The Last Man On Earth has always interested me as a show because of the existential high stakes of its premise. The series always seemed driven by broad questions about the changing purpose of life after a calamitous event all but destroys it. What is our responsibility to the Earth after it has turned on us? Do we still hold onto the various social contracts that held sway in the old world? How do we redefine the value of concepts like community and family now that the world no longer provides them with meaning? Since The Last Man On Earth is a half-hour comedy, these questions aren’t discussed explicitly at a table My Dinner With Andre-style, but they thrum underneath the surface of the proceedings in every episode. Though the show can get goofy and crass, it never forgets the stakes of every conflict, which take on a whole new level of resonance just by the nature of the series’ setting.
Yet tellingly the series never exploits these stakes for more than it’s worth. For these characters, life after the virus still feels like life for the most part, with all of the typical mundane realities that come with it. People fight. They make up. They sleep with each other. They break up. People fall in and out of friendship. The relationships mostly remain the same as the one’s in “the real world,” which allows the series to more or less operate as a regular sitcom. If The Last Man On Earth kept going back to the “we’re living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland” well, it would just become another way to falsely goose an episode’s drama.
But with “Silent Night,” the best episode of the season, there’s no need to artificially amplify the drama because its premise is as dark as they come: Phil 2.0 has appendicitis, and because there’s no real doctor in the group, he’s dying. Panicked and distraught, the group does everything they can to control the situation, but it becomes clear that either Gail, the only person who has any medical expertise, performs surgery on Phil 2.0 or he dies. Though Gail strenuously objects, Erica convinces her to give it a shot, but writer Tim McAuliffe smartly voices Gail’s objections without making her seem cold or callous. “We’ve all been through this before,” she says. “We know the drill. Let’s just give him some kickass drugs and send him off with a smile.” Death is not abstract for any of the Malibu gang. They all lived to see everyone they knew perish. On some level, Phil 2.0 is not any more or less special than those who have passed. But on a more concrete level, they do know him. He’s a part of their makeshift family. He’s the father of Erica’s child. That matters. He’s not expendable.
McAuliffe structures “Silent Night” in an interesting way, mainly that he doesn’t focus on Phil 2.0 and his pain, but instead he focuses on everyone else and how they’re subtly trying to distract themselves from the ugly reality in front of them. Sure, Melissa, Todd, Phil, and Carol are “helping” Gail with the surgery, but they’re also wrapped up in their own personal dramas. Melissa is devastated by Todd’s rejection. Todd is losing it because of all the lies he has to keep straight with Melissa and Gail. Carol genuinely wants to be supportive of Melissa, but can’t focus on her problems. Phil constantly tries to lighten the mood, as Phil does. There are a lot of funny detours in “Silent Night,” like the bit with Todd’s Body Locker hip-hop dance group, and Phil and Todd unnecessarily digging up Gordon. Despite the twists and turns, McAuliffe never loses the thread of Phil 2.0’s weakening health, sealing its weight at the end of the third act when Gail realizes she’s going to have to perform the surgery without her smoke break or enough practice. There’s real terror there that isn’t really qualified with comedy, unless you count Mary Steenburgen saying “Farts” with abject fear in her voice.
Meanwhile, Mike crawls himself back onto his ship after being accidentally ejected out, and with the help of his new worm, he decides to head back to Earth. I’ve been upfront about how this subplot is far and away one of my favorite things about The Last Man On Earth this season because the writers seemed to have bottled the loneliness inherent in the series and injected it into a minor story that serves as a microcosm for the larger narrative. Mike is Phil at the beginning of the series: Alone, desperate, talking to things that cannot talk back to him, but with a newfound lease on life, he gives the worm a name with a concrete connection to his past: Phil. He’s afraid of descending to his home planet and burning up on re-entry, but if there’s another chance at life, it’s down there.
It’s the parallels drawn between Mike’s solo journey to Earth and Gail’s botched surgery of Phil 2.0’s appendix that really elevates this episode to new heights. The episode crosscuts between the surgery and the re-entry because they’re thematically connected: A life crashing down to Earth like a miracle while another slowly slips away like a tragedy. The entire ensemble plays the surgery scene completely straight, and the small details are essential: Todd trying to maintain composure but can’t really keep up with the blood pooling in Phil 2.0’s body; Carol leaning on Phil’s shoulder unable to watch the trauma; Gail struggling to do everything she can with her little experience; Erica watching on in horror. It’s a relatively short scene, but it feels drawn out because the Mike scenes interrupt the rhythm. Mike screams as flames engulf his pod. Gail and Todd try to talk through the surgery. But all that’s left is a piercing scream from Mike in space and the sound of a flatline here on Earth. Life and death in tandem.
- The cast all really puts in some great work in this episode. January Jones really sells Melissa’s devastation even in the few scenes she’s been given, and Mary Steenburgen also acts wonderfully as someone in over her head. But I have to shout out Jason Sudeikis who has been stellar this entire season at conveying Mike’s inner pain and how he’s mentally hanging by a thread every time he’s on screen. His delivery of the line of dialogue in the header is heartbreaking.
- The Last Man On Earth may have the funniest fart jokes of any comedy currently on TV right now. That opening scene when they try to get Phil 2.0 to pass gas is fantastic. “We’re talking beans, we’re talking broccoli, we’re talking anything in the cabbage family.”
- A chilling moment in the episode that sort of gets shoved under the rug: All the dead bodies in the morgue are skeletons because they haven’t been properly maintained.
- The “You want me to be the father?”/“Can you get me some water?” mixup made me laugh harder than I was expecting.
- Mel Rodriguez’s dance moves are on point.
- “I’m not liking those odds, guys.”
- “Dennis Rodman? You get that reference? His nickname was the worm.”
- “I think they’re called lockers. I said that with such confidence. Honestly, I have no idea.”
- “This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The camel is dead and I ate him! Just like the bacon!”