Tandy’s bad at a lot of things — basic carpentry, playing the guitar, being honest — but he’s really good at denial. “Smart and Stupid” can be a little scattershot, picking up various plotlines just to drop them all with one major development halfway through the episode, but finds its direction when Tandy resorts to his most immature and desperate act of denial yet. Immunity to the virus may not be as genetic as Tandy hoped, and when Mike starts coughing up blood, Tandy’s only options are to accept an unthinkable reality or retreat into a flimsy fantasy. True to form, he goes with the less emotionally strenuous option, until he can no longer ignore that his brother, only just returned from beyond the grave, may be doomed anyway. And when he lets it hit him, the emotional weight flattens both him and us.
This week’s episode makes three false starts before it pivots into the Mike-Tandy scenes that lend it emotional heft. “Smart and Stupid” picks up right where the show left off last week, with Gail rushing to inform the others of the drone she spotted. But her perpetual boozy stupor, along with her inability to describe the machine as anything other than a combination of random household items, makes her look like someone in need of a strong black coffee and a formal talking-to. This fate has been a long time coming, and although Gail appears to have gone cold turkey with little difficulty, both her susceptibility to vices and the mysterious appearance of the drone will hopefully be revisited in episodes to come.
The next centers on Erica, a heretofore underdeveloped character nimbly fleshed out in the first half of the episode. The Last Man on Earth has always given Erica a short shrift, narratively speaking, permitting her only to be the pretty, normal one who gets caught up in Tandy, Todd, and the late Phil’s scheming. Will Forte and his writers’ room skillfully work around this weakness, turning it around as a failing not of the show, but its characters. If Erica’s two-dimensional, it’s because nobody took an interest in her beyond that kooky accent. (Tandy greets her with a chipper “Didgeridoo!”) Her easy, comfortable courtship with Mike puts her back in a familiar couple-stuff plotline, which was kind of inevitable — as Mike mentions, they’re the two hottest single people left on earth, and their kiss through the quarantine plastic is certainly touching — but the revelation that she was an armed robber and a professional fraud in her pre-virus life certainly sheds new light on her personality. If she’s willing to do ethically objectionable things to get ahead in life, then we can’t put it past her to cross any of the other Malibu residents should the situation call for it.
The last false start, which paves the way for Mike’s unanticipated departure, sorts out the emotional fallout of Tandy’s last-minute sperm-donor swap. Todd, justly, feels hurt at having been cast aside once Mike offered his reproductive services. Seething jealousy is nothing new for Last Man, and Todd gets over himself in relatively short order once Mike’s life is threatened, bringing a quick resolution to the thread. But at the very least, this character beat yields the hilarity of Todd’s outburst when he finds Tandy and Mike pigging out on the remainder of their stockpiled bacon. Mel Rodriguez conjures every available ounce of vitriol for his furious read of “NO, I DON’T WANT ANY FREAKIN’ CRACKLINS, BRAHIM,” but beyond that, his quickly dissipated rage doesn’t amount to much.
The only scenes that move the plot forward in any meaningful way are those tracking Mike and Tandy’s newfound closeness and the sickness that rips it apart. Tandy would rather run the risk of infecting Carol and Erica’s unborn children with the virus than go through the excruciating process of losing his brother for an unthinkable second time, which, while understandable, is not quite fair. Everyone else is willing to make the difficult decision that Tandy cannot, and though their makeshift quarantine zone and insistence on using the containment suits slightly alienates Mike, he understands their concerns. More importantly, this moves the two of them toward a moment of fraternal intimacy as affecting as anything seen this season. The often contradictory, deep-seated bond between brothers has been a key theme, and Tandy’s tacit realization that he will have to relinquish the person closest to him yet again lands with a massive emotional impact.
But even with the strong conclusion, the slight lack of direction in “Smart and Stupid” leaves a sour aftertaste. Up until now, the second season has revolved around Mike’s arduous, stratospheric journey to unite with his brother. If it’s all going to be thrown away this easily — and that seems doubtful, but you never know — then the show better be prepared to answer questions about where it’s headed, and why it decided to do so after all this business with Mike. Everything suggests that it’s yet another move in a longer game, but as the episode concludes, we’re left wanting more. In the world of week-by-week serialized television, that’s widely regarded as a good thing, but the line between “engrossing” and “unsatisfying” can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. Mike didn’t hurtle through freakin’ outer space just to be felled by a bloody cough like some Moulin Rouge castoff. To bring him all this way just to tear him down would be a waste of the show’s time. There has to be more.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- “Gail, how much have you had to drink today?” “A lady never tells.” Despite not being a lady, I fully plan on using this deflection for all unwelcome questions from here on out.
- “You’re gonna be a godfather, too.” “I guess that’s better than being a Godfather III, boom.” You gotta respect Mike and Tandy’s willingness to verbally high-five themselves after tossing off a good pun. Own your wordplay! Stop pun-shaming in your community!
- Kristen Schaal takes it relatively easy this episode as Carol embraces her brand-new pregnancy, limiting herself to only one cackle-inducing line read. Mike thinks bringing up the fact that every celebrity has died is something of a buzzkill for their game of charades. Carol, however, plays to win: “Not as much of a buzzkill as losing the game due to lack of clarity!”