The last of us had the biggest departure from the video game source material yet with a glorious detour that told the 20-year story of apocalypse survivors Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett).
In The last of us game, traveling heroes Joel (Pedro Pascal on the show) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey on the show) team up with hardcore survivalist Bill on a dangerous mission to find a car battery. Bill’s partner Frank is only seen as a corpse in the game, having already died, and Bill’s romantic feelings for Frank are only hinted at.
In the HBO version, Bill is shown from the early days of the cordyceps outbreak. Frank falls into a trap on Bill’s property and the two form an alliance. Their romantic relationship is chronicled over the course of two decades and they become allies with Joel and Tess (Anna Torv). When Frank becomes disabled through illness, he decides to commit suicide – and Bill decides to do the same. Those are the broad strokes, which don’t do justice to the nuanced and heartbreaking work of everyone involved in the episode, titled ‘Long Long Time’.
“How much we deviate [from the game] has to be proportionate to how good it is,” said Neil Druckmann, who created the PlayStation game and serves as showrunner on the HBO drama alongside Craig Mazin. “Frank was mentioned [in the game] but casually. Here we can explore this relationship a bit and obviously make some changes. And [the idea] was so good, I didn’t mind it being different.”
“In the game, the way you build the relationship with Bill is to fight alongside him,” Druckmann noted. “There’s a set point where Joel has been pulled into this trap and Ellie has to take him down. It is thrilling and one of the most memorable parts of the game. I think a lesser adaptation would be like, ‘This action sequence has to go on the show.’ While [Mazin was] like, ‘No, don’t focus on that, something interesting is happening with this survivor and this partner that he had. What’s Which story? Let’s explore that. Let’s work that out.” So it was easy not to be precious about that when you got these really wonderful ideas that I felt broadened the world and broadened these characters.
In the game, Bill’s romantic feelings for Frank went “over the top of a lot of people,” Druckmann said. “At that moment, [the subtlety is] which helped to get it in. It’s sad to say, but otherwise it would have been controversial.
Said Mazin: “That was part of the game that I loved. I loved Bill’s character. But a lot of that part is about gameplay – we got to get here, we got to get there. And Neil had designed Bill to represent something that I thought we had a chance to do differently; he reflected the worst possible outcome for Joel, which was to shut himself off from people completely. There was someone Bill could have loved. He chose not to and now that man is dead and will be alone for the rest of his life.”
“In television writing, we don’t have gameplay and I’m looking for time to do something with characters other than what I just saw,” Mazin continued. “And we’ve just seen people who are scared, who are in a dangerous place, who hide or run or worry or get hurt or killed. [in the first two episodes]. I need something else now. Here is a man who is safe. Now let’s talk about that Frank. And I said, ‘I think we have the opportunity to do a lot of things at once.’”
“We can show the passage of time – which we haven’t seen on the show,” Mazin added. “But we can also explore the basic theme of these two kinds of love. There is what I call “open hearted love.” It’s very nurturing, it’s outgoing. He literally says it: “Paying attention to things is how we show love.” That is amazing. Thank you. And then there’s Bill’s love, which is violent—because it’s protective. And so much of what this show is about is how love pushes us in these different directions and it can backfire in dramatic ways. Not this story. Their story is actually happy. Even if it’s sad, it’s happy. They win.”
Druckmann commented: “I’m very curious what the reception will be like, because this is very different. But what was important to us was the underlying theme. The takeaway when you play that sequence is that Bill – there’s obviously some interesting action – but it’s like a warning to Joel, right? Every relationship that appears in the story reflects on Joel and Ellie in some way because everything is about them. So that was about making Joel feel the danger of what could happen to your partner. This is where Joel really makes the choice in the game that he has to take care of this girl, and the same thing happens here. We deviate and go on this detour, but then we come back to what the back story is all about.”
However, one line in the episode almost didn’t make the show, but was added after Nick Offerman saw a description in the script of what Bill was thinking at the beginning of the episode and insisted on saying it out loud. “Nick Offerman was like…” Mazin said, breaking into a pretty good Offerman impression: “One thing about the script. There’s no way I’m not saying, ‘Not today you bastards of the new world order.’ I say it, and that’s that.’”
“Then Nick did such a wonderful job playing a man who is broken open by love,” he added. “That is also what is happening [several characters in the show]and some respond with beauty and some respond with violence.”
Offerman and Murray also spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about this episode and their experiences making it.