How The Last Man on Earth Explores Mental Illness
We go back inside the writers' room of The Last Man on Earth for episodes 12 and 13 of season three.
Editor’s note: The Fourth Wall is knocking down barriers between entertainment industry talent and the audience. This recurring feature is a platform for creators, actors, and industry insiders to bring the readers behind the scenes of the production process. In our latest installment, we removed the curtain on the writers’ room for the third season of Fox’s Last Man on Earth.
This part of the walkthrough looks at episodes twelve and thirteen from Last Man on Earth’s third season. Previous installments of this walkthrough can be found here.
Last Man on Earth Season 3 Episode 12 – “Hair of the Dog”
“Todd and Tandy dig deep into Melissa’s pre-virus past, as they search for answers about her illness, and Carol adopts a new outlook on life.”
Written by Edward Voccola; Directed by Payman Benz
DEN OF GEEK: It’s nice to take a minute for the show to just rebreathe for a minute. Seeing everyone catch up with Gail really goes a long way to ground the opening minutes.
ANDY BOBROW: We had a lot more jokes here in the first draft. There was a whole run about the gang deciding to give Gail one of their precious frozen pizzas, and then Todd and Carol arguing for about three whole pages about whether to microwave it or take the time and warm it up in a toaster oven. Todd insisted he had a method that would mitigate the typical microwave rubberiness issue, but Carol wasn’t having it. Ed and Emily Spivey wrote that bit, and the longer it went on, the funnier it was. But alas, we only get 21.5 minutes for an episode, and I think your assessment of things won out. The moment called for an appropriate amount of emotion.
It’s nice to get to see a painting of the cow in this episode! Got to keep her memory alive!
ANDY BOBROW: We have written several different names for the bovines in this show, but I don’t think any of them have made the cut. Originally Carol named her “Cowrol,” after herself. I can’t remember all of them, but we keep putting them in scripts and they mysteriously keep disappearing when Forte does his pass. Calf Ripken Junior was one. Hill Street Moos. Neil Calftrick Harris.
That gigantic bowling visual gag also feels like a nice return to the show’s more chaotic ways. Did it feel like it had been a while since you “destroyed” something?
ANDY BOBROW: Yeah definitely. We break lots more things coming up. Feels good. Feels great actually.
ED VOCCOLA: As with any wish fulfilment-y scene on Last Man, it started as a considerably more elaborate setup that added basketball hoops and industrial-grade air conditioning ducts/hosing to the mix. Due to some scheduling stuff, we were informed it had to be trimmed down, but our amazing props guy Greg Finin (like right out of Lebowski) was all, “I can get you 200-plus bowling pins by Monday… with balls.”
This episode sees a bunch of the characters getting back on the road after being camped up in one place for so long. Were you getting a little stir crazy?
ANDY BOBROW: I don’t know if that played a part, but we always love how it opens up the show. We built this amazing new set and we only got there in episode 305, so for those several episodes, there was a feeling of, like, let’s make sure to take advantage of this place before we go looking around elsewhere. But on this show, whenever we decide to do a road trip, it feels good. Since we haven’t really embraced flashbacks (except for the Wiig one), road trips are our way of seeing something resembling a flashback. The trip to Carol’s old apartment was funny and powerful, so we know whenever we go see someone’s former home, we’ll get a good dose of backstory. By the way, that’s Ed Voccola up on the billboard as one of the real estate agents.
ED VOCCOLA: I told Will repeatedly that I didn’t want to do it. But I came around when he said, “If it makes you happy, then sure, you can give him a name.” So enter Carlton Grasswillow: King of the Condo. And if you’re paying attention, he may have known Tandy pre-virus. Anyone who knows me knows I hate to agree with repetitive songs, but turns out it’s a small world after all… even before there were like seven people in it.
Had you guys figured out some of Melissa’s backstory before getting to this point, or did this cause you to get to learn a lot about her as well?
ANDY BOBROW: We knew from episode 104 that she was a real estate agent, and we knew she had been married and cheated on. That was about it. The college major and the charity work, that stuff we filled in for this episode. We had filled in a lot more that didn’t make it past the outline phase. There was a lot about her ex-husband being her partner in the real estate company, and how she had a bitter breakup with him but they had to keep working together. And there was this detail about her moving in with her brother after the divorce, and then having to take care of him when he got sick. And the stress of all that stuff leading to a psychotic break, which explained the pills. But so far that’s all just head canon.
I think you can get caught up in spinning yarns like that in a writers room, and while I think the fans really enjoy reading about it in an interview, it’s not the stuff we need for our show. Oh, and there was a lot at one point about Melissa really loving one particular chair in the office. Her ergonomic chair that was like the only thing that gave her comfort at work, like there’s only one chair in the world that gives her peace. And we were very proud of ourselves for a minute because we realized that would explain why she was shooting office chairs in that one episode. But it’s better in an article than on the screen. More stuff about Melissa might come out in time, but only if it really pushes the story forward.
Last Man on Earth Season 3 Episode 13 – “Find This Thing We Need To”
“Carol makes a big discovery, enlisting Tandy and Erica to help her track down some answers. Meanwhile, Todd has a major breakthrough with Melissa.”
Written by Erik Durbin & Tim McAuliffe; Directed by Steve Day
This is a good old fashioned mystery adventure sort of episode. After the heaviness of the past few episodes, did you want to do something a little wackier in this one?
ERIK DURBIN: We mainly just wanted the final image to be Yoda popping up in the back of the car. There were definitely some urges to make it a wackier Home Alone-type story, where our guys were being tormented by this Yoda character throughout the episode, but ultimately we tried to tell a more personal story about how Tandy identified with the mystery person. The Todd/Gail/Melissa story was definitely lighter, but we wanted to give it some weight with Todd seeing Gail’s elevator and really getting a sense of what she went through. I think for most of us, that was the most interesting part of that story, even though it wasn’t really a necessary beat.
This episode sees some good character combinations in play. It’s sort of nice to be able to see these guys break off and have independent missions here.
ANDY BOBROW: We agree! Todd and Gail have certainly had stories, but this is kind of a new dynamic for them, just solving a mystery together. Also it’s a really nice dynamic. Gail is the goofball here, which is new and different and we love it. And having Erica go along on her thing felt good too. She hasn’t ended up in many Tandy stories, and it seemed right. At this point, Erica is the last person who still has some high-ground on Tandy. Everyone else has kind of sunk to his level, or fallen off a cliff at some point (or died). Erica is the last judge we’ve got.
You guys always seem to have reservations about bringing new characters into the mix and making it feel like this world is too populated, yet this episode seems to indicate someone (presumably) new is afoot. What was the story with this one?
ERIK DURBIN: There was an idea for a kid to appear in season one. We actually had a whole episode written where Tandy met Jasper in Las Vegas. That was when we were planning on Carol getting pregnant in season one. When that element went away, so did Jasper. Jasper was always intended as kind of parenting practice for Tandy, once he knew he was gonna be a father. It also always felt interesting to see what a kid would be like in this world—assuming they were living on their own from around age four.
If it is in fact a child that’s been living in that hideout, the dynamic of having a kid involved with these characters is certainly something new to get into.
ANDY BOBROW: We’re not scared. Okay, we’re a little scared, but the kind of scared that feels appropriate. We are well aware of the potential shark jump of introducing a kid. But we are also aware that if we stay true to the tone of the show, we’ll be okay. None of our characters is ready for a child. That’s why we gave them one.
Having Melissa be bipolar actually makes a lot of sense. Was that something you guys had sort of known for a while now, or just finally nailed down for this one?
ANDY BOBROW: When we first decided to do this thing with Melissa, like back in July or August, I called up my brother, who’s a psychiatrist (hi David!) and I asked for some help on it. The gist of it was, it’s definitely not Schizophrenia, but beyond that, it could be a few other things. Could be PTSD (which would really make sense for any of these characters), or it could be Manic-Depressive or Bi-Polar Disorder, or it could be just what they in the psych biz call a “transient psychosis.”
Anyway, all that fancy talk led us to table the discussion because we had no idea how we were going to solve it. We just knew we would want to solve it at some point. Our guiding principle was let’s not solve this using magic or some dumb TV cure, like “You’ve got to make peace with your dad by talking to this puppet.” To be baldly honest about this, we knew there would be a pill, and when we found one called Clozapine, we figured, well, that’s the right part of this situation to make fun of. The name of the pill, rather than the illness itself.
Our walkthrough on Last Man on Earth’s third season continues every two weeks!