The Last of Us and its unnecessary sexualization
Writers seem to have no language other than eros to express deep affection between men
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If you watched the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, surprise! You were tricked! At least that’s what director Peter Hoar was hoping for. Speaking to Inverse about the show’s left turn into LGBT romance, he says, “Sometimes you have to sort of trick the rest of the world into watching these things before they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, it was two guys. I just realised.’” Unsurprisingly, Hoar is gay himself.
The show is based on a highly popular videogame, whose main storyline follows a man and a young girl fighting for their lives through a zombie apocalypse. The episode “Long, Long Time” takes a detour to focus on a side character, a reclusive survivalist named Bill. Bill was already gay in the video game, but there was only a passing mention of his backstory. The show fleshes out a whole alternative version of his romance with sensitive Frank, who stumbles into one of Bill’s traps, then invites himself to dinner. In a final twist, Bill chooses to kill himself after Frank becomes ill and requests euthanasia.
Some fans of the game are less than thrilled with the choice to kill off a favorite character. It definitely didn’t impress the high schoolers I teach. One student said she “didn’t even care” about the gay stuff. She cared that they killed such a great character in such a disturbing way.
My kids weren’t the target audience, though. As far as Peter Hoar is concerned, their generation is already all but captured. It’s other demographics that still need some “tricking.”
Most likely, it didn’t “trick” anyone not already predisposed to enjoy a sentimental ode to gay romance and euthanasia. Still, it’s interesting to consider as a reflection of our culture’s impoverished storytelling grammar when it comes to writing friendship between men. Bill has never even been sexually active, but according to Hoar, Frank’s seduction unlocks Bill’s “discovery” of who he “really” is. Neither the game nor the show allows him to be just an eccentric recluse, just as they don’t allow the men to be just an odd couple forming a deep asexual bond in apocalyptic times.
In fact, the episode has a couple of genuinely touching moments, but they are touching for reasons independent of the characters’ sexuality. In one scene, Frank surprises Bill with a strawberry patch he grew from seeds traded for one of Bill’s guns. (“Which gun?” Bill asks, in a line I admit I predicted and laughed at.) As they taste the fruit, Bill bursts into astonished happy tears. Regrettably, the scene quickly moved on to cuddling and kissing. But it’s a nice moment while it lasts.
By chance, strawberries also feature memorably in a scene with a very differently bonded male duo: Frodo and Sam from the movie version of Return of the King. In dialogue not written by Tolkien, but honoring his spirit, Sam urges a spent Frodo up Mount Doom by trying to remind him of home in springtime. “Do you remember the taste of strawberries?” he asks. In both scenes, the writers are trying to tap into the same sense of sehnsucht, longing, as expressed through an intense love between two men. Except that Sam and Frodo are physically affectionate without ever being sexual. In one moment, they even touch foreheads—as brothers, not lovers.
Despite the LOTR movies’ other failings, they perfectly captured the purity of Tolkien’s imagination in writing this intimate male friendship. As a veteran of World War I, Tolkien understood well how intensely bonded two men could become in the crucible of great suffering, through shared devotion to a great task. Such bonding was moral, and decidedly not sexual. But today, we are increasingly left only with the grammar of eros when writers seek to convey something deeper than casual affection.
And in the end, where Sam and Frodo’s love is nourishing and life-giving, Bill and Frank’s romance ends in selfish, violent death. As they age together, Frank becomes wheelchair-bound with something like ALS. Eventually, he decides he no longer wants to live. “Do you love me?” he asks Bill, after driving him to tears with the wish that this will be his final day. “Yes,” Bill says. “Then love me the way I want you to,” Frank says.
After they spend the day exactly the way Frank orders it, including a fake “wedding” ceremony, the moment arrives. Frank drinks the wine Bill poisons for him, only to notice there were tablets in the bottle too, and Bill has just drained his own glass. Frank chides him, but “objectively,” he has to admit this is “incredibly romantic.”
Romanticizing euthanasia and double suicide is nothing new in Hollywood, of course. Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn were doing it as far back as 1981’s On Golden Pond. With the fight for gay rights in the rearview mirror, aging gay couples now get to have their own aging gay versions. Ah, progress!
Particularly chilling to me was that an anti-suicide argument was not even allowed to be heard. At least in Supernova, the last euthanasia-themed gay romance I reviewed, the suicidal man’s lover tries to push back and fight for his life. But it ends in a similar place, with acceptance and reverence for that most sacred of all rights in the liberal mind: the right to choose. Whether it’s choosing a same-sex partner or choosing the time of one’s own death, all that matters is that you are being exactly who you want to be. The new great commandment: “To thine own self be true.”
Bill and Frank’s story may be “incredibly romantic” for some people. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder of C. S. Lewis’s timeless wisdom: When eros is made a god, it becomes a demon. Lewis’s concern would also be manifested in the euthanasia scene. Untrammeled “progress” celebrated by the elites always comes with the sacrifice of human dignity.
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