The best episodes of The Last Man on Earth have always been the ones that are directly related to the show’s brutal post-apocalyptic setting. In a way, the show has been like this all along – all the love triangles, cringe comedy and Tandy antics have circled around a group of people who are desperately trying to find a semblance of normalcy after the end of civilization.
“30 Years of Science Down the Tubes” is the end result of the biggest threat to that normalcy yet: Mike’s illness. When we see Mike in this episode, his symptoms don’t necessarily line up with those we’ve heard about the virus. Yet, we also don’t know how long it lasts or even the time table for this episode (Malibu to Tuscon, even in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, is still a ways to go).
There’s also a lot of inevitability in this episode. It was fairly obvious from the end of the last episode that Phil wasn’t going to let Mike go that easily. Likewise, the drone that Gail spotted two episodes ago was very likely to make the return appearance that it does here.
The episode begins with Phil travelling back to Tucson to chase after Mike, leaving a worried Carol behind. Phil quickly finds Mike, who understandably wants to be left alone and takes every opportunity to ask Phil to return to his wife and leave him to die alone.
Even with all of these heavy plot points, this is still a comedy program. In this episode however, the humor is often combined with the characters’ grave situations. A goofy scene where Phil discovers a fart he saved in a jar is immediately followed by Mike collapsing from his illness. Even Phil faking symptoms of the virus by substituting blood with Sriracha sauce feels a lot darker than a dumb prank between brothers.
Mike continues to beg Phil to leave as his condition worsens, but Phil continually refuses to abandon his brother. Mike resorts to insults and tries to rekindle their feud but even that doesn’t drive Phil away. We eventually find out why Phil is so keen to stick around: because Mike was stuck in space, Phil was the one who had to bury his parents in the backyard at the height of the virus epidemic. It explains a lot about Phil’s tenacious character and his difficulty with people even just as much as the years he spend alone without human contact.
Finally Mike asks Phil to leave one last time and he finally acquiesces. As a parting gift, he gives Mike his long absent sports-ball friends. Phil leaves while Mike is still alive and standing on his own power, but it’s unclear for how long. This is perhaps to leave a window, however small, for Jason Sudeikis to eventually return through some magical circumstance (a side-theory: did the survivors just never catch the virus at all, or did they and they just had the genes to get better? If it’s the latter, there’s still a chance for Mike.)
Does all this weighty gravitas work on a show like this? Absolutely. These darker aspects come with the territory that The Last Man on Earth treads that few other comedies have. “30 Years of Science Down the Tubes” doesn’t have much comedy in it, but it doesn’t necessarily need to have it to be a solid episode of a sitcom.
Intercut throughout all these heavy scenes with the Miller brothers are shorter ones with the Malibu group. However even these lighter scenes are fraught with doubt and frustration, as the group comes to deeply regret pressuring Mike to leave and their discovery that the drone Gail saw was real after all.
Melissa is incredibly paranoid about the drone and makes a good point that whoever is piloting the drone has sinister motivations. After all, she claims, if they were good people they would have simply introduced themselves without resorting to espionage.
Through this entire episode, Carol acts as the calm at the center of a weighty storm. I’ve said many times that Kristen Schaal is this show’s secret weapon and consistently terrific in every scene she’s in. She gets a ton of great moments here, from desperately trying to bottle feed the calf to her calming a trigger-happy Melissa.
Schaal is also great in the final scenes, consoling a dejected Phil after returns home from Tucson. Then the tone changes again. Turns out Melissa was right all along to be suspicious of that drone as the group spots Pat (guest star Mark Brown Junior), who they’ve yet to meet on a boat anchored off the coast of Malibu. It seems he met some friends after leaving Mike behind and they’re coming ashore to confront our heroes with harpoons. Needless to say, they aren’t simply introducing themselves after all.
This season of The Last Man on Earth was a marked improvement over the solid, promising but ultimately flawed first season. Throughout the season, Phil comes off as considerably more likeable, the cast feels more at home with their characters and the show itself utilized its unique setting as more than just a backdrop.
The main issue I have with the show this season is that some characters – namely Erica and Gail – feel underdeveloped. That’s very noticeable with a cast this small and full of terrific character actors. Jason Sudeikis was a great addition to the cast, and even though it looks unlikely, it would be great to see him again later down the road. It’s doubtful that any harm will come to our main cast as the start of next season, but Pat’s discovery of our group either means we’re getting a few more characters or a recurring antagonist.
Despite its flaws, The Last Man on Earth is still one of the most interesting shows on television. It will be interesting to see where the show takes its finale cliffhanger in season three.
Episode rating: 9/10
Season rating: 8.5/10