When Bill first appears on the latest episode of The Last of Us, he’s just a shadow in a basement. He’s a mass of long hair and a bushy beard, silhouetted by the light of six CCTV monitors. The screens reveal the scene outside: FEDRA’s soldier-police are herding Bill’s neighbors onto trucks, preparing to haul them away, shoot them, and pile their bodies in ditches. Still hidden in the dark, Bill picks up his gun.
We don’t see Bill’s face until later, but by the time he utters his first line, his voice is unmistakable. “Not today, you new world order jackboot fucks,” he mutters, and Nick Offerman’s signature rumble comes out: stubborn and authoritative, coolly menacing.
Soon, we’re treated to a gleeful montage. Soundtracked by spangly country tunes, and always with spare ammunition strapped across his chest, Bill drives his pickup truck to the gas station, Home Depot, and the liquor store, loading up on survivalist supplies. He dusts off an old generator, lines his property with booby traps, and starts a garden next to a chicken coop. This is clearly a man who’s been waiting to put his skills of self-sufficiency to the test, who knows how to live off the land and derives great fulfillment from doing so.
It’s pitch-perfect casting. Offerman rose to fame as the gruff libertarian Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, which ran from 2009 to 2015. Ron was a macho loner with a fondness for hunting, fishing, red meat, and dark liquor, and a deep mistrust for government overreach. Though Offerman has put some distance between himself and his iconic character in recent years, he initially encouraged the comparison. His first book, 2013’s Paddle Your Own Canoe, included diagrams of acceptable cuts of meat (all pork and beef, no poultry or seafood) and styles of facial hair (yes to bushy, no to funny), in the vein of the famous Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. That same year, Offerman hosted an AMA on Reddit, during which he claimed to never giggle, only “sometimes utter a manly guffaw when I see something like football [or] ultimate fighting.” Though it was all a comedic persona, it cemented his reputation — onscreen and off — as a straight-shooting, middle-American dude.
Beyond Ron Swanson, Offerman has made a name for himself not just as an actor, comic, and writer, but as an all-around outdoorsperson. He regularly contributes to Outside magazine with tales of trapping raccoons and defending Thoreau. He runs a woodshop where he sometimes hosts YouTube tours, and he calls woodworking his “other first love” aside from acting. He’s written books about his country-life upbringing in Joliet, Illinois, and his road trips across America’s national parks. If Offerman were to end up in a zombie apocalypse, it seems likely he’d survive basically the same way Bill did — at least, far likelier than your average famous actor.
But on The Last of Us, not long after his triumphant montage, Bill finds himself in a much more vulnerable situation. Four years into the apocalypse, handsome stranger Frank (Murray Bartlett) winds up in a hole in Bill’s backyard, hungry and alone. Bill hesitates to take him in, citing fears that every vagabond in a 100-mile radius will come calling if they hear he’s fed the last one. But he relents, and Frank’s sweet, earnest awe at the way Bill lives — the hot shower, the freshly seared rabbit paired with Beaujolais, the grand piano — endears him to Bill. They share a kiss, then they end up in bed together.
It’s easy to see why Offerman ended up playing tough guy Bill, whose rugged individualism allows him to outsmart the federal government. But it’s a thrilling surprise to see Offerman embody anxious, innocent Bill, falling in love with a man for the first time. In Offerman’s guarded body language, we see the limits of Bill’s self-sufficiency. He’s become lonely, and despite being very good at caring for himself, he’s forgotten what it feels like to have someone else care for him. As Frank and Bill’s commitment deepens, it’s moving to see Bill let their love change him. By the end of the episode, tough old Bill is more tender than anything.
Bill’s story arc may seem like a complete subversion of Offerman’s public image, but in truth, his loving heart has been on full display all along. His marriage to fellow comedian Megan Mullally, with whom he frequently collaborates, has been a cornerstone of his image for years. They’ve hosted comedy shows and podcasts together. She played his ex-wife on Parks and Recreation; he wrote a book about their relationship called The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. He is undeniably a Wife Guy. Even if this trait manifests most frequently in filthy jokes about their sex life, he’s always championed his respect for romantic commitment.
Bill’s story arc may seem like a complete subversion of Offerman’s public image, but in truth, his loving heart has been on full display all along.
Then there’s the potentially subversive choice to give gun-hoarding, American flag–waving Bill a gay love story. But that too maps naturally onto Offerman’s persona, which has proved largely resistant to the dull binaries of the culture wars. Though he’s a vocal Democrat, he’s also a decisive outsider in the Hollywood aristocracy. He’s a small-town, Midwestern kid who’s good with guns, who will happily lend that talent to a John Oliver piece disproving conspiracy theories about election subversion. He’s a talented carpenter who can build himself a canoe (and has), but he’ll only use lumber from felled trees, so as to protect local ecosystems from the destructive consequences of deforestation.
And he often seems to exist outside of contemporary culture entirely. He talks about enjoying his “analog” life and rejecting the “gross and superficial” careerism of the entertainment industry. He treats the question “Why does Nick Offerman hate the internet?” with a beguiling cluelessness, offering that it’s for the same reason any “sane, reasonable” person does. He resents the wastefulness of unexamined technological innovations. When asked to give an opinion on a drone that could deliver pizza, he muses that he’s accustomed to modern luxuries just like anyone else, but that “we forget to ask questions like ‘Who’s making this pizza? Where’s it coming from?’” His philosophy of the world, too easily pigeonholed as libertarian simply because he played a character a decade ago, comes across in interviews as far more thoughtful and negotiable than a casual fan might expect.
Like any public figure, Offerman has always been more complicated than collective perception has allowed him to be. Since the end of Parks and Recreation, as Obama-era optimism gave way to polarization and despair, he’s had to push back more decisively on his comparisons to Ron Swanson. He has protested that fans who think Ron would have voted for Trump have fundamentally misunderstood “the wholesome and decent values of our show and my character,” and he seems bewildered by others’ assumption that he has a “weird, Fox News” value system in real life. But these constraints are what made his casting on The Last of Us such a success. At first, viewers get the easy recognition of Offerman as a stoic, independent man of the woods. Then we are forced to consider him more complexly. Through Bill, Offerman has revitalized a part of his offscreen self that is too often overlooked: his sincere gentleness, or what his close friend and Parks and Recreation costar Amy Poehler has called his “heart of a young teenage girl in love.” ●