Last time, we discussed how episode three started out relatively strong then unexpectedly shifted to another story altogether. It’s important to note that we are not watching a ten-minute flashback or some b-plot involving a couple of supporting characters. Almost all of the episode is devoted to Bill and Frank, and frankly, their story goes nowhere. As I mentioned before, the subject of this random entry into the series is Bill and Frank’s romantic relationship, and given the fact that this little deviation from the source material contributes nothing to the plot as a whole, it is strongly suspected that the only reason the writers chose to tell this story was to gain the admiration of critics who share their political philosophy. However, despite the irrelevant nature of this irritating tale, we are going to look at it because there is one particular idea buried within the story that I found disturbing, and of course, there are lessons in bad writing which must be considered.
Setting the Scene, Abandoning Source Material
Cutting from a scene where Joel and Ellie are staring at a mass grave, we meet Bill. Bill is a man who has rightly concluded that the government cannot be trusted. He is sitting in an underground basement, watching the government forcefully remove an entire neighborhood from their homes. The feds don’t find Bill, so when they’re gone, he emerges from his bunker and begins collecting supplies. It turns out Bill is quite skilled at the fine art of urban survival. He knows how to restore natural gas to his home, for example. Of course, there are loads of problems with this fantasy. Questions regarding how he’s supposed to get gasoline for his generator when all the pumps are turned off, how his supply of toilet paper turns out to last for twenty years, and how he gets new supplies whenever something breaks down on his truck are never explored. This prepping montage is nothing short of ridiculous, and I’m certain any real doomsday prepper could give you a myriad of reasons why.
Regardless, Bill manages to create a comfortable living for himself, even going so far as to set up booby traps for any zombies who might pass by. The question of what happens to any poor survivors who wander into these traps by accident is entirely ignored until Frank shows up. Fortunately for Frank, he just falls into a pit, rather than stumbling into the variety of shotguns and flamethrowers which are rigged to go off if someone steps on a tripwire.
Frank manages to talk himself into Bill’s house, and long and cringe-worthy story short, the two fall in love. I say it’s cringe-worthy not just because of the political questions involved, but because the writers decide to adopt nearly every horrible cliche that exists in a cheesy romance. Bill and Frank gaze into each other’s eyes after taking turns playing the piano and just know the other is “the one.” They “toast” the tips of their strawberries together before eating them. That’s painful to watch when a straight couple does it! They even have “cute” fights over irrelevant things. If the writers had had these two skip in a field of post-apocalyptic tulips, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Again, politics aside, there are two major problems with this. Both of which, I’ve mentioned before. Firstly, the writers abandon the source material. And in this case, it creates a variety of issues not found in the original story. For one thing, in the game, the only reason all the various items found throughout the area are in working order when Joel and Ellie arrive is that Bill is alive to maintain everything — Spoiler: Bill and Frank die before the end of the flashback in the show — but in HBO’s adaptation, the question of how the car battery, electricity, hot water, computers, and the rest of the equipment are all still working when Joel and Ellie finally show up at Bill and Frank’s home, despite the fact that the two old men have been deceased for some time, is a total mystery.
For another thing, there’s a plot point within the game that gets lost because of this change in the story. Joel is hesitant to grow close to Ellie because he doesn’t want to replace his daughter and is afraid to fail Ellie in the same way he failed her and also because the dominant attitude in this dystopian world is that a man or woman should never trust anyone, an attitude which is further validated for Joel when Bill reveals that Frank betrayed him in the game. Eliminating Bill and Frank from the story before Joel and Ellie ever meet them weakens the gravity of the change Joel makes when he decides to trust Ellie.
What Are the Stakes?
The second major problem has to do with stakes. Last time, we talked about the bait and switch in genres. People were watching this episode of The Last of Us expecting to see a surrogate father-daughter team fight zombies, and instead, were forced to watch a cliché love story. But taking this bait and switch to a level deeper, it’s important to understand the promises made when a b-plot like this is introduced into the narrative. Even if the writers choose to spend ten minutes on a flashback—explaining how two side characters came to find themselves in their current situation—the promise in writing such a scene is that these two characters will have a part to play later in the story. This is why the audience followed their point of view. But Bill and Frank die before Ellie and Joel find them. Therefore, there is no payoff for the flashback, and this leaves the viewers feeling like they’ve wasted their time.
This problem is only compounded by the fact that the writers chose to devote the entire episode to Bill and Frank only to have them die and serve no purpose to the plot as a whole. Why were we subjected to this episode if it wasn’t going to contribute to the narrative? This is why many people who have watched this episode can only conclude that it was written to woo the critics. It wasn’t made for the audience and contributes nothing to the story.
As to how Bill and Frank meet their untimely demise, we’ll discuss that next time. There’s a disturbing theme that must be explored. But if you’re curious, here’s a hint. If you can imagine the most cliché ending to a tragic romance, then you’ll know what happens next.