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How an action sequence in 'The Last of Us' game became the show's most emotional episode
The Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann explains why Bill and Frank's story is an emotional wallop.
You'd could forgive The Last of Us if it didn't take any big swings. The first season of a new TV show is typically focused on getting audiences to 1) watch and 2) understand the rhythm, tone, and quirks of their characters without getting confused. And, because The Last of Us is an adaptation of an acclaimed video game, there's a clear path for the show to follow. It would be easy to just do what the game did.
That, however, is not what executive producers/showrunners, Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann did. In just their third episode of the episodic adaptation of Naughty Dog's global bestselling video game, the two have essentially served up a self-contained episode that almost entirely focuses on how loner survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman) meets his soulmate, Frank (Murray Bartlett), and they live their happily-ever-after amongst the ruins of the Cordyceps pandemic. It's a very different episode from the two that preceded it and it's very different from what happens in the original game. It is also very, very effective television.
**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 3 of The Last of Us below.**
Gripping, heartfelt, and hopeful, "Long Long Time" gives a deeply emotional back story to Bill, a minor game character, and Frank who in the game appears only as a corpse. In SYFY WIRE's weekly post-mortem conversations with the executive producers and cast, Druckmann explains that this episode's premise was a result of the death of Tess in Episode 2. They needed to give Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) a model relationship that could in turn inspire hope in them.
"'Long Long Time' is about Joel finally accepting this role [as protector] and what it would mean for him going forward," Druckmann says. "And that's why every episode is doing a bunch of setup that then gets paid off in the next episode. That keeps going, as we hurtle all the way to the end."
But, before the show hurtles, it slows down and goes back in time to meticulously play out Bill's preparation for the fall of humankind in his self-made compound just outside of Boston.
"Every stop along the way, we get to deal with Joel and Ellie as the main thrust of the storyline," Druckmann says of the basic structure of the series. "But then there are all these casts of characters that we get to meet, and sometimes they die off. And then when we go to a new location, there is a new cast of characters. They reveal something new about the world, but mostly something about Joel and Ellie and their journey."
With Bill and Frank, they became a reminder of why it's essential to connect.
"In the game with Bill, what we wanted to show was here's a guy that lives on his own and has been able to create a safe haven for himself. But it was also an exploration about how this one guy is kind of going crazy because he's been all about survival and has shut everything else out," Druckmann explains. "And then you ask the question, "What are you surviving for? What's left anymore?" We hint there's this other relationship that he screwed up, essentially. He didn't lean into it and he was just so hardcore about survival. A lot of that story is told through action sequences because that's what you're doing in the game. So you're connecting with the character by you saving him, he's saving you. He's telling you about the town."
Druckmann says as they were charting out the season of episodes, Mazin smartly suggested that they don't focus on all that action the way the game does.
"Again, a lesser adaptation would have looked at that sequence in the game, and said, "Let's do an action-packed episode of our cast just surviving through all this ordeal!" Druckmann recalls. "But what we said very early on was, 'We just did that in the last episode. So what's something new we could show?'"
This, he says, was an opportunity to take the sketch of who Bill and Frank were in the game, and make them real.
"We take these ingredients of some hints of who Bill is, some hints of who Frank is—and how philosophically they were opposed to each other — and what if we really flesh it out?" Druckmann explains. "We show a different kind of love than what we've seen so far, and we show characters win. And likewise, what that sets up for Joel and Ellie is that you can win in this world. It's possible. It's very hard, and it's not likely, but it's possible. Just like you need to show them what's at stake, and what's the fate that's worse than death — and we got to see that in the first episode of what that could mean for a parent — we show, here's what you can do if you succeed. If you can save this world, if you could save a relationship, you can save someone close to you."
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sunday nights on HBO and HBO Max.