The Last Man on Earth is a show that, like any other show on television, likes to form patterns. The difference is not that it avoids cliché — it often courts it cliché aggressively — but rather that it forms its patterns out of ways of living. Given that it is beholden to the allegory-ready logic of a small colony or community of traumatized survivors, it must live or die by moments of togetherness and exclusion, transgression and punishment. The other difference, at least compared to other network shows, is that The Last Man on Earth, when it gets the opportunity to break a pattern, does it as weirdly as possible.
One of the prevailing patterns of this season has been the punishment required of a colonist once he has defied one of the unwritten social codes of the colony. Tandy scared everyone with a gun. Todd hid and ate bacon out of eyeshot for weeks. New Phil attacked Tandy (and also tried to run away with his wife) before finding out that his ex-girlfriend, Erica, is pregnant.
When the episode opens, New Phil is in the stocks. (Tandy put him there last episode.) Tandy is trying to brush his teeth. When New Phil stirs awake, Tandy bangs on a pot and pan to signal the colonists to New Phil’s side — Tandy wants to show them that New Phil is sorry. (He isn’t.) But before anyone can explain that they don’t care about Tandy’s scheme, Todd shouts for everyone to come see something miraculous. The cow (who you may remember from last season) has had a calf. Maybe they won’t die of starvation after all.
Todd explains that there must be a bull nearby — how else to explain a pregnant cow? When he recommends, sanely, that they all go looking for it, Melissa snickers at him. (She has been acting like an elementary school student for several episodes.) They probably won’t last too long. Will Melissa be the next to fall into disfavor with the community? “We’ve been using these once a week,” she says about the stocks.
“No one cares about me,” New Phil tells Tandy, interrupting him in the middle of his discourse on the calf penis.
“Like it or not,” Tandy says, “we’re a family.”
Is this true? The colony — and especially Tandy — has lately been struggling to organize itself. In fact, it can’t agree on what metaphor or concept or word should be used to describe itself. More than any recent episode, this is where things start to fall apart.
Meanwhile, New Phil has convinced Tandy that his best bet for finding favor with the colonists is to go find the bull. It’s obvious that New Phil has other ideas about what he should do once Tandy releases him from the stockade…
About five minutes into the episode, to my tremendous shock — I’ve brought this up in every recap this year — we see Mike Miller, Tandy’s astronaut brother, orbiting Earth in space. It seems he has repaired or built a shortwave radio, and he’s about to try to contact someone — anyone — on Earth.
Cut to a shot of Gayle making out with her Gordon doll. Todd barges in on her. The two are now bonded, somehow, over Gayle’s secret sex life.
When we next see Tandy, he is unleashing a stirring volley of crazy platitudes and half-extended metaphors in an attempt to get the “T-E-A-M” — as he calls them — to let New Phil out of the stocks (so that he can find the bull). He explains that Gayle is the coach. And that the “G” in her name stands for grizzled.
No one seems to care whether Tandy lets New Phil out of the stocks — the collective will of the group has all but dissipated. When Tandy releases him, he simply gets into his truck and leaves for Canada (or somewhere).
“But we’re your family,” Tandy says sweetly.
“Didn’t you learn anything from the virus?” New Phil says. “We’re all alone.” He drives away.
We next find everyone sitting at a strange kind of camp, late after a day-long misadventure where they fail to find the bull. Tandy realizes that he’s drinking the cow piss they need to attract the bull. After he refocuses — it’s not always easy for him — he informs the group that New Phil has left. Again, no one cares — except for Erica. She is, after all, pregnant with his child. She seems upset.
To my surprise, the episode returns to astronaut Mike Miller, who manages to kickstart a kind of skittering montage of societal breakdown. When he attempts to use his shortwave radio, the astronaut hears a voice at the other end. Beside himself, he begins to speak, only to discover that it’s an echo of his own voice. He destroys the radio in a fit of desperation.
Todd and Melissa run into each other in one of the kitchens, and it’s clear that Melissa will continue to hack away at Todd’s self-esteem. I have to wonder, again, if she’ll be the next to follow the others to the stockade, especially if this season keeps up its discipline-and-punish-merry-go-round.
“Maybe it’s time we take a little break,” Todd says.
“No, Todd. I think it’s time we take a big break.”
A crying Todd heads to Gayle’s room to talk about his breakup — I’ll just remind you that they’ve bonded over her Gordon sex doll. After Gayle gives him a drink, they (of course) have sex.
Back at dinner — no matter how bad things are going, they always eat dinner together — Tandy scares everyone by pounding on the table. He recounts New Phil’s departure. He hands everyone large rocks from a bucket. “I hope he doesn’t ask which of them will cast the first stone,” I said to myself, knowing this is exactly what he plans to do. (He does.) The scene devolves into a horror show of crisscrossing accusations and shouts. Tandy throws one of the rocks through a window. Things have fallen apart.
The next day they are all (curiously) sitting on a couch together, when a large, huffing bull appears just behind the sliding glass door. The bull spies Tandy’s bottle of cow piss. Will he attack? In a strange, nearly beautiful moment, each colonist stands up and fires a tranquilizer at the bull, killing it. It’s a metaphor for how they fail to act as a T-E-A-M, as Tandy would say.
Moments later, New Phil, the party responsible for finding the now-dead bull, walks up. Maybe inspired by Tandy’s tender words, he decided to return. At dinner, the colonists decide to let New Phil eat steak with them — there are many, many piles of steak. (Why didn’t they save any in the solar-powered freezers?) No one seems to care, really, if New Phil eats or not. Except Erica. She flashes a grin from across the table.
The episode closes with Mike Miller, Tandy’s astronaut brother, alone in the space station getting high….