The Last Man on Earth
In the most affecting moment of this season finale, Mike screams to Tandy that he’s the most childish, selfish person he has ever met. These words sting for anyone who’s familiar with Jason Sudeikis as an affable everydude, and doubly so for Tandy. It’s a vicious brother-on-brother attack, but also a moment of noble sacrifice. Mike doesn’t want Tandy to witness his drawn-out, agonizing death, and after all of his pleading is for naught, he realizes he must drive him away with cruelty. That’s what we in the business call a “Harry and the Hendersons moment.”
Mike makes a bruising choice of words, but even in its performative harshness, the criticism contains a few grains of truth. Tandy has indeed been childish throughout the series — and particularly so this season, as the reunion with Mike brought out his adolescent competitive side. The disgusting half-beard clinging to the side of his face, like an aborted sloth fetus, has grown more densely symbolic as it’s grown scragglier. Tandy’s outright refusal to admit he dislikes his brother’s amateur barber job, even in the face of total obviousness, epitomizes his juvenile inability to be honest about his feelings. Tandy is acting like a child, and his crucial breakthrough in this episode — an emotional head-shaving scene that nimbly walks the line between ironic and unironic intimacy — could mark the beginning of his coming-of-age.
The long specter of death has loomed over Malibu for the entirety of season two, beginning with Gordon’s surprise heart attack (remember when Will Ferrell was on this show?), Tandy’s faked death, and Phil Miller’s viking funeral. Now, it culminates with Mike’s heartfelt farewell to his brother. Certainly the most existential sitcom on network television, The Last Man on Earth presented itself as a season-long meditation on grief and how we react to it. The show is clear-eyed about the allure of denial as a coping mechanism while ultimately dismantling it, positing loss as a pathway to personal evolution. Tandy’s difficult relationship with Mike through a cycle of presumed death, resurrection, reunion, fall, and death has tempered him as a man. When he returns to Malibu and coaxes the cow to suckle with an innate paternal spirit, Carol remarks on what a wonderful father he’ll be to his unborn child. (Reinforced by his highly symbolic haircut, as well. And at that, why are characters in movies and TV incapable of getting a haircut without it carrying weighty dramatic significance? Does nobody ever just get a little off the top?)
Fox renewed Last Man for a third season back in March, so adventures in parenthood aren’t far off for Tandy, Carol, and Erica. There’s no shortage of potential for Tandy’s craven hijinks, either. (Nobody moves forward without retaining a little bit of themselves, so he’s probably not above the occasional “srirachaning.”) However, the other cliffhanger that “30 Years of Science” sets up doesn’t hold as much luster. Mark Boone Jr.’s reappearance as Pat Brown from “Pitch Black” is clearly intended to create some suspense, but while Malibu residents see heavily armed men in containment suits and their blood runs cold, we remember that Pat is just an extremely cautious man, not a psychopath set on murdering them. Boone joining the cast as a regular seems rather likely, considering how the writers have essentially replaced that essential seventh role time and time again, from Phil Miller to Mike.
For now, it’s better to dwell on the great symbolic significance of objects in Last Man on Earth. More often than not, these totemic possessions have silently conveyed the pedestrian, petty ways that the Malibu gang has let itself go in the years since they had a societal standard to meet. The bottle of white wine surgically affixed to Gail’s hand, Tandy’s margarita pool, the festering lagoon of human excrement in Tandy’s Tucson backyard — all of it reveals that once humanity wasn’t around to hold its composite parts responsible for things like sobriety or basic hygiene, such values ceased to be necessary. Tandy gifting his deformed ball-pals to Mike represents a bold step in the opposite direction. By letting go of the crude buddies that kept him sane in his darkest hours, Tandy admits two things: He is prepared to leave behind that slummy-bachelor lifestyle, and Mike must take his journey alone.
Looking back on this second season, Last Man on Earth has matured into exactly the show that network television needs. The first season was a breakthrough, fearlessly defying the basic tenets of TV structure and flitting between various genres without committing to any one. It was a work of narrative putty, liable to change shape any given week. The show really found its identity in season two as it learned to work with a well-stocked ensemble and narrowed its focus to the Big Ideas: brotherhood, grief, and responsibility to one’s self and one’s own. Forte and his team of writers still have some plotting issues, as the 18-episode order resulted in loop-de-loops within the show’s overall trajectory. But Last Man has a distinct voice and a good head on its shoulders. In turns bleak, surreal, deliriously funny, and poignant, this season verifies Forte’s major talent. His brilliant comic creation has matured with undeniable sureness.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- The two half-full Gatorade bottles full of urine that fall out of the Back to the Future Delorean’s door when Tandy pulls up in Tucson are a nice, subtle touch.
- It sounds like Carol’s two shortlisted baby names are Velinda(?) and Bezequil(?). Going gender neutral is such a progressive move for young parents these days, though her child will never find a key chain with their name on it.
- Gail, ever the pragmatist: “Any veal fans in the hizzy? Fine! He’s only gonna get less tender and less delicious!” The time to be sentimental about calves has long since passed.
- Damn, January Jones is a pretty good shot. Wonder where she got all that marksmanship training …
- The whole “unduly hostile” angle is an abrupt new direction for Melissa’s character, so a quick session in the stocks might be good for her.