The Last of Us is a breakthrough in queer media representation

How episode 3: ‘Long, Long Time’ is a needed respite from the notorious ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope
By Shannon Pendleton

Spoilers ahead for episode 3 of The Last of Us

The Last of Us television series, adapted from Naughty Dog’s videogame, aired in January
2023, and explores a post-apocalyptic world after a fungus outbreak turned millions into
cannibalistic monsters.

Episode 3, ‘Long, Long Time’, features Bill, an introverted survivalist who was happy the world had ended, and Frank, a friendly and sociable artist, wandering through the forest looking for some food when he stumbles across Bill’s fortress. For the next seventy-five minutes, we watch as the pair fall in love and spend the rest of their lives together.

Frank fills Bill’s dusty house with painted portraits, spilling colour all over the walls. He uses an old radio to find friends to invite over for dinner. He exchanges one of Bill’s guns for strawberry seeds to grow in the garden. And fifteen years later, after Frank’s health deteriorates due to a motor neuron disease, the two get dressed up in their best suits and marry one another with no witnesses, before Bill cooks Frank the dinner he first cooked for him the night they met.

The pair then fill their red wine with painkillers, go to bed together, and die in each other’s arms as a married couple. The open window of their bedroom, with the white curtain swishing side to side in the soft breeze, is the last shot we see as the episode comes to a close.

The story of Bill and Frank is one of gentle defiance. Bill and Frank, middle-aged gay men who would have survived the HIV crises of the 1980s – living through an apocalypse of their own before the outbreak even happened – spend the end of the world having dinners together, tending to their garden, going on runs around their street corner, and then dying together on their own terms in their own bed.

Showrunner, Craig Mazin, explained in TLOU Podcast, that ‘There is a tradition of essentially equating homosexuality with tragedy, and that a gay man couldn’t possibly just age and be happy and live long’.

Here, Mazin refers to the infamous ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, where queer characters notoriously face tragedy and death at a higher rate compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

The trope originates from Hollywood’s Hays Code, a rule that existed during the Golden Age of film, where ‘perverted’ sexual acts – meaning same-sex relationships – were banned.

If any gay characters were included, it was required that they were negatively portrayed to avoid the promotion of homosexuality. Therefore, despite its discriminatory nature, ‘Bury Your Gays’ became a means for queer writers to tell their stories without fear of legal and social backlash. However, in modern times, queer writers are safe from these consequences due to anti-discrimination laws – and yet the trope persists.

Spoilers ahead for the finale of Killing Eve, House of the Dragon, season 4 of Orange is the New Black, and season 3 of The 100

Recently, the death of Villanelle in Killing Eve (2022) caused fan outrage as, throughout the
show’s run, writers tempted and teased the audience with a will-they won’t-they romance
between Eve and Villanelle.

Then, in the show’s finale, Villanelle is killed shortly after the two kiss for the first time. Fans created a memorial at Tower Bridge in London, commemorating and protesting the death of Villanelle, leaving flowers and notes to highlight the message that lesbians deserve a happy ending too.

Other shows that have upheld the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope include House of the Dragon (2022), where Sir Joffrey Lonmouth is brutally beaten to death, Orange is the New Black (2016), where young lesbian, Poussey, is suffocated by a guard during a peaceful protest, and The 100 (2016), where Lexa is killed after she finally consummates her relationship with Clarke.

Although both Bill and Frank are dead by the end of the episode, their death is peaceful and brought about on their own terms. Their characters are afforded grace and autonomy by being able to choose how and when they die, and as Bill says after swallowing the wine-infused painkillers, ‘This isn’t the tragic suicide at the end of the play. I’m old. I’m satisfied’.

Throughout Long, Long Time, writer, Craig Mazin, not only rejects the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, but he also sets the world to rights. Historically, the queer community have had to focus on survival due to the HIV/AIDS crises of the 1980s and 90s, and even today there
exists a disproportionate mental health crises in the LGBTQ+ community.

For example, a 2016 study found that self-harming and suicidal ideation was significantly higher in LGBTQ+ people compared to their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.

Thus, the apocalyptic setting of episode 3 hints towards the many threats queer people face on a day-to-day basis, with queer people being nine times more likely than heterosexual people to experience a violent hate crime – and yet, in Long, Long Time, Bill and Frank remain untouched.

Therefore, not only does this episode reject the media’s treatment of queer characters, but it also rejects reality’s treatment of the queer community.

Episode 3 celebrates queer love in its purest form. Removed from the struggle and tragedy often associated with it – and in so doing, Craig Mazin provides a work of art that caters to a queer audience who have been waiting to see themselves on screen, unscathed, for a long, long time.

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