Elevating queer voices in “The Last of Us”

HBO show "The Last of Us" promo pic

The Last of Us, HBO’s post-apocalyptic pandemic television series, is based on the video game of the same name that was developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. With twenty-four, count them, yes, twenty-four Emmy nominations.

One of those was for “Endure and Survive,” episode 5, for Outstanding Picture Editing for a Drama Series, edited by out queer filmmakers and editors Timothy Good (Umbrella Academy and supervising editor for The Resident), and Emily Mendez (Umbrella Academy and The Resident). This is their first Emmy nomination as an editing team.

I had the opportunity to discuss not only episode 5 but also episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” better known as the “Bill and Frank” episode starring Nick Offerman (Bill) and Murray Bartlett (Frank), and episode 7, “Left Behind,” the episode in which Ellie’s (Bella Ramsey) high school crush on her “best friend,” Riley (Storm Reid) is explored. If you know the video game or have watched the nine-episode television series then you will be familiar with the storyline discussed in this article; if not, there are spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Both editors, Timothy Good and Emily Mendez, bring a personal touch throughout the editing of the episodes because of their life experiences. Being out queer editors working in Hollywood, it was especially important to Good and Mendez to accurately portray the queer gay and lesbian characters’ experiences in The Last of Us. Mendez explains the sequences between Ellie and Riley in the shopping mall arcade. This scene was edited by Mendez, and it was especially important to her that so many people and fans “found a piece of themselves” in the lesbian characters.

She referenced that even though she heard some negative backlash about the “Long, Long, Time” episode and the episodes with the queer characters she chose to focus on the “good stuff.” She personally saw a lot of fan art of Ellie and Riley and Bill and Frank, from so many people, “that it just had been incredible that people would take the time to create these beautiful images of these characters because they mean so much to them.” This is what she holds on to.“We touched so many people and they found a piece of themselves in these characters, and that was important.”

Both Mendez and Good, when working on “Long, Long Time” and “Left Behind,” put pieces of themselves into the material because each recognized something in these characters. Equally important to Good, in editing each of the episodes with queer characters in mind, “was to show the human relationship between the characters, and that they deserved their own spaces to exist in.” One can see these elements throughout the first season of The Last of Us. For Good, to be working on the episodes with queer characters “was a dream come true as a queer filmmaker.

“I wanted to share my experiences over the last 48 years of my life, and how it feels like to be in the Bill and Frank episode. What that feels like and how those interactions, in my opinion, don’t function normally, especially 20 years ago. You would have to suss everyone out, and you couldn’t just talk normally, ‘How are you? What are you?’ You had to be very careful.…And also, if you were trying to protect someone who you knew was closeted, you didn’t want to upset them at the same time. Being able to use my experiences in these sequences was really a big deal to me. I was very happy to be able to allow that to be seen by as many people as possible.”

While Craig Mazin, co-creator of The Last of Us, wrote the screenplay for episode 3, “Long, Long Time,” Good was brought in to edit from that perspective. “It was a wise choice, to hire queer filmmakers to bring the story to life. Peter Hoar, the director, has to be a gay man for me, so he can figure out how to tell this story that is authentic. Also having Murray [Bartlett] there as Frank to help Nick [Offerman], Bill, in their scenes was a wise move on his part.”

Having been hired late in the filming process, Good had everything to do with how the story was revealed. Every moment was up to him and that is what he loved about it. He was able to choose the performances, all the nuance, all the silences between the characters. “The connections, the disconnections, how that relationship affects the characters of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) in the end and how it pushes them forward and sort of the sensitivity between the two characters.”

Editor Emily Mendez
Editor Emily Mendez from the HBO series “The Last of Us”

Good wanted the audience to naturally care for these people by just presenting their behavior and how they were interacting together and not to feel “like pushing the audience to feel something for these characters.” The 1:25 episode was only supposed to be an hour. Showrunner Mazin begged HBO to keep it longer because “it was important for this relationship to live and feel as cinematic as possible and to reveal the dynamics of the relationship.”

“We never focused on making it faster, we only focused on making it better, in terms of highlighting the relationship,” says Good. “To their credit [HBO], the final episode was 74 minutes and change and Mazin was really wise in his adjustments as well. The story line is pretty much intact, there’s very little that’s gone from that. Another choice was not to add music, but to let the audience feel whatever emotion there was.”

Good describes one of his favorite particular moments of the episode “was when Frank looks over at the mantelpiece at the end, right before they have their last dinner, and he realizes that when he first went into this house the mantelpiece was dusty and covered with old photographs and dusty wine bottles, and his purpose in that relationship was to bring art and flowers and all of those things into Bill’s life, and that’s what he sees at the end so that tiny moment, I felt, was so indicative of their relationship and where it’s come.”

