Did ‘The Last Of Us’ Just Go ‘Woke’?

The Last Of Us offered up one of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in a very long time last night, but as I predicted, it’s a controversial one, both because it’s a departure from the video game and because it focuses almost entirely on the relationship between Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett).

I’ve seen every possible reaction to this episode from readers, ranging from the same enthusiasm I felt about it to blatant homophobia, complaining that ‘the gay agenda’ is being ‘shoved down our throats’ (or the ‘woke agenda’ etc.)

I find this line of criticism utterly vapid, if not downright bigoted. While I do think that there are times when modern Hollywood sacrifices quality art and decent writing at the altar of forced representation and diversity, this is not one of those times. This is not tokenistic check-boxing. This episode was a lovingly produced, extremely well-written story about two people who fell in love during the apocalypse and struggled and persevered until they couldn’t anymore.

The show’s co-creator—and director of the video game—Neil Druckmann explained to IGN why he and his fellow show-runner, Craig Mazin, decided to make these changes and expand so much on the lives of Bill and Frank:

When we got to this part in the season, Craig brought up a really interesting point which is there’s a lot of examples of things not turning out well for people, and often those are reflections and cautionary tales for Joel of ‘here’s what you stand to lose. It was, ‘what if we show them what you could stand to win?’

But in a way, it’s also still a warning sign for Joel, especially on the heels of losing Tess at the end of [Episode 2]. In the TV show, we could leave our main character’s perspective, which in the game we’re very much adhered to purely Joel or purely Ellie. Here, we could see what happened with Bill in the outbreak. And then what was it like to meet Frank and fall in love with Frank and grow old with Frank, and then the full cycle of love and living together with someone and experiencing loss, but loss is tinged with happiness of having lived a full life filled with love.

Mazin describes the end of the episode as happy, telling IGN:

I think it is a happy ending. I think we tend to view death as failure, particularly in when you’re talking about playing a video game. It is literally failure. And for our show so far, there’s been some brutal moments where Joel has failed or at least perceives that he’s failed: he failed his daughter, he’s failed Tess, and he’s certainly feeling that weight at both the beginning and end of this episode.

I’m particularly happy about the way Bill has managed to inspire Joel to take Ellie west. He’s given Joel this posthumous instruction that men like you and me are here for one reason, to protect the people we love, and God help any motherfuckers who stand in our way. And it’s hard for Joel to say, ‘Well, it didn’t work with Tess, but now what am I supposed to do? Stop being who I am? This is legitimately why I’m here.’ And so it’s the happy ending and Bill’s understanding of who he was as a human being that inspires Joel to do the right thing here. The question is that is it always going to inspire Joel to do the right thing? We’ll have to wait and see.

In other words, showing the life and love and loss that Bill and Frank experienced gave us a new glimpse into this world and the things that—even in the end times—are still worth fighting for. And through that, Bill is able to remind Joel of his own purpose, which is now to protect Ellie.

Another important point: Bill and Frank were always presented as being gay. Their relationship was only alluded to in the 2013 game, but it was there. This isn’t some wild change from the original source. It’s just an expansion of these characters’ stories, which I think is a wonderful thing to do. As Druckmann explains, now they have the ability to tell stories beyond Joel and Ellie’s thanks to this being a television show instead of a game. It makes sense to take advantage of TV’s strengths.

Finally, to those complaining that this isn’t a 1:1 adaptation of the game, all I can say is you still have the game if you want that. I prefer some changes even in a very faithful adaptation. As we’ve seen, many shots and lines of dialogue are lifted directly from the video game, and that’s awesome! But it would be weird to adapt it so closely that it’s exactly the same in every way. I loved Bill and Ellie in the game and their banter just as much as the next guy, but the story doesn’t lose anything that important and gains quite a bit of depth and emotional resonance with these changes.

I discuss this episode and the reaction online to it in my latest video:

Read my review of Episode 3 right here.

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