How The Last of Us bucks the trend for on-screen queerness

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The world has ended. Cordyceps, a mushroom-blooming fungal infection, has ravaged humanity. The streets outside are silent, peppered with pockets of violence and desperation.

Considering that bleak, post-apocalyptic setting, viewers may not have expected that the third installment of HBO’s The Last of Us would take the form of a deeply heart-rending queer romantic bottle episode. And the theme of queerness has only continued to crop up throughout the show in the run up to today’s finale.

The first two episodes of the series laid the groundwork for what we needed to understand the Cordyceps pandemic, and fleshed out the backstories of protagonists Joel and Ellie. They also provided the audience with a level of comfort with its familiar genre setting. Creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann know that three years into a real-world pandemic and a concurrent uptick in pandemic storytelling, people know what to expect from a show like this. This meant that almost everyone was blindsided by the creative choice that came next, which represented a clear break from the genre-conformity of the rest of the series, with its representation of queer love in a post-apocalyptic setting a key aspect of that surprise .

Queerness is too often seen as a form of luxury, a privileged indulgence of the modern world. It’s a perspective that seeps through onto the small screen. RuPaul’s Drag Race has popularized the aesthetic excess associated with queer performance, glued together by sequins, luxe fabrics and false lashes. In The L Word, when tennis star Dana comes out, her mother says that she sees lesbian life as a modern and superfluous choice (“we all have feelings for our girl friends Dana – it doesn’t mean you have to act on them” ). Mainstream sci-fi has also explored the idea that technological advances may produce more queerness; like in Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers, in which best friends Danny and Theo embark on an illicit affair in a virtual reality video game. In these representations, queerness is almost futuristic, but exclusively exists in those futures that are high tech, late capitalist, hyper-consumerist and hedonistic – underpinned by indulgence rather than necessity.

Bella Ramsay as Ellie in the season finale of The Last of Us.
Bella Ramsay as Ellie in the season finale of The Last of Us. Photograph: HBO/Warner Media/2023 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The queerness in The Last of Us bucks that trend. Here, queerness is not dependent on “advanced” material conditions; on the contrary, it belongs to dystopias as well as utopias. It would always exist. In fact, in an alternate timeline where the world had burned, perhaps new forms of queerness would be certain to rise from the ashes. Frank and Bill, the two gay characters whose romance we follow in the unexpected bottle episode, find each other in a barren and lonely landscape, but this also means that they have a blank canvas on which to create their own kind of love. Alone, in their house, they carve out their own queer world.

It’s also suggested that queerness isn’t something that the characters could fully explore in the “before times”. So, in their story, the “progression” of society did not give rise to queerness, the destruction of society did. The same may be true for Ellie – who has grown up in this apocalyptic hellscape, and is beginning to explore her own sexuality by episode seven. While her life is not concrete better in this world, she will undoubtedly have a different experience of her queerness as she enters adulthood in an unrecognizable society.

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Our current politics is a constant reminder that the progression of time does not equal the progression of values ​​- that “modern” or industrial societies do not inherently give rise to a better world. TV often suggests that this is the case, a notion that is also subtly reiterated all around us in the form of “rainbow capitalism” and liberal “homonationalism”. But queerness isn’t the property of a technological future or even a stripped back past. It disrupts norms; it can teleport itself to any alternate timeline, and doesn’t only bloom in spaces of life and productivity, but also persists alongside death and destruction. This is an idea worth holding on to, in a world that seems to be building up and burning all at the same time.

How The Last of Us bucks the trend for on-screen queerness

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