By Dan Snierson
December 12, 2016 at 03:09 AM EST
FOX
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  • TV Show
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This story contains plots details about Sunday’s fall finale of The Last Man on Earth, “If You’re Happy And You Know It.”

Going up… to heaven?

That certainly seemed to be the case for Gail when the dark, reflective midseason finale of The Last Man on Earth ended with a shock on Sunday night. Trapped in an elevator after trying to get some peace and quiet and get-the-hell-away time from reluctantly adopted daughter Carol (Kristen Schaal), our chef-turned-failed-doctor-turned-professional-drinker Gail Klosterman (Mary Steenburgen) appeared to take her own life after a series of unfortunate events.

She had tried to MacGuyver her way out of the way her steel prison in various ways, including the unsuccessful recruitment of a Roomba. She fired her gun — previously emptied to try to signal her fellow survivors — several times around the elevator in frustration, only to take a rebound bullet in the thigh. Drained of spirit — and likely soon of blood — she muttered, “They’re not going to find me. I’m just going to freakin’ die here… God! I’d give anything to see those… freakin’ idiots right now.” As we intercut between various friends — highly unstable Melissa (January Jones), who almost took her own life with some unauthorized roof walking, crying in her locked, two-way mirrored room while tearfully Todd (Mel Rodriguez) stood watch; Tandy (Will Forte) and Carol, fresh off their camping sex adventure, bringing home a miraculous catfish they named Gail; Lewis (Kenneth Choi) and Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) celebrating after a successful flight simulation — Gail then weakly reached for her gun and loaded the final bullet she had into the chamber. While The Kinks’ song “Shangri-La” reached its gloomy climax, we retreated to an exterior shot of the building, saw a flash in a window and heard the gun shot. Cut to credits.

So…. is Gail still no longer one of the last people on Earth? Did we just lose another big chunk of the remaining population in this post-apocalyptic world? If the last fall finale for the show is any indication, things are not looking good. (R.I.P., Other Phil.) Then again, is anything a good indication for anything else on Last Man on Earth? (It is not.) This seems like an appropriate time to pour a glass (or three) of wine, pick up the phone, and call Mary Steenburgen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s good to hear your voice. You sound… alive?

MARY STEENBURGEN: (Laughs) Mary is alive. That’s true.

When you learned about the plot to have Gail trapped in an elevator — and then that she would seemingly wind up taking her own life, what was your reaction?

I want people to experience this show without me blowing anything for them, because I hate it when people do it to me. So I’m going to be careful about Gail’s fate. But this whole experience of the show has been this crazy, creative dive that I’ve done with these people. Nothing surprises me on this show. People come and go — sometimes you don’t know what happens to them in the case of Jason Sudeikis [who plays Phil’s virus-infected brother, Mike], when we’re not 100 percent sure. Sometimes you do know in the case of Boris Kodjoe, who left the show last season after I killed him (laughs) during an appendectomy surgery.

You tried very hard.

I tried so hard. So, that part of what I love about the show, and I think fans love about it too is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s what drew me to it in the first place. In terms of going on that adventure, I kind of knew what was going to happen in talking to the writers but I was willing to… do that. (laughs) This is so hard to talk about.

Let me ask this: What did you think of everything in the elevator leading up to that moment?

We have wonderful scripts and they work really hard on them. But because Will is such a creative soul who isn’t frightened by as far as I can tell, anything — like, anything at all — he’ll go anywhere, and it means that you’re not safe, but it means you’re going to have a deeply creative experience, which is what I had. And one of the things that I’ve loved about it is that I’d had my own personal thoughts about why Gail responded to this new world by trying to anesthetize herself, and in some ways, you could say it’s because she’s the oldest one. And there’s the possibility of being lonely because she’s not in a place [like] the others where they’re talking about creating new life, and things like that. But for me, I began to work from the point of view of — a lot of what motivated her had to do with her past. So I went to them at one point and said, “How would you feel about Gail having a son and he didn’t die in the virus? We don’t say how he died, but he didn’t die in the virus.” And they loved that. There’s one reference to it if you happened to have watched the show, and it’s a scene with Kristen and myself, and then that’s it.

So in answer to your question about anything that happens in the elevator, for me, every single thing that happens in the elevator had to do with that one fact: Gail had had a son, and he died. It’s so funny that we’re talking about a really truly funny comedy but there’s just this willingness on the part of the writers and Will to give so much humanity and heart to these characters. You believe that Carol is looking for a mother because she’s going to have a baby, and the relationship between Tandy and Carol went from something that was so superficial and even disconnected completely to something that’s kind of one of the more profound relationships, (laughs) to me, on television, because it’s earned. So this whole experience has just been so up my alley because this is the kind of show that makes me laugh, it makes my heart beat faster. There’s nothing formulaic about it. There’s just nothing like it.

They say, “We’re going to stick you in an elevator for a couple of episodes.” What was your first reaction?

(Laughs) That this is bad news for a pretty severely claustrophobic person. My claustrophobia has a little bit to do with closed spaces. I’ve never been trapped in one, so I don’t know how much worse it would be, but I’m exceptionally claustrophobic in a crowded room. When I go into a restaurant, I clock where every door is, and every window is, and I sit in relation to doors and windows a certain way. I have a true problem with it, so I was nervous about it. But we happen to have the most fantastic camera crew —people I love — so I knew that they were going to be in there with me, so that helped. But, yeah, that was a hard one for me. That and being the edge of cliffs. How people rock climb I don’t understand it at all, but those are my two biggest fears, really.

You brought up her son, a revelation that was a powerful moment when Carol was trying to get Gail to sign those adoption papers. Anything you can say about how he did die? Is that something that you worked out in your head?Yeah, that’s my secret. I worked that out a long time ago, and I haven’t even shared that with the writers. Or any of the cast. Or even Will. But it definitely affected everything, but particularly those scenes in the elevator.

Of course, we never saw Gail shoot herself. It was just heavily implied. How much hope should we put into the idea that she could still be alive — and maybe she just really shot Gordon to put him out of his torso-less, wigless misery?

Well… um, that’s an interesting thought, although I think Gail’s too smart to use her last bullet on a dead dummy, but I don’t want to give or take away hope. (laughs) Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you. I would love to spill the beans…

NEXT: Steenburgen on why Gail loaded that final bullet into the gun[pagebreak]

Let me be one of the first but certainly not the last in the next few months to ask you straight up, “Is Gail dead?” Do you have your stock answer figured out for fans on the street?

They don’t have to wait that long, do they?

It’ll come back in the spring, so it might be a few months.

I guess I’ll have to just be even more reclusive than I already am. Now it will be a good excuse as opposed to just being pathetic. (laughs)

What did you think of the way this story line resolves in the spring premiere?

I loved what they did, and I loved the integrity of the show. And I love that no matter who comes or goes in this show, they treat everybody with a ton of attention and integrity and affection. I mean, we still celebrate Boris and that character. I think that there’s going to be so many cool surprises in the second half of this season. I know there are. There’s really fantastic stuff coming up.

Of course, you could be dead and still come back to film a flashback. Or maybe you shot another episode in which you are a corpse they discover. How many more episodes have