The first season of The Last Man on Earth was a success, but it had the advantage of an in-built rhythm, a plot pattern that repeated the arrival of unknown survivors of the virus. Often, though, the show had to work against the grain of this rhythm; if the introduction of a new character resolved some tension or ambiguity, he or she still had to be “threaded” into the “social fabric” of the group, its shifting foundation of couplings and friendships and antipathies. By the time Tandy and Carol returned from exile, the colony had established a peaceful static in Malibu. All of it would change.
Without a readymade plot structure, the second season of the show had to introduce variety, and it had to work harder to tease out the absurdities of life among the last known survivors of a terrible virus. The first half the season toyed with these absurdities — just think of the Todd vs. Bacon subplot. And it explored, with an ingenuity rarely seen on network television, what you might call a “discipline and punish” subplot. Tandy’s eccentricities, exacerbated by his years of loneliness as “the last man on earth,” were met with a draconian response from the group, especially from Melissa and New Phil. It often seemed that those most capable of dealing with life after the virus were likewise the most sociopathic and anti-communal. Before long, a new kind of virus had circulated the colony: everyone, at one point or another, found themselves being punished, locked in the stockade. A droning social cruelty culminated with New Phil’s botched departure from the group, his proposal to Carol even Erica stood by, pregnant with his child. But when New Phil fell ill with appendicitis — a plot turn that would be trivial on another show — the fragility of the group was revealed. If the first season established a colony, a code, a framework of togetherness, the second season, or at least its first half, proved that in a cold and dead world beyond civilization, this togetherness would probably not be enough. And in allowing itself this bleakness it somehow became one of the funniest shows on television.
If the midseason finale set a new comedic and dramatic standard for the show, it also suggested how it might be vaulted: it would elevate a side plot to the main event. But when the show returned from its break, no one could have guessed that an entire episode would focus on Astronaut Mike Miller’s unlikely return to earth, nor that it would leave out virtually all of the cast members in favor of a genuinely cinematic loneliness. The slow build of Astronaut Mike’s plot became a welcome exaggeration of TV’s tendency to drag out the fates of its minor characters. But Game of Thrones, to name one example, is a maximalist show that relies on a novelistic wealth of characters and locations. The Last Man on Earth is precisely the opposite. One group, one empty city: with such scant inputs, it shouldn’t be as radical as the most resourced shows on television. It is.
For a moment, Mike’s minority status as a character was in doubt. His petty, hilarious feuds with Tandy stuffed several episodes; soon enough a possible love interest availed itself. But just as he began to date Erica, events turned both where you’d think and somehow didn’t. Did the virus return? Meanwhile, someone or something is surveilling the group via drone.
In the season finale, we find Tandy packing. He plans to seek out Mike, who believes himself to be dying of the virus, in Tucson. (It’s worth mentioning here that the last episode brought a level of desperation and concern out of Forte’s Tandy that the show had not yet seen.) Carol implores him to be safe, for the sake of their unborn child. In a touching moment, Tandy digressively defines “uncle,” “mother,” and “father,” to Carol’s belly — now that the two say “I love you,” nearly every moment reveals their compatibility as a result of their shared reality deficit. They’re the same amount of crazy.
Cut to Tandy’s arrival by car in Tucson. Or, his arrival by time machine — he appears to be driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future. When he finds Mike, he is lying cold and stiff in his bed. Of course, his fake death is just the first of a series of gruesome “burns” played out characteristically by the brothers throughout the episode.
“What are you doing here?” Mike asks, once it becomes clear that he’s alive. “I specifically asked you not to come.”
“That’s why I came,” whispers Tandy, with complete confidence. “High five.” Mike doesn’t respond.
Back in Malibu, the group is lamenting the death of their cow (and the attendant lack of cheese). When Todd wonders aloud whether they overreacted by quarantining Mike and causing his departure, Melissa snaps: “If anyone of you start coughing up blood, I’ll kick your ass out of here so fast your head would spin.” It’s a longstanding, survivalist view of hers, one that began early in the season, when she became the show’s least sympathetic character (aside from New Phil, maybe).
“I’m glad to hear we mean so much to you,” Todd responds. When they hear the calf mooing, they go to check on it, at which time they also hear a drone — the very drone Gail was made to believe only exists in her wine-addled mind. When the drone reappears, they’re ready with cardboard signs that “welcome” it and signal the group’s peacefulness. But as the drone gets closer, Melissa guns it down. “Whoever sent this thing is trouble,” she says.
“That was another survivor out there, and you just shot him in the face,” and incredulous Todd counters.
“No, Todd, we’re the survivors, and I’m trying to keep it that way.”
After a scene that has Tandy releasing an “active fart” he’s kept in a jar for thirty years, we find Mike again sick in bed. When he wakes, Tandy delivers a weak “burn” and tells him that he’s been asleep for four years (and then starts laughing maniacally at his own joke). But Tandy also begins to cough in the way Mike coughs, and before you realize it, he’s hacking up blood into his hand. It’s a disconcerting moment that redistributes the concerns of the entire show. Can they all now be infected with the virus? And has it evolved into a new strain? Tandy pulls a bottle of sriracha from out of view, and laughs (again maniacally). It was his sickest burn yet.
It’s too much for Mike, presumably on his deathbed, to handle. He loses his cool, but the brothers immediately rebound. Tandy explains what we already know: that he didn’t actually like his half-shaven hair/beard cut. Cut to a weird (and, again, touching) scene where Mike is shaving off the remainder of his brother’s ridiculous haircut. But the montage is short lived. When it’s over, Mike — desperate to get Tandy to return to Malibu — lashes out. His angry speech to his brother is the most direct attack on Tandy’s tendency toward delusion yet delivered on The Last Man on Earth. It seems all the more brutal because it’s true. “The only time you actually came close to being special,” Mike yells, “is when everyone died but you.” When Tandy leaves, Mike finds him outside, where his parents’ graves are shown. It’s there that he realizes his brother had to bury their family. He apologizes, and his apology makes it clear that Tandy — with his “Alive in Tucson” signs — is responsible for whatever civilization remains on earth. But when he sees his own grave, Mike begs his brother to return to Malibu. It’s his dying wish.
At night in Malibu, it’s clear that Melissa has lost her grip when she haphazardly shoots at a noise outside — it’s Carol, who promptly pees herself. After Melissa defends herself— by lamenting the dead and dying and the arrival of the drone — the group offers that she might be their greatest security threat. In one of The Last Man on Earth’s best moments yet, Carol puts Melissa’s hand on her pregnant stomach. “This world can’t suck,” she makes it clear, “I won’t stand for it.”
Tandy is leaving Mike for Malibu, obeying his brother’s wish. Mike farts in a jar and gives it to him. Tandy responds — in yet another of the show’s best ever moments — by giving his brother his collection of balls, “his buddies.” “They got me through some hard times,” Tandy says. He drives away in the DeLorean.
He is understandably down when he returns to Malibu, but his spirits are lifted when the calf, who hasn’t been nursing, drinks from a bottle he’s holding. Meanwhile, at the close of the episode and the season, a wine-drunk Gail spots a boat off the shore. “Is anybody on it?” “Some hairy guy,” Tandy says. But the audience knows. It’s Pat Brown, that paranoiac asshole who tried to kill Mike when returned to earth. He’s with a living crew in hazmat suits. And they have guns.