Depending on who you ask, The Last of Us is either one of the greatest games of all time or simply the best. Period. So news that HBO is adapting Naughty Dog’s classic – with the game’s writer Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin at the helm – was unsurprisingly met with widespread anticipation. Yet, the TV series also offers a rare opportunity; a chance to improve upon perfection and shine a spotlight on one of the series’ most overlooked characters: Bill.
We first meet Bill around a third of the way into The Last of Us. He’s introduced as a gruff, almost unlovable former acquaintance of Joel, and you’ll be forgiven for forgetting his name, let alone what he does in the hour spend at his side. He grumbles and murmurs and is introduced so early that our attention remains squarely on Joel and Ellie’s burgeoning relationship.
You more likely remember the section for its striking image of a town left completely desolate, the panicked fight against a Bloater in a high school gym, and adding the Nail Bomb to your arsenal. This level – and I hesitate to use the word, but it’s certainly the most videogamey aspect of Joel and Ellie’s journey – is just a stop on the road; a means to an end and a chance to upgrade some combat abilities.
Bill falls to the wayside, and that's a huge missed opportunity. What little we do learn – including, but not limited to, his past dealings with Joel and Tess, his lover Frank, and his past trauma – are windows into widening the emotionally dense, harsh world that The Last of Us thrives on. He's a character that could have been richly mined for serious emotional heft and was a candidate for offering some close narrative inspection. He even has the potential to be one of the most three-dimensional, emotionally complex characters in the game. And yet, his life is only alluded to and frequently hand-waved away in favour of action-heavy sequences.
The HBO series can do things differently.
Mazin and Druckmann’s redux will have ample opportunity to expand Bill's story simply because of its medium. Television favours the longer, drawn-out story, especially if The Last of Us is intended to run over multiple seasons. With that in mind, there are going to be chances for quieter moments; reflective scenes that allow us – and Ellie – to understand a man that, on the surface, is so cantankerous now but once lived and loved.
A key way into that level of emotional resonance would be through a tried-and-tested narrative device: the flashback. Where games have to almost always be forward-driven in some regard, lest you interrupt the flow of the gameplay or risk introducing too many new moving parts to confuse a player, TV shows can delve into the past to show us a new side to characters without much in the way of interruption.
Druckmann has already confirmed several characters will be featuring in The Last of Us HBO series, including Riley, the fledgling girlfriend of Ellie. That indicates that everything from several major characters’ past and present is fair game, with wounds ready to be ripped open and picked at. Only a TV series, with its ability to speed up and slow down at will episode-by-episode, can pull out and focus on certain points that define each characters’ lives. Bill is but a memory by the time you reach the Fireflies in Utah. He needs – and deserves – several scenes, if not an entire episode, to himself.
The most important moment of Bill's life that we see is where Frank – tired of Bill’s stubbornness – leaves and eventually dies by suicide after being bitten by one of the infected. It’s a shattering moment for Bill, who reacts to the discovery with a compelling display of restrained guilt and genuine anger. In the game itself, you can choose whether or not to give Bill the suicide note alongside finding Frank's body. This is a perfect example of where the HBO series should aim to be more definitive, taking agency away and giving Bill (and the viewer) a chance to reflect on the downfall of a failed relationship. It can't just be a sad sight sandwiched in-between several more as Joel and Ellie depart.
As excited as we all are for The Last of Us to come to HBO, the potential for Bill’s growth as a character is evidence enough that a mere 1:1 adaptation won’t be enough. Instead, Druckmann and Mazin can build upon what’s come before.
This is a huge chance to explore the (currently) unexplored corners of The Last of Us universe. In essence, the HBO series can be a director’s cut of one of the greatest video game stories. Whether it’s Bill, Frank, or anyone else we learn more about – it’s beyond exciting to know that two of the finest storytellers around are getting the chance to craft a definitive version of The Last of Us. Let’s just hope Bill gets his due along with it.