Bill and Frank and Me and Him: Season 1 Episode 3 of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” Love, Queerness, and Disability

My husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018. It was time to make good on something I had promised to do, something I had repeated back to the young mayor in City Hall on a sunny day in December, thinking only about not saying the words wrong, instead of what they meant, what I was doing. It had been less than two years that we were married that the whole “in sickness and in health” thing occurred to us in a big way. I remember looking at the MRI of his brain and spine, at the gray spots blossoming in too many places, gray that was not supposed to be there, gray I would not have noticed if the doctor didn’t point at the screen and show it to me. I don’t think I cried. I don’t think I cried because the gray didn’t mean he was dying, but it meant that a young man who loved me was facing a lifetime of worsening difficulty.

Over our eleven years together, we’ve partaken in a bonding ritual. Sitting on the couch or laying on the floor, him playing a video game while I watch and occasionally make suggestions. To choose the nicer, sweeter dialogue option, to wear the armor I think looks best. The Last of Us was a game that didn’t leave us with any options; the plot and landscape are both linear and fixed, and the only choice you really get to make is whether or not to take the time to slow down and really look at the world. Other than that, you were locked into the tragedy, the terror, and the all but weaponized tenderness of the game. I watched the whole thing, an even more helpless onlooker than the person holding the controller. I don’t think I cried, but I did feel the round, gathering hurt in my chest. All the time. 

I liked Bill. I liked his subtle queerness even though I wanted more. Not more content, necessarily, but a confirmation. I don’t mean this as an insult to Druckmann and his team, but it seemed that the writers were careful not to be explicit, calling Frank Bill’s “partner,” which, in a changed world where there is strength in numbers, could mean anything. Ellie finds the dried stains on the gay porn magazine. She laughs, as is her right as a fourteen-year-old. To laugh, when her life is so devoid of things to laugh about. But she jokes, maybe to avoid talking to Joel about her own queerness, and we are left to wonder: is Bill really gay? I believe we are right to be cautious in believing it; we are so rarely seen. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Even on Sunday night, when I stayed up past my self-imposed bedtime of 9 PM to watch the latest episode of the adaptation, I was hesitant to allow myself to look forward to a queer story. It’s television. We’ve been burned before. I had been telling my husband all day that we had “a date with Pedro.” “We have a date with Bill,” he corrected me. We did. I drank coffee until 5 PM. By the time the episode premiered I was still wide awake, grinning, ready to relive one of our favorite story arcs from the game. Ya set off all my traps! Iconic. But this time, because I had cautiously watched the trailer for the episode, I knew we were getting, finally, Frank.

I won’t recap, especially because I’m sure not everyone has had the chance to watch the episode. I’ll skip to the point when my husband and I, realizing the same thing at once, reached for one another’s hands across the couch and braced ourselves for the unexpected mirror that was about to be placed in front of us.

Nick Offerman counts the pills. One orange, one white, and one round. He gives them cutesy little nicknames to soften the reason for the routine, the reason he knows the medication regimen so well.

We make up names. I memorize shapes. The gabapentin is big and white. The hydroxyzine is little and orange. The magnesium horse pills are a sleek, royal purple. We keep his meds in a white basket in the kitchen cabinet. I get it for him when his legs are shaking. I get it for him some mornings just because I want to.

Bill carries Frank to bed. I see an uncertain future, and I think about my own arms, how weak they probably are in comparison.  What will I do if our lives turn out that way? I think about the fifteen-pound dumbbells in the bedroom and know that it won’t be enough just to curl them upwards toward my shoulders twenty times a day. He’s a thin man, but I’m so, so small.

Sometimes he tells me I’ll outlive him. I ignore him. It’s not very nice of me. I know he will decline, inevitably, but I push it back in my mind. In my mind he’s eighty before the demyelination starts again. In my mind, he’s forty when they discover some new drug that will make it so that he can never get any sicker. In my mind, I don’t have to ever reckon with the idea of a life, however brief a period of it, without him, because we will die very old, together on the couch one night at the same time.

Bill and Frank drink the poisoned wine. My husband says he thinks it’s baclofen, because it’s white and crushable, because he has a massive bottle of it in the kitchen cabinet and we are both pretty sure that what Frank has is also MS. My husband notes the way his head trembles and how his legs bend limply in the wheelchair. I agree with him.

I think I cried last night. Not a lot, as I’m hardly ever able to do it anymore– it couldn’t have been any more than a single tear struggling out of the duct. I imagined Bill and Frank climbing into bed together for the last time, feeling in my own body the heavy sleep that overcame them, wondering if they were scared.

At 1 AM, my husband comes to bed. I’ve barely been able to sleep, every happy fantasy I have stored in my mind having been interrupted by visions of love: strawberries, red wine, dying together on your own terms. I woke up and we were both still alive. Tonight I will go home, and we will sit on the couch and play a video game. Next Sunday I will stay up past my bedtime and we will watch a story we thought we knew so well.

I’m grateful for the episode, even if it hurt me on a level I wasn’t prepared for. This particular intellectual property has done quite enough damage to me already, thank you very much. I got so much more than I bargained for: the queer love story that has so long existed as a gaping hole in the media I love, and an affirmation that the way I feel, the way we live, is real enough to be written by someone else, real enough to exist even in a world somehow more frightening than the one we live in now.


Happy to announce that as of last week me and my weird little novel are going to be represented by Kent D. Wolf of Neon Literary!