This review of The Last Man on Earth contains spoilers.
The Last Man on Earth: Season 2, Episode 9
“It’s Secret Santa, not Live-Out-Loud Santa.”
The Last Man on Earth has spent an ample amount of time on how the end of the world has led to the status quo shifting when it’s come to relationships, reproduction, the law, and the basic tent poles of how to run a society. With Thanksgiving now comfortably in our rearview mirrors and us steadily plodding forward through the holiday machine, it’s only appropriate to begin looking at how the end of the world can also dismantle something as silly as the tradition of holidays.
With holiday episodes seeming like such a staple of television—let alone sitcoms—it was a little refreshing to be witnessing a series that seemed to have no interest in catering to these things, with much bigger beached whales to fry (ie. the end of the world). When the planet is largely empty and time seems to have less of a purpose than ever before, the idea of routine celebrations (that in this case would no doubt remind everyone of everything they lost in the virus) might not seem necessary. Huge components of the holiday, such as big feasts and extravagant spending, have been rendered moot due to the state of the Earth. That being said, with the Malibu crew embracing the tenement of family more than ever after the last episode, it makes sense for holiday cheer to begin infecting its way into the series. While I might have been enjoying the show’s tendency to avoid such customs, it’s encouraging to report that Last Man’s first holiday outing is not only officially a success, but one of their strongest episodes of the season.
More than anything, this episode is just a lot of fun. The opening scene is a refreshing change of pace from how somber the show has been recently. Seeing Carol play cheerleader as she goes completely overboard regarding the holiday season with Tandy acting as her merry little Christmas sidekick (who ends up resembling a yuletide centaur) can’t help but instill you with joy the same way it does everyone on the show. It’s one thing to just say that Carol goes overboard with the decorations—but seriously, her unseen decorating skills are insane. This episode must have been a Christmas gift itself for the show’s production team. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if these seasonal decorations end up lingering on the show for episodes to come, just due to how far Carol has gone with them. Also, “Oh Tandy-baum” is just a really, really solid joke. Who’d have thought that “name” would be such a goldmine beyond the go-to “Tandyman” pun?
With the holidays so often being about family, it seems to also be fitting to be returning to Mike Miller in space once more. At first the scenes here pretty much feel like an extension of what we saw in “No Bull,” but then they begin to deepen in a very interesting way. There’s genuine weight to the material here in moments like Mike looking at a picture of his actual family (and great work with it being subtly torn in half) in order for him to realize his errors and apologize to Terry, his “new” family. These scenes certainly feel like they’re building to something, and with the season entering it’s final third, a Miller brother reunion would certainly seem appropriate. With another worm biting the dust though Mike has never felt more like just another name on the wall…
Back on Earth, when it finally comes to the Secret Santa exchange, it’s again kind of wonderful to just see these people give into the holiday spirit and just genuinely have a good time. This might not be the most productive episode, and it certainly takes its time when it comes to the exchanging, but the payoffs are satisfying enough that it doesn’t even matter. Carol exclaims, “I love how Secret Santa puts together the oddest pairs!” and that very much becomes the episode’s mission statement. If the past few episodes have been working towards bringing these people together, then “Secret Santa’s” purpose is to seal the deal and finally move on.
Carol’s reaction to her gift is one of the character’s all-time best moments and a crowning gem for Kristen Schaal (seriously, this episode should have been her Emmy submission ep), but what’s almost just as satisfying is seeing usually dour people like Erica simply come to life here and submit to the fun. Todd and Gail trying to maneuver around showing affection for each other as they keep their romance a secret, while also absolutely relishing the gift giving that’s gone on between them is also a masterful, multi-layered performance from the two of them. The fact that Tandy’s gift to himself is just a wanton act of destruction is also an absolutely perfect distillation of his character. In fact, this episode largely succeeds at being an atypical character study with each of these gifts providing a deep insight into who all of these people are, as well as why they love each other. Did you have any idea that Gail was a huge Z.Z. Top fan? Well you do now!
The Last Man on Earth has always been a show that’s done sentimentality well, but it’s not until Phil’s gift to Erica that everything really comes together here. Phil’s been more than a pill lately, but this episode reminds everyone of why they were so crazy about him in the first place. He’s the sort of problem solver that swoops in and saved Tandy’s life all that time ago. This series has gone all over the spectrum in terms of playing with tone, but at the end of the day I think it wants to be a sweet show, and that’s the feeling cemented in here.
I was going to end this by saying that if Last Man is going to be shuffled around on FOX’s schedule and pushed to Tuesdays, this episode feels like a good palate cleanser that establishes the status quo to move forward from.
But then, the ending happens.
And it’s admittedly the biggest thing that the show has done for a long time for a number of reasons. This show has cooled down from being the cliffhanger-rampant machine that it was during its first season, but this feels like something from out of the show’s infancy—in a good sense. Not only does everything in this episode come together in a beautiful way that only strengthens these cliffhangers, I legitimately gasped during the episode’s closing moments. I have a number of questions on the matter (as well as ultimately what the point of Mike Miller’s character was if Tandy never gets to know that he’s out there), but I think they’d be better off saved for the future when we see if this finally is the end of Mike’s story. Besides, there seems to be more than enough drama going on back on Earth at the moment to keep the show busy for a while. With a holiday break for the series inevitably being on the horizon, I’ve never been more hungry to find out what’s going to happen next.
And seriously, Melissa better be wearing those boots non-stop until the end of the series now. They cannot be ignored.