When you think about it, The Last Man On Earth is really a Western. The most American of genres, the Western considers the ways chaos imperfectly knits itself into order, chronicling how groups of disparate people could unite under a common goal to form a community, and in doing so, become stronger and more effective.
With the virus having all but reset America to square one, our band of Malibu survivors are, for all intents and purposes, a frontier community. The most compelling drama has stemmed from intra-group friction over the big questions that precipitate civil society: How will we govern ourselves? Who will lead us? How will we select our leaders? How will transgressions be punished? Colliding egos make the process of resolving these vital concerns much more difficult (and hilarious), but ultimately, their only hope for survival is cooperation and collaboration.
The peace in Malibu was precariously kept during the first half of this season, liable to splinter under any of the many conflicts that fester in this group of self-involved people. But when it mattered, when human life was at stake — a frequent occurrence in a post-apocalyptic climate — the gang found their decency and came through. I'm in the mood for making bold pronouncements, so let's up and admit it: The Last Man on Earth is pretty much Deadwood with fart jokes.
But none of that is to be found in "Pitch Black." No Tandy, no Carol, no Phil, no baby, no cow, no Malibu. The post-hiatus premiere follows the schematic of a different sort of Western, hewing more closely to The Hateful Eight than John Ford's Americana classics. Flung out of space, Mike Miller hurtles down through the atmosphere, and though it appears as if he's going to land on a derelict cruise ship, his craft blows right through its center and sinks it. Mike water-trikes for days until he encounters another vessel, and not a moment too soon.
It would've been too easy for Mike to land safely on the first ship, and by deflecting the convenience of that option, the writers instill their savvy to the episode at large. It's a bold move to completely shift focus away from the main story, and to trust that the audience will patiently wait until next week to resolve a cliffhanger that's been dangling for months. But as the final moments of "Pitch Black" reveal, this Mike Miller digression revitalizes a set of dynamics back in Malibu that threatened to stagnate. There are only so many times the writing staff can return to the "Tandy is trash, realizes this, becomes a little less trash" well before it runs dry, and throwing Mike into the mix — along with a new baby — opens up lots of exciting narrative avenues. "Pitch Black" hits a few unexpectedly strong emotional beats, with Mike's insistence upon going to Tucson to see for himself the most poignant of them. His eventual reunion with Tandy is sure to be an eye-moistener.
The dynamic between Mike and Pat Brown (Mark Boone Jr. of Sons of Anarchy, and soon to appear in Birth of a Nation), the grizzled survivor whom he falls in with, follows a gruffer, tougher Western tradition. When the two wayward souls make first contact, Pat's immediate instinct is to go right for the harpoon gun. They don't trust one another, and that skepticism isn't just healthy, it's necessary; just as a quickly drawn pistol could unceremoniously extinguish a poor sap out on the frontier, the value of human life has drastically decreased in the wake of the virus. Boone does a bang-up job with his strange, desperate character, conveying menace, but keeping it rooted in an eminently understandable desire to remain safe. Pat can be unduly creepy, and could probably stare a hole through a brick wall. Even so, he understands that he needs to behave in ways that may seem extreme to outsiders if he wants to see tomorrow.
Their tenuous partnership isn't long for this world. Mike sees a sign left by Tandy — which, by now, must be several years old — and Pat turns on him when he makes a move to set off for Tucson. They couldn't have stayed together for too long anyway: Pat wants to survive, and Mike wants to live. It wasn't uncommon for many settlers during the 19th century to take off from frontier towns and live on their own, finding stability and security in their solitude — to Mike, however, this barely constitutes a life at all. After a rocky descent from the heavens and a few days out at sea, clean underwear and saltines feel like lavish luxuries to Mike, but he lacks whatever personality trait it is that enables Pat to make himself an island. He can't live without the belief that somewhere, there's something more. (Incidentally, he shares this belief with his brother; in season one, Tandy only considered suicide when he believed he really was the last inhabitant of Earth.)
Like generations of cowboys before him, Mike Miller's setting out West in search of a better life, and we know just what awaits him there. There's friends in them thar hills.
- Jacob Tremblay is the stealth MVP of this episode, appearing in Mike's times of need as the apparition of young Tandy. He's pretty much got Will Forte down, though just hearing him say the words "ya friggin' fart!" gets him halfway there. He also has the good fortune of getting this episode's single greatest line, which is "That's what happens to losers — they get peed on." Fun fact: When they finished this episode, the writers had no idea Donald Trump would speak these exact same words during Thursday night's presidential debate!
- Also, it's good to know that there's a precedent for Tandy's habit of immersing himself in beverage-filled kiddie pools.
- Mike's headed to Tucson, which Tandy and Co. have long since abandoned, though they knew to leave a note indicating that they relocated to Malibu. God willing, the writers will zip right through Mike's stop in Tucson and get him to California in short order, instead of delaying the Miller family reunion for another episode.
- Although Jason Sudeikis is poised to take a larger, regular role this season, he's still credited as a guest here. He'd be a welcome addition to the cast, of course, but when has Jason Sudeikis ever been an unwelcome addition to anything? (Answer: Movie 43, in which he plays Batman at a speed-dating event. Do not watch this film.)