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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tragedy strikes and wonder survives on The Last Man On Earth fall finale

Illustration for article titled Tragedy strikes and wonder survives on The Last Man On Earth fall finale

Last Sunday, guest reviewer Oliver Sava took The Last Man On Earth to task for basically producing and airing an episode with of such little substance that the only notable thing about it is Will Forte in a T-Rex costume. This has become somewhat of a frequent problem for the otherwise fun, compelling series: It will often air episodes that exist to either move the macro plot forward or spin their wheels to draw out the narrative. Sometimes these can be saved with jokes, but the best episodes of Last Man are ones that feature a really strong central plot, like trying to find a new home or a grief-focused road trip, which allows the humor and pathos to occur organically.

It’s unfortunate that Last Man has written themselves into a corner over the past few weeks with narratives that alienate the ensemble. Maybe the writers are doing this on purpose, to create the sense of a major fracture within the group, but it mostly just negates the ensemble’s strengths and kills the pacing, as evidenced by the last couple episodes. “If You’re Happy And You Know It,” the series’ fall finale, is better than “Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem” if only because it features one charming, sweet stand-alone plot and Mary Steenburgen brings her A-game. But it’s still sort of a lop-sided mess.

The best part of “If You’re Happy And You Know It” is Tandy and Carol’s belated honeymoon mostly because Forte and Schaal’s natural chemistry can carry just about any subplot. In the episode, Carol feels like she has to extract herself from her whimsical, make believe fantasies after Todd chewed her out for her faux-adoption. Concerned that she’s slowly losing her joie de vivre, Tandy suggests they go on a camping trip for their honeymoon, but most of the time, Carol seems deflated. She appreciates that Tandy recreated the site of their first meeting and his belief that she “David Copperfielded” his heart, but it’s not nearly enough to pull her out of her funk. That is until she suddenly catches a fish.

Written by Erik Durbin & Will Forte, the plot illustrates how miracles and beauty can still happen in an abandoned, inhumane world, one where humanity hangs on by a threat. It’s one thing for Carol to catch a fish in an apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s another thing entirely for the fish to seemingly die and then suddenly come back to life. Did this actually happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But more importantly, it injects a sense of hope into Carol and Tandy’s lives, providing them with wonder at a time when the stability of their community is in question. The moment when the fish “awakens” lands quite well, in part because of the juxtaposition between the two living things hanging on by a thread—one a fish, the other a woman trapped in an elevator running out of options.

Before we get to Gail’s tragic elevator story, there’s the Melissa storyline, which mostly feels like an afterthought, despite the utmost sensitivity towards the character’s plight. Trapped in shock or in some sort of fugue state, Melissa has no recollection of ever leaving the group without warning or even that her and Todd broke up. She’s suddenly hanging out on the edge of buildings and scaring the hell out of everyone, which forces the group to lock her in a focus group room with a two-way mirror, effectively a psych ward. Though January Jones has played the character’s slow descent into complete breakdown very well, the plot doesn’t have enough momentum to sustain itself, and it largely falls on Mel Rodriguez to communicate the emotions of the moment. It’s tragic to see Melissa realize that her family has locked her away for the safety of everyone, but it nevertheless scans like a quick way to table the plot until next year.

While Melissa’s story featured a heartbreaking ending, it has nothing on Gail’s, which features her possible suicide. The utterly devastating conclusion to Gail being trapped in the elevator is her realization that all of her attempts to signal for help have fallen on deaf ears. No one is coming, she learns. The Roomba ate her sign. Everyone assumes you’re either in Napa or taking a break from the group and can’t be bothered to search for you. And there are only so many bullets left. It can be tough to watch, especially after she accidentally shoots herself. “God, I’d give anything to see those frickin idiots right now,” she whispers to the cold walls. As Todd hears Melissa’s screams from the room, and Tandy and Carol welcome a new addition to their family (or rather their family pool), a sole gunshot rings out yet again. Does she go through with it? Maybe, maybe not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last we’ve seen of Gail. As Carol rediscovers wonder, Gail stares down her own death. A dark end to the first half of the season.


Stray observations

  • Carol mixing up “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” with “Weekend at Bernie’s” is quite funny.
  • Does Tandy say “bigly” or “big league” at the camp site? I’ll let you decide.
  • Tandy trying to cheer up Carol by having her fish for items like a mink coat and a painting is sweet. Also, Tandy and Carol’s sex is still very verbal and weird.
  • “Melissa, how many fingers am I holding up? “Is that a dinosaur costume?” “No…it was three. Guys this is bad, she didn’t even say a number.”
  • Continuing the series’ love for The Kinks, the closing song is “Shangri La” from their 1969 concept album Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire).