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The Last Man On Earth rediscovers despair in a morbid episode

“Yeah, it’s a frickin’ long shot, but we’re fresh out of short shots, bud.”

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The Last Man On Earth

"The Spirit Of St. Louis"

Season 3 , Episode 11

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Three seasons in, it’s sometimes easy to forget that The Last Man On Earth didn’t quite operate like a traditional sitcom when it began, but was more of a character study about a lonely man begging God for someone to talk to. Now, LMOE more or less functions like an ensemble comedy, albeit one with cliffhangers and an apocalyptic backdrop. This is understandable, and the ultimate likelihood for most network comedies, but there are times when I miss that old show, when it was a bit rough around the edges, when it was confrontational, and most of all, when it was a little more despairing. These people are in a really dire situation, and whenever the series commits to yet another goofy Tandy plot, it can feel like a cheap stab at levity.

For better or worse, “The Spirit Of St. Lewis” refocuses the series on the sheer hopelessness of the gang’s situation. Melissa is locked in the focus room and has emotionally alienated herself from everyone. Todd walks around and frets, guilty about locking up Melissa and worried about the fate of their group. Carol and Gail do their best to help, but are hindered by their resources. Tandy tries his best to keep things light, but is finally pushing up against their bleak reality. “Wake up, bud. It’s all going south,” Todd snaps at him.

The gang’s one hope is Lewis, who has been diligently practicing in a flight simulator so he can one day travel to Tokyo to see if his partner Mark is still alive. Though he’s logged enough hours to try a practice run, he’s still uncertain about actually getting in the cockpit, but Tandy convinces him to give it a go, hoping that he might be able to find a doctor sooner rather than later. It’s a long shot, but those are the only shots anyone has left anymore. So, the gang drinks to his flight the night before, giving him plenty of encouragement and good will. Carol even published the first edition of the Post-Virus News and he made the cover! Maybe, just maybe, things might be looking up!

Until, of course, Lewis gets up in the air and almost immediately crashes and dies.

My biggest criticism of “The Spirit Of St. Lewis” is the lead-up to Lewis’ death, which is a little too exaggerated for my tastes. Credited writers Liz Cackowski and John Solomon really tip the hat in the moments before Lewis’ death, neutering the shock of it. With that being said, it’s a genuine feat that they rendered the plane crash both darkly funny and genuinely tragic, specifically Tandy’s paralyzed expression following the explosion. Lewis’ funeral is typically absurd as well. Carol presents the second edition of the Post-Virus News featuring Lewis on the cover once again, Tandy gives an over-the-top speech in another misguided attempt to lighten the mood, and Todd sings a somber rendition of “Fly” by Sugar Ray. Cackowski and Solomon mine the humor in the situation quite well, knowing full well that death is just a natural part of this world now and that to provide it with too much weight would be unrealistic given what the characters have previously been through.

But Erica’s speech at the funeral and Tandy’s pleas to God reframe the episode nicely. Todd might have voiced concern early in the episode about their general lack of expertise to deal with the impending pregnancies and Melissa’s mental illness, but both Erica and Tandy finally give voice to the general anguish. “Every time hope comes into my life, it dies,” says Erica, pointing to the deaths of Phil, Mike, and now Lewis and possibly Gail. She believes she’s cursed and that there’s no hope around anymore. Meanwhile, Tandy finds a church, and in a rare moment of sincerity, evidenced by the removal of his dinosaur costume, speaks to God honestly and tells Him that he misses Lewis and that he’s sorry for screwing things up. Tandy asks for a sign and, in a “shocking” twist, receives one: The sun shines through the church windows onto Tandy’s face. Ebullient and reenergized, Tandy finally knows what he must do.

Here’s where the episode impressed me: Tandy’s efforts to raise the spirits of the gang utterly fail. He essentially spends the whole day getting lights together to project rainbow colors on a nearby office building to honor Lewis’ memory. It’s a nice gesture, and the colors look nice, but no one is in the mood and it’s a solution that does absolutely nothing. Everyone (besides Melissa) is polite and acknowledges Tandy’s kind act, but can’t muster up any joy or interest because they’re too aware of what’s around them. The distractions have run dry. The fun is gone. The party might finally be over, even if Tandy’s light show accidentally saved Gail’s life as it started up the elevator again.

I’m under no illusions that LMOE can’t or won’t continue with this tone for much longer. It’s still a comedy. There’s still an obvious burden to make people laugh. They’ll inevitably integrate Kristen Wiig into the proceedings. Hope will be around the corner in a couple weeks or so. But I like this version of the show so much, the one that plays to the reality first and the joke second, mostly because they do it so well. “The Spirit Of St. Lewis” effectively captures a specific post-apocalyptic flavor, the moment when the spirits are low and the well of optimism has run dry. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a half-baked light show.

Stray observations

  • The full list of celebrities Tandy lists in his toast, pump-up speech, and eulogy: Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Alva Edison, Doug Henning, Pelé, Peter Frampton, Jonas Salk, Lena Dunham, Shel Silverstein, Kenny Loggins, George Washington Carver, Nelson Mandela, Jim Henson, Hamilton, the guy who did Hamilton, Neil Armstrong, Johnny Appleseed, SEAL Team Six, Ryan Lochte (before Rio).
  • As revenge, Melissa tries to get under the gang’s skin by lashing out at them. She saves the worst one for Tandy (“She said the last thing Mike said before he died was, ‘Uh, where is my brother?’”) and the funniest for Erica (“Racial slur. I mean she actually said the words ‘racial slur.’”)
  • The Ziploc back full of pills is a damn good sight gag, arguably funnier than Tandy’s dinosaur costume.
  • Another Kinks song this week. Check it out below.