Toward the end of the achingly poignant, much-discussed third episode of “The Last of Us,” HBO’s new zombie dystopia series, there’s an earnest ode to traditional masculinity. Bill, a taciturn survivalist, leaves a letter for the show’s hero, Joel, to open after his death. In it, Bill writes of his longtime love, Frank, “I saved him. Then I protected him. That’s why men like you and me are here. We have a job to do.”
It was the coda to a deeply moving, and also deeply conservative, story line. (Stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers.) Nick Offerman, familiar to many as the gruff libertarian from “Parks and Recreation,” plays Bill, a prepper who thrives when doomsday actually arrives. After a fungal pandemic tears through civilization, Bill knows better than to let agents of the state — or as he calls them, the New World Order — drag him off to quarantine.
Waiting out the roundup in his weapons-filled basement bunker, Bill eventually emerges into a completely evacuated neighborhood. He raids the hardware store and the liquor store, fires up his generator, and enjoys a life of comfortable autarky while the rest of the world implodes. His isolated existence is rocked when Frank, played by the delightful Murray Bartlett, falls into a trap outside his compound and persuades Bill to give him a meal. A gourmet who knows how to deglaze a pan, Bill astonishes Frank with a lunch of rabbit, vegetables and Beaujolais. Soon, recognizing that Bill is gay, though totally inexperienced, Frank kisses him, which leads to a love story of more than 15 years.
That relationship has been the focus of much of the writing about the episode, which expands on what is apparently a minor plot point in the beloved video game that the series is based on. Many viewers thrilled to see a gay couple more-or-less happily growing old together. Homophobic trolls did not; tens of thousands of them have “review bombed” the episode, driving down its ratings on sites like Metacritic and IMDB by giving it one star. “Did ‘The Last of Us’ Just Go ‘Woke’?” asked a Forbes headline.
Perhaps this is predictable; anti-L.G.B.T.Q. sentiment is at a boiling point on the right, and as Gamergate showed, conservative video game aficionados are an easily aggrieved lot. Still, I naïvely thought that some conservatives, who frequently complain about not seeing their values represented in pop culture, might thrill to the episode. Yes, it features gay romance, and, when Frank develops a degenerative disease, a double suicide. But it’s also a story about a strong man whose suspicion of the government, facility with weapons and practical skills allow him to defend the one he loves, building a domestic idyll safe from the ravening hordes.
As my new colleague David French once wrote about “The Walking Dead,” the last hit TV show about zombie Armageddon, “Zombie fiction may be the most conservative fiction of all.” After all, it often features government collapse, the necessity of marksmanship, and the brutality of man in a state of nature.
The genre hasn’t always been reactionary. George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” was often seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War, and his “Dawn of the Dead” was about the monstrousness of consumerism. But in our paranoid, unstable, armed-to-the-teeth country, where some right-wingers dream of building fortresses against invading mobs, zombie narratives tend to dovetail with conservative concerns. As of about a decade ago, there was a real-life group in Kansas called the Kansas Anti Zombie Militia, which trained to respond to a zombie apocalypse, or “zompoc.” One Capitol rioter wore a “Zombie Outbreak Response Team” sticker.
At least so far — I’ve seen only the first four episodes — “The Last of Us” generally hews to the right-wing assumptions of the genre, especially in Episode 3. Bill may have been wrong to think he didn’t need love, but he’s right about basically everything else. His neighbors who agree to go to the quarantine zone end up in a mass grave. During one domestic spat, Frank says, “You live in a psycho bunker where 9/11 was an inside job and the government are all Nazis.” An exasperated Bill yells back, sensibly, “The government are all Nazis!” When, after their death, the show’s teenage heroine enters Bill’s basement lair, full of weapons and surveillance equipment, she’s awed: “This guy was a genius!”
But it’s not just Bill’s vindication that makes the show conservative. It’s the golden light it casts on Bill and Frank’s private paradise. Bill doesn’t just wall off his house; he fences in the whole neighborhood, shops included. With their armaments and their land, the couple can fend off intruders and live a quiet life of farm-to-table cuisine, hot showers and red wine, owing nothing to the disintegrating society beyond. (Even if Frank aspires to have friends they can invite over.) If they weren’t queer, I suspect it would be obvious that this is an upscale suburban version of a right-wing fantasy. And it’s one embedded in a show in which the government’s pandemic response leads to an incompetent but brutal brand of fascism.
I don’t mean this as an argument against “The Last of Us”; I enjoy the show quite a bit and found the third episode truly moving. But I’ve been surprised that its conservative politics have been so obscured by the conversation about representation. Some right-wingers were infuriated when, in an interview, the episode’s director spoke of having to “sort of trick” straight viewers into investing in a gay love story. It’s “more proof that these modern-day entertainers see themselves as would-be priests of modernity,” Brandon Morse wrote in RedState.
But “The Last of Us” has also sort of tricked sentimental liberals into rooting for a resource-hoarding gun nut defying evil pandemic authorities. If the right hadn’t worked itself into such a panic about homosexuality, it might be able to take the win.
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