Jealousy has been the prevailing emotional default for Phil since the earliest days of The Last Man on Earth, when he constantly schemed and deceived to get what he wanted. Phil (a.k.a. Tandy, a.k.a. Skidmark) was jealous of Todd for earning Melissa’s love, resented Phil Miller for being capable and desirable, and often takes umbrage at the mere prospect of other people finding happiness that doesn’t directly involve him. He can be petty to pathetic when it comes the joy of others, and nothing brings it out like a shift in attention to someone else. His jealousy always spikes when a new factor — a stranger, a cow, a baby — enters the mix, but the long-awaited arrival of Mike drags Phil into a special sort of hell.
Mike’s not just an intimidating new rival in this insular little tribe. He’s not just a foil for Phil; he’s the anti-Phil. Their fraternal rivalry is immediately seen with Phil’s dick-punch greeting, as he channels all his latent negativity into sour grapes over a girl that Phil had called “dibs” on, but Mike hooked up with anyway. (It was somewhere between making love and boning, to place it on Phil’s spectrum.) Phil uses that expired slight as a smokescreen for all the resentment he harbors toward Mike, stemming mostly from feelings of inadequacy. Though Mike’s not perfect — Phil makes that abundantly, brutally clear when he brings up Mike’s plagiarism-related expulsion from college and how he missed their grandmother’s death while away on a kayaking trip — he’s clearly more intelligent, sensitive, and successful than Phil. Mike instantly ingratiates himself with the group, which isn’t hard when he’s got such a sexy, tragic backstory and a (mostly) on-pitch rendition of “Space Oddity” ready to go. He’s an astronaut, and though Phil’s accusation that he leans on that a little hard may not be entirely unfounded, it’s easy to see why Phil would be jealous. But his jealousy goes bone-deep, as it can only occur between brothers. In this episode, Phil is plagued by the most maddening feeling in the world: that someone out there is living a better version of your life.
What made Phil Miller an excellent match for then-Tandy was his willingness to play along, to occasionally sink to Tandy’s level and best him at his own dirty game. (And then, it was up to Phil Miller to have his own crisis of conscience, leading him to undo whatever he had done to Tandy.) Mike also demonstrates that he won’t hesitate to dish out as much as he takes, which culminates in a final gag so sublime and meticulously shot that it’d be rude to spoil it here. In fact, this episode is pretty heavy on comedy derived from the camera’s physicality. Director Claire Scanlon manages to make shooting Will Forte exclusively in profile feel natural enough so as not to ruin the gag she’s set up for the final scene, but she really shines as a formalist during Phil’s terribly misguided performance of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” She expands the traditional shot/reverse shot to absurdly wide proportions, shooting the comically small amphitheater audience of six from Phil’s perspective, followed by a ridiculously tiny Phil from the crowd’s perspective. Dwarfed by their surroundings, both sides of this equation are revealed to be part of a big farce. And isn’t that what Phil’s bid for affection really is?
Meanwhile, Todd’s starring in an entirely different show, a romantic comedy that takes nothing for granted, operating in a postapocalyptic paradigm free of ground rules. Everyone knows Todd’s offer to enter a polyamorous four-person relationship with Melissa, Gail, and Erica was a complete disaster (or, in his sheepishly repeated words, a “big whiff” and “misfire”), but what this episode presupposes is … maybe it wasn’t?
After realizing they’ve both got substantial feelings for Todd (and that monogamy may not be the most practical option in a world perilously short on eligible bachelors), Melissa and Gail warm up to the idea of sharing him. It’s safe to assume that Gail and Melissa’s mutual agreement over Todd may now dissipate with the introduction of fresh meat in Malibu, but if the writers intend on traveling down this avenue, it could return the show to its earliest iteration. When Phil really was the last man on Earth with Carol his only company, the show functioned like a bold deconstruction of the rom-com, where an odd couple comes together not just through the power of love, but evolutionary imperatives. Approaching nontraditional relationship structures — which have become increasingly common in everyday life as heteronormative mores break down — could be a potentially revolutionary move for the show. Network television has never really explored polyamory beyond quick throwaway jokes or, more frequently, as the end result of male conniving. Depictions of healthy, mutually desired polyamorous relationships are in lamentably short supply, and who better to buck that trend than The Last Man on Earth, a show that’s made no bones about how little it cares for convention. Unlikely as this route may be, it’d certainly be an intriguing one.
Of course, Mike’s not the first newcomer to the enclave. His arrival pretty much mirrors that of Phil Miller last season: The addition of a capable, eligible man to threaten Phil/Tandy. But this time [dramatic pause] it’s personal, as decades of simmering tensions threaten to boil over between Phil and his brother. And what’s more, the newest resident of Malibu feels no obligation to put up with Tandy, or be polite to him for propriety’s sake. Family is family, and while the hippies of Lilo & Stitch might have you believe that means nobody gets left behind or forgotten, those rules no longer apply. In the post-humanity remnants of civilization, it means no b.s. and no holds barred. Phil can lash out all he likes, but he won’t be gently chided or simply punished with ostracizing anymore. Now, when Phil feels like trifling, he gets the single worst rebranding since Tandygate, and loses some key facial features.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- It may be time to lay “Space Oddity” to rest for a little while. Aside from this episode, it’s appeared in a car commercial, the French film Bird People, and what feels like a million other places. (But not The Martian, surprisingly enough, which instead used “Starman.”)
- This makes two episodes in a row with Kristen Schaal as the stealth MVP. She’s mostly been an accessory to Phil’s stories as of late, but with lines like “Maybe we’re a couple of Hollywood stunt people, shooting blanks! Pew-pew-pew!” who could possibly complain?
- For the record: Parks and Recreation’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” joke > Last Man On Earth’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” joke > Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” joke > The Office’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” joke.
- If Phil’s embarrassing performance wasn’t already impressive enough, consider just how talented a singer Forte actually is.