In terms of filmmaking and editing, Good states, “That’s the kind of thing that most people would say we don’t need that; that’s the kind of thing we said we absolutely need. That was how I was able to have my stamp on everything while having nothing to do with the story.”

Editor Timothy Good
Editor Timothy Good from the HBO series “The Last of Us”

Good looks at his editing craft and collaborations “as a way to elevate what was done in directing, performances, and capturing footage. Putting sequences next to each other that weren’t initially next to each other, gives it a new meaning. I focused on micro beats between the characters to build tension between the characters.”

Good credits his collaborators who gave him enormous latitude in helping make a better story. “And this was the ultimate working with Craig: he is a very detailed and wonderful writer and also a very giving collaborator.”

For Mendez, she saw herself reflected in the characters of Ellie and Riley in episode 3, “Left Behind.” The scenes in the mall resonated with her, and she pulled out little pieces in the dailies that Ramsey and Reid were giving her “because their performances were amazing.” Neil, the co-creator, “kind of describes it like a post-apocalyptic version of skipping school with your crush, and I love that,” says Mendez.

“When Tim and I were working on these episodes, on all of the episodes (Mendez co-edited episodes 5, 6, 7, and 9), we were putting [in] little pieces of ourselves, but specifically [in] ‘Long, Long Time.’ We recognize these stories.” For Mendez, she had been in a relationship with one of her best friends. She saw herself in these characters. “To pull out these little pieces and build this storyline, you know, Ellie doesn’t know if Riley feels the same as her. And so, to be able to do that is really special.”

Another moment that resonated with Mendez in this scene was the moment when the two kissed. Again the back and forth between the two characters, “will they, won’t they, and then finally Ellie makes up her mind and now Ellie is breathless in a way.” There was a specific take Emily is referring to where Ramsey takes a breath, “that breath, right before they kiss, that was real to me, that feeling like you can’t breathe.”

The Last of Us isn’t the first project that Good and Mendez have worked on together. Good had been working on The Resident as supervising producer and Mendez had been working as a co-editor. When Good saw what Mendez was doing, he said, “This is really top-notch work.” While watching her work on that series, he learned how good she was from afar. Mendez’s love for editing was evident from the beginning, said Good.

Editor Timothy Good
Editor Timothy Good

In episode 5, “Endure and Survive,” the Emmy-nominated episode, Ellie and Joel meet Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodward, who is also nominated for an Emmy for Best Guest Actor in a Dramatic Series). This episode also is jam-packed with action sequences where the audience is learning about the characters. One of the other aspects of this episode was learning how to edit American Sign Language (ASL), as Sam is a deaf character in the story. Not only were they both dealing with editing the death scenes of some of their favorite characters, but they were also dealing with the layers of emotions.

For instance, the ending sequence where Ellie leaves the magic slate on the grave of Sam, that scene is really powerful because there’s so much emotion there, states Emily. The episode has “a lot of highs and lows, it has a delicate balance, it’s memorable because it has a lot of action, but it also has a lot of heart.”

Speaking of heart and connection, in my separate interviews with Good and Mendez Good proudly stated that every assistant editor he has worked with has been elevated to editor. “That is my favorite thing to do in life, and I’m not afraid of elevating anyone. I want to make sure they learn, and I want to make sure they excel.” Both Good and Mendez speak highly of working with one another, having met while working on The Resident and being connected through colleague Nicole Vaskell. “It was an amazing gift.”

Upon their first meeting, Good found Mendez very open as she spoke candidly about her fianceé, who is now her wife. Good was like, “Awesome.” In talking about co-editing together, Good has mentored Emily for the past three years as his assistant. The thing that Tim has been most proud of as a queer filmmaker is being able to elevate other queer voices. “Emily knocked it out of the park! She brought a level of astuteness and understanding to the relationship of two teenage girls. She understood so delicately; I wouldn’t have known it as well as she does,” says Good.

“I feel that it’s really important to our queer stories, the nuance of them, to give an audience, straight people watching it, feel the love of these two characters. It shouldn’t be a situation where we are forcing them to like the characters; they should naturally like them,” says Good. “Having Mendez alongside of me for that and after the series gives her enormous visibility, which I think is critical. I think it’s the best.”

At the time of this interview, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA were on strike. However, there are plans for Season 2 of The Last of Us coming to HBO. The television series was co-created and written by Neil Druckmann, co-president of Sony’s Play Station’s Naughty Dog; Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), executive producer, co-writer, and showrunner; and Carolyn Strus (Chernobyl).

You can find Season 1 of The Last of Us streaming exclusively on HBO Max.

Joe'l Ludovich
Joe’l Ludovich is an Emmy-nominated television producer and winner of several Telly and Communicator awards for Philly Live. Her independent films have been awarded recognition, and have screened across the country. Her documentary film of comedian Michelle Balan won a Telly Award. Her latest film was "Grounds for Graffiti." She teaches television, audio, Steadicam, and film studies at Stockton University.