, tasked with taking Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the nation. Along the way, they encounter a cast of hardened characters, changed by the apocalypse, a restrictive and dangerous government, and bone-chilling Infected. 

Episode 3 of the series introduces the audience to Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), and tells the story of their lives in roughly an hour. It's a masterclass in storytelling, getting the audience to hurt and care for these two characters with only a few scenes available to do so. Their romance is compelling and heartbreaking, showing how love blossoms between even the most hurt individuals in the most unlivable circumstances. It is also an example of meaningful queer representation.

It is rare that a general audience sees a queer couple. Most explicitly queer characters are relegated to media made for an LGBTQ audience, never to be seen by an audience they are not catered to. 

It is rarer still that an audience can witness two older queer people falling in love. Most on-screen queer romances are between younger individuals or those who have been married for years. Seeing a positive example of middle-aged queer romance is revolutionary, as it is rarely visible to a wide audience. Another recent example of the representation of elderly queer romance is HBO Max’s Our Flag Means Death, created by David Jenkins, which stars two middle-aged pirates, Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Ed Teach (aka Blackbeard) (Taika Waititi) falling in love. These kinds of love stories are important to see on television and in media because they give viewers: young and old, queer and straight, hope for their future. It isn’t “too late” for anyone to find the love of their life. 

Beyond the important representation they provide, Bill and Frank are incredibly important because of when their relationship takes place.

In one of their scenes, Frank says to Bill, reassuring him about his age, “Older means we’re still here”. By the time Bill and Frank meet in 2007, they are both middle-aged. This line takes on a heavy meaning when the audience realizes they are two queer men who’ve survived and withstood both the Cordyceps infection and the AIDS epidemic. They’ve lived in fear of death for the majority of their lives but yet, they are still there. 

The importance of them being queer continues throughout their scenes together. Toward the end of their lives, Frank asks Bill to marry him, after twenty years together. Bill agrees, and the two marry each other, placing rings on each other's hands while dressed in the finest clothes they could find. The Cordyceps infection began in 2003, before any U.S. state could legalize gay marriage. Yet, despite this, they still choose to marry each other, defying the government and the world that turned on them. They chose each other, in the most terrible, despicable of circumstances. 

It’s beautiful. 

I’m so grateful to Mazin and Druckmann for taking this direction and showcasing this relationship to millions of viewers. Bill and Frank’s love, as well as this series as a whole, has reignited my love for storytelling and shows how powerful writing can be. I cannot recommend The Last of Us enough, even to those who are squeamish (such as myself). Its story is life-changing and I eagerly await what will happen next Sunday at 9pm when I tune in.

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