‘The Last of Us’ creator reveals how he crafted the gay love story that has fans in tears

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in a pivotal episode of The Last of Us. (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as lovers Bill and Frank in a pivotal episode of The Last of Us. (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
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Warning: This post contains spoilers for Episode 3 of The Last of Us

The dystopian world of The Last of Us is a frightening, violent place. But the third episode of the hit HBO series is winning acclaim for revealing how love can bloom in even the harshest of environments. Stepping outside of the main narrative, the super-sized chapter, "Long Long Time," introduces viewers to Bill and Frank — played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, respectively — two middle-age men whose decades-spanning romance begins with a meet-cute in a zombie trap and ends with a tear-inducing farewell straight out of Romeo & Juliet.

"I wanted to explore the theme of love, and also different kinds of love," confirms series co-creator, Craig Mazin, who developed the show with Neil Druckmann, creator of the Playstation video game that provides the source material for the show. And the idea for "Long Long Time" — named after a 1970 Linda Ronstadt track that immediately started trending after the episode aired — grew out of material that also exists in the game, albeit in a very different fashion.

Watch our interview with The Last of Us co-creator on YouTube

In the Playstation version of The Last of Us, Bill appears as a non-player character who helps player avatars Joel and Ellie (played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Rasmey in the HBO series) secure transport to their next destination. While Frank is mentioned in passing, he has already suffered an awful death by the time Bill crosses the main characters' paths and the exact nature of their relationship is left open to interpretation, although Druckmann has since said he intended for them to be gay.

Frank's voice is heard in the game via an angry letter he leaves behind for Bill — one of many such NPC that players can discover as they explore the game's different environments. Those letters hint at the stories that are happening around Joel and Ellie, providing players with a deeper immersion in The Last of Us's expansive world. "Long Long Time" pays tribute to that in-game device at the end of the episode when Joel and Ellie find a letter penned by Bill that puts a definitive period on the end of his and Frank's love story.

Mazin agrees that Bill's letter is an Easter egg for fans of the video game, but also packs serious emotional weight for noobs. "We wanted to give people more if they have played the game and if they haven't played the game, we wanted it to feel like it was this natural thing to occur anyway," he explains. "There are these moments in the game when Neil and I thought: 'Oh, here's where we wander off to explore and have fun.'"

Nick Offerman in The Last of Us. (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)
Offerman as Bill in a scene from The Last of Us. (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Mazin — who previously created the Emmy-winning Chernobyl series for HBO — is the sole credited writer on "Long Long Time," and he drew on his own heteronormative love story to craft the show's version of Bill and Frank's tale. "[Their] story was less about their homosexuality, and more about the fact that it's a middle-aged romance," says the writer. "I'm 51 and I've been married [to my wife] for 26 years. I know what that old love feels like, and I really wanted to explore that."

"Long Long Time" begins in 2003, just after a deadly pandemic has toppled American society as we know it. But Bill refuses to accept what he calls the "New World Order." A serious survivalist, he turns his home into a fortress that keeps intruders — be they human or walking dead — at bay. Bill leads a solitary existence for four years, until Frank takes a tumble into one of his zombie traps and the handsome stranger's earnest appeals for aid breach the walls he's built around his heart. They live happily together until one late summer morning in 2023 when a terminally-ill Frank wakes up and decides it's his last day on Earth — and Bill accompanies him into the great beyond.

While "Long Long Time" may play like a side story on a first viewing, Mazin says that the themes at the heart of the episode travel hand-in-hand with Joel and Ellie's journey. "Frank is a very different guy than Bill, and his concept of what love is is very different than Bill's. And that duality will come back over and over as you go through the season. It's like a little seed that episode that kind of keeps growing, even though it has its own conclusion. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it."

Based on the ecstatic Twitter takes, most viewers very much enjoyed "Long Long Time." But there are a few voices expressing disappointment with the way Bill and Frank's story was altered from the game.

Meanwhile, a toxic element of Last of Us fandom is seizing on the episode as evidence that the show is following a "woke agenda" by putting diverse characters front and center — a complaint that Pascal directly responded to ahead of the series premiere. For his part, Mazin says that there's nothing he can do about viewers who come into the show with "preconceived notions" about what the story is or should be.

"The way we approached everything was to start with just a common humanity," he explains. "The cast is diverse, and we deal with diversity because the world is diverse. Our show is not about diversity or the importance of being one thing or the other — it's just about people. As it happens, there are gay people, there are Black people, there are white people, there are disabled people and there are deaf people. We just kind of mirror the world around us as naturally as we can."

And Bill and Frank isn't the only same-sex relationship we'll see this season or in the just-announced Season 2. In the world of the game, Ellie is a lesbian and both Mazin and Ramsey confirmed before the show premiered that key part of her character wouldn't be altered. "That was never gonna be the case," Ramsey — who recently came out as gender fluid — tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I wouldn't have let that happen either. It's part of who she is and what I like about the show is that it's not made into this huge deal. It's her existing in this world and loving women... and Joel is cool with it. I think it's done really well."

"There's no spoiler here — Ellie's a lesbian," Mazin echoes, adding that viewers will meet her girlfriend, Riley (played by Storm Reid) in an upcoming episode. Druckmann originally introduced Riley in a game storyline that was released between 2013's The Last of Us and 2020's The Last of Us, Part II, but the series is weaving Ellie's LGBTQ identity into the fabric of the show from the beginning. "The whole backstory of Ellie and Riley and who Ellie is as a person wasn't there when they made the first game," he explains. "We're able to slowly seed this fact into the show."

"I think we will continue to just explore her humanity," Mazin adds. "Humans fall in love, humans fall out of love. Humans lose people, they mourn people, they struggle and they screw up. All of those things happen whether you're gay or straight or anything."

The Last of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO Max