I can’t help but feel like this week’s episode of The Last Man on Earth feels like two episodes that were smashed together. That’s not necessarily a critique. In fact, I believe that the sudden swerve in the middle of “Smart and Stupid” marks something the show sorely needed and improves the episode’s narrative.
Throughout this season, The Last Man on Earth has been criticized for feeling less and less like a show that takes place after the apocalypse and its setting is only used as a source for jokes around it. I don’t feel that way. To me, this season has been one of the main characters trying to maintain their sanity and a sense of normalcy given their predicament.
In “Smart and Stupid”, the group’s bubble of sanity is disrupted by a very real danger that has hung over their heads since the first episode: the return of the virus but wiped out everyone else on Earth.
It’s unexpected that the person who is afflicted is Mike. He wasn’t on Earth when the virus hit and the rest of the cast are immune. And yet, it’s heartbreaking that it comes just as he’s slotted himself into the group, begun a budding romance with Erica and repaired his relationship with his brother.
Once Mike becomes symptomatic, the show stops being a sitcom for the rest of the episode and all of the other quirky plotlines are summarily abandoned. And, for once, this seems completely natural. Of course they’re not going to care about Gail’s drinking problem or Tandy and Mike eating the last of Todd’s bacon when the thing that killed everyone they know has made a tragic return.
This is a great use of the show’s setting and background. Yes, they’ve used the emptiness of the Earth here and there, but the show might as well have been a quirky Gilligan’s Island reboot for the past few episodes.
When Mike starts coughing up blood when milking the cow, Tandy is devastated and horrified, and he gets some great character development here too. For once, Tandy’s outlandish, flimsy lies aren’t about him, but about protecting his brother and his fear of losing him a second time. Tandy reminds the group that they’re all immune to the virus, but it is pointed out that Carol and Erica’s babies may not be.
Tandy thinks he has a plan to keep Mike around, in a protected bubble and while everyone wears hazmat suits around him at all times. Everything seems to go fine, until they find the cow dead in its pen. Tandy protests forcing Mike to leave and sleeps next to him that night. When Tandy awakes, he finds that Mike had left during the night, not wanting for brother say goodbye to him again.
“Smart and Stupid” succeeds in its shift from goofy interpersonal comedy to darkly tragic drama. The acting in this episode is fantastic across the board and the script uses an abrupt tonal change to build up to next week’s season finale in a solid fashion.