Fandom-esque | ‘The Last of Us’ is a lesson on canon divergence done right

Fandom-esque is a biweekly blog about the fandoms of the pop culture sphere and their latest ongoings in TV, film and more.

By Diana Velasquez, Senior Staff Writer

I predict that next Emmy season, HBO’s “The Last of Us” will have a clean sweep — especially with its third episode, “Long Long Time.”

“Long Long Time,” like the rest of the series so far, is an enigma in the long saga of adapting video games to film. It’s really, really good and even more so, it’s taken extremely well to the path of canon divergence.

Really quickly, “canon divergence” is primarily a fandom term, used when fanfiction is set in a universe that diverges from the original canon due to changing a character’s backstory or the plot overall.

Occasionally, people use this term when talking about film and TV adaptations of work as well. “Long Long Time” is an example of canon divergence on film done to perfection.

“The Last of Us” — which I mentioned briefly in my last blog post — is a new show on HBO based on a video game of the same name. Both focus on Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler in a post-apocalyptic zombie-filled America who is charged with escorting a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to the west coast.

“Long Long Time” doesn’t really focus on them. Weird right? After hearing so much about Pascal’s performance, shouldn’t the best episode be one where he and Ramsey are the main focus? Well, the scenes that they’re in are great, but the bulk of the episode consists of a flashback between two side characters from the game — Bill and Frank.

In the game, Bill is a libertarian crackpot survivalist who owes Joel a few favors and serves as a sort of pit-stop in the gameplay for the player. Frank is already dead when Joel and Ellie arrive. The details are vague, but what the player does know is that Frank suffered a bite from one of the zombies and killed himself before he could turn.

While it’s never explicitly said aloud, it’s heavily implied that Bill is gay, and Frank was his partner before they had a falling out. In-game, Ellie steals some gay pornographic magazines from Bill and Bill refers to Frank in passing as his “partner.”

If the player searches, they can also find a suicide note of Frank’s where he details just how much he hates Bill and sarcastically wishes him luck in the apocalypse. Their relationship clearly ended on a bad note.

In the show, the story is much different.

In a 50-minute-long flashback, Bill — who Nick Offerman plays masterfully — stumbles upon Frank (Murray Bartlett) after he falls into one of his booby traps. Perhaps unwisely, Bill takes Frank into his home for a meal before he plans to send him off to the Boston “QZ” or “quarantine zone.” But after Bill performs a novice but heartfelt performance of Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” on his piano, Bill and Frank kiss and sleep together, and it sets them on a path of partnership that will last 20 years.

I kid you not, social media refers to the next 40 minutes of their flashback as “the gay version of the first 10 minutes of ‘Up.’” I have yet to find a better way to describe it.

It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking episode of television where Bill and Frank make a life together in a miserable, bleak world even when it doesn’t seem like there’s much to live for. Frank changes Bill’s entire perspective on life. Frank encourages Bill to want good things for himself — things as simple as friends, good music or the joy of enjoying fresh-picked strawberries with your husband on a summer’s day.

However, all good things must come to an end and Frank gets sick with cancer. Undeterred, Bill prepares to take care of him until he dies — but Frank wants to die on his own terms and asks Bill to slip sleeping pills into his wine so he can die painlessly. After spending one last day together, Bill concedes to Frank’s request but also slips the pills into his own wine.

In Bill’s words, “I’m old. I’m satisfied. And you were my purpose.” Joel and Ellie find them both dead weeks later.

Long story short, this pivot from the source material is a masterful choice that no sane person could complain about.

Craig Mazin, one of the showrunners, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, that the episode was meant to serve as a break from all the action and tension of the first two episodes.

“We’ve just seen people who are scared, who are in a dangerous place, who are hiding or running or worried or being hurt or being killed [in the first two episodes],” he said. “I need something different now.”

Changing the source material in a film or TV show isn’t new. In fact, it’s almost mandatory when adapting something to the screen. But “The Last of Us” is the only piece of media in recent memory that seems to have been universally praised for it.

I will admit that I love beating a dead horse, but “Game of Thrones” really dropped the ball on many of its storylines — and I’m not talking about the last season here. I mean storylines that George R.R. Martin had already written, yet the showrunners chose not to include for whatever stupid reason.

Here’s one example. In “The Song of Ice and Fire” series Dorne, the kingdom at the very bottom of Westeros, has a very central part in the series progression. Princess Arianne Dorne involves herself in a coup, attempting to get Cersei Lannister’s daughter, Myrcella Baratheon, on the Iron Throne. Arianne’s brother, Quentyn Martell, goes to Essos in an attempt to forge a marriage pact between himself and Daenerys Targaryen.

None of that is in the show. Dorne has a small, almost unimportant role in the later seasons, serving mostly as a backdrop for Jamie Lannister’s character development. It’s also rather noticeable that Dorne is one of the only places in Westeros populated with people of color.

There’s a whole slew of other examples I could give, but my point is that when it comes to adapting a work, showrunners have an opportunity to make the source material even better. Everyone over at HBO’s “The Last of Us” chose to focus on hope and love, despite what homophobes spit on the internet.

Changing, or keeping, the source material to highlight the story of marginalized people, in the long run, is going to do your show more good than bad. When Nick Offerman walks off the Emmy stage with an armful full of trophies in his hands, keep that in mind.