The Last of Us star Troy Baker defended the HBO series' controversial Episode 3.
Baker, who played Joel Miller in PlayStation's epic post-apocalyptic duology, got the chance to appear in the HBO show of the hit video game franchise, popping up as James in Episode 8 of the series.
The 46-year-old joins Ellie actress Ashley Johnson, Jeffrey Pierce (who played Tommy in the games), and Merle Dandridge (Marlene in both the series and the games), as actors from the video game franchise who got the call to join the TV adaptation.
Early returns say The Last of Us is a certified hit, with nearly every episode garnering universal acclaim. However, one particular episode, Episode 3 to be exact, drew the ire of some because of its depiction of a queer relationship on-screen.
Troy Baker on TLOU's Episode 3 Drama
In a new interview with Inverse, The Last of Us star Troy Baker offered his thoughts on the hate that Episode 3 of the HBO series received largely because of its queer representation.
When asked how he would defend the third episode of the hit show, Baker pointed to the "beautiful story that [they] did not have the opportunity to tell" in the original game:
"I don’t think it needs defending. There’s this beautiful story that we did not have the opportunity to tell because it would have derailed the game, it would have taken something away from the game that was in the focus. The beauty of making games is it’s all about iteration and innovation. How can we continue to iterate on the story?"
He opined that "one of [his] favorite things about The Last of Us" on HBO has been "all of the conversations that have happened subsequent to it:"
"One of my favorite things about 'The Last of Us,' even more than the game has been all of the conversations that have happened subsequent to it. And if we can make something that makes you go, I wonder what were those 20 years like, we have the opportunity to expand on that. So why wouldn’t we do that?"
Baker called the love story in Episode 3 between Nick Offernman's Bill and Murray Bartlett's Frank "pure and simple," lamenting that ultimately The Last of Us " is a story about love:"
"The beauty is that they were able to show this is a story about love. Pure and simple. That is it. So the more that we can focus on that, and it’s something that is threaded throughout everything, we see the love of a father to a daughter between Joel and Sarah, we see the love between brothers between Joel and Tommy, we see the love between Tess and Joel, we see the love between Bill and Frank. It fits in exactly the whole story that we’re trying to tell."
The actor called out detractors of the third episode, saying they "clearly haven’t seen it:"
I think to anybody that is in opposition to it, I would just simply say watch it first, and then tell me how you feel about it. Because they clearly haven’t seen it."
This is not the first time Baker addressed the controversy surrounding Episode 3, as he previously revealed in an HBO Q&A that watching the series for the first time "resulted in a lot of tears:"
“My reaction to seeing the story of Bill and Frank and the show resulted in a lot of tears. If you play the game you know how that story went. Bill is this curmudgeon, he’s this hermit, he’s got this gruff exterior, and Frank is really just someone that we talk about. In the show, we got to see what that relationship looked like. Something that I think that Neil and Craig did very very well is putting on display what a long-term loving relationship looks like in literally the midst of hell. It started with strawberries and a lot of tears.”
Speaking on the changes to the game as a whole, Baker told Collider the fleshing out of characters like Bill and Frank "was not something [he] expected:"
“Selfishly, I really wanted to see what it’d look like for someone else to play Joel. But that thing that to me added a whole new layer to the IP was not something I expected. It wasn’t something that I was looking for because it wasn’t even really there.
He talked about the character of Frank, mentioning that, in the game, Frank is "basically dangling feet in a bad Hawaiian shirt." However, in the series, "he is the anchor point," showing up in "possibly one of the most beautiful episodes, not only of this show but any show [he's] ever seen:"
“Perfect example is the character of Frank. Frank in the game is, well if you play the game you know. He was basically dangling feet in a bad Hawaiian shirt. But in this version of the story, he is the anchor point. And it’s possibly one of the most beautiful episodes, not only of this show but any show I’ve ever seen.”
Baker said additions like this "adds a whole new layer [to] the IP:"
“So that to me adds a whole new layer of the IP, and that’s what at the heart of this story. It’s the relationships. Yeah, we have monsters that are attacking us and yeah, there are vicious people that are doing horrible things to survive. But at the end of the day, it’s how these two people feel about that and what they’re going through.”
The Impact of The Last of Us' Episode 3
No matter how one feels about Episode 3 of The Last of Us, it made an impact.
While on one side of the divide, it has drawn the hate of homophobic internet commenters review-bombing the series in bad faith, the majority have seen the story for what it is, a gripping love story that happens to be between two gay men finding each other in the apocalypse.
As Baker emphasized, the HBO take on Naughty Dog's hit gaming franchise allowed creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin to flesh out parts of the story that were so heavily reliant on gameplay in the games.
And this is just one example. The queer relationship between Frank and Bill is much less overt in the game, but it is there. This is nothing new.
What is new is the building out of that one small detail into something that perfectly and beautifully reinforces the theme of the entire The Last of Us story.
This series is ultimately about how one keeps their humanity when humanity is pushed to the edge. And while not a beat-for-beat retelling of Bill's story from the games, many would agree this change for the series plays into that narrative milieu much better than what was there in the source material.
The controversial finale of HBO's The Last of Us airs next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.