This review of The Last Man on Earth contains spoilers.
The Last Man on Earth: Season 3, Episode 4
“Look, being on the road is just stressful. It’s why so many rock and roll marriages don’t last. Circus performers, too.”
Road trip movies, and to a lesser extent, episodes of television, have becoming a growing staple through the years. It’s a format that especially lends itself to stories being told in some sort of post-apocalyptic setting as survivors roam what’s left of their world. In spite of this, Last Man on Earth has spent a healthy amount of time setting down roots. It’s been about growing, not searching. After the recent turn of events that has gone down in Malibu though, the crew hits the road accordingly. This episode certainly makes the most of this change in scenario while also embracing their temporary nomad status.
In the walkthrough I’ve been doing with Last Man’s writers’ room, executive producer Andy Bobrow talks about wanting to get outside more in the show and really reflect how empty and broken this world is. “Five Hoda Kotbs” (the context of that title is a beautifully bizarre non sequitur) does wonders towards getting that message across. I mean, we full out get to see how ruined some of the world’s biggest hubs have become.
Road trips are a big time for bonding and now three episodes into spending time with Lewis we finally get some substantial characterization on his end. This week we learn that he’s gay, and while Tandy’s initial reactions to this are pretty incredulous, it’s another welcome aspect to this mosaic of a population that this series is weaving. As Tandy very distastefully puts it, “We get to check two boxes” with Lewis’ background.
This Lewis development also plays nicely into the show, touching on some of its larger themes regarding re-building a society (Tandy even refers to himself as Noah almost half a dozen times this episode). I still think that’s a beyond lofty goal for this show to take on, but it’s certainly not an impossible one. I could see a series finale (or before then) easily jumping a few hundreds years into the future and following Tandy and Carol’s grandchildren around. While this material is probably not on the immediate horizon, it’s still nice to see mentions of a new society getting peppered throughout the show.
With tempers running high across the board in this episode, I was particularly pleased to see the entry really digging into Gail, something which has been long overdue ever since Gordon died last season. Mary Steenburgen brings such a wonderful fragility to the character that’s especially present this episode. She’s had a number of lines throughout the series that have really stood out to me and shown how much hurt is inside of her. I thought her shouting, “I can’t live here anymore!” last episode was a pretty powerful moment that was swept under the rug, but it’s inclusion during this episode’s “Previously On” reinforces the weight behind those line deliveries.
I’m also fascinated by the fact that Gail and Melissa are simultaneously dealing with emotional trauma as Carol and Erica are both experiencing a pregnancy in tandem. It draws some interesting parallels between this cast and inevitably leads to the differences in their coping mechanisms becoming more apparent. Melissa’s manic nature where she’s unable to slow down, lest she confront that she killed someone, is not only great work from January Jones, but it juxtaposes with Gail’s retreat to alcohol and man-shaped pieces of plastic beautifully. Todd treating Gail’s return to “Gordon” like an addict relapsing is very funny stuff.
The episode’s script, by Emily Spivey, taps into the characters especially well this week and allows plenty of satisfying pairings and more muted moments in dialogue. Since this episode is very much about getting somewhere, it’s the perfect sort of entry to focus on the characters and get a little introspective. It’s a road trip! Of course they’re going to start getting personal and acting cagey.
The group’s animosity is kind of brilliantly illustrated by their many vehicles slowly breaking down one by one, forcing more mingling and tense pairings to be felt between the group. Watching everyone slowly getting forced into a smaller cage (a prison bus is a far too fitting final vehicle for them all) as they only become increasingly snippy with one another is such an awkward delight (and God, I know Pat was the madman from the group, but I could easily see Lewis murdering Tandy at this point).
This show also moves at such a fast clip that we the audience don’t even really get an opportunity to process everything that these characters have been through, let alone the condensed timeline that it’s all taken place within. I sort of love the idea of these people eventually all developing their own neuroses due to their respective losses. At one point Erica says, “We’ve been through a lot. I think we’re all starting to come apart at the seams a little bit,” and this episode grabs those seams and begins to pull. I of course want to see these characters be happy, but it could end up making them all stronger in a band of misfit toys sort of way. Regardless, the cracks in everyone’s sanity are beginning to show. Even something as innocent as candy-made dioramas are now full of suicidal jellybeans.
The episode takes a considerable, albeit somewhat expected turn regarding their final destination having a few kinks in it. What I love here, though, is that rather than the complete decimation of San Francisco having something to do with plague-related side effects or environmental factors like water levels rising or dropping off, it’s instead just one idiotic Rube Goldberg-like action from the Tandyman. We also get what might act as the show’s first flashback, and although seeing the “Two Years Earlier” prompt initially worried me, the episode again defies expectations. You’re not getting some glimpse of a world freshly dealing with the plague or gaining any new insight on things, instead you just get a very solid throwaway gag. I’m all for doing gratuitous flashbacks in that sense.
Of course this all leads to the topic of where the group is going to go live next. This conversation has come up enough times on the show at this point that I’m glad that this isn’t something that’s belabored over for long. It’s great to watch Last Man on Earth go through this transition period into its next phase, but I’m also kind of happy that it might already be there. That being said, I wouldn’t put it past this show to make this entire season a road trip, with the whole year being about them trying to reach some place that they can call home. I’d kind of love that, and while it’d definitely be limiting to the show in some sense, it’d also be something that I’ve never seen done before.
In the end the episode’s biggest obstacle is perhaps how damn obnoxious is in it, to the point that even Carol is having trouble tolerating him. This regression in Tandy territory is a little frustrating, but ultimately it seems to be a necessary step. You’re supposed be annoyed with him here. It’s exactly the reason why Gail gets pushed over the edge and can’t take this anymore. Her actions are a big, big move for the show to take, and one that it nearly pulls the trigger on. There’s some deep poignancy in the idea that an episode that’s all about re-building and finding a new home ends up seeing someone nearly leaving and an irrecoverable void forming in the gang. Sometimes pushing an idea and wanting something so badly can become the pressure that snaps it in two in the end.
Sometimes “my bizzle” isn’t enough.
And sometimes having no plan is the best plan of all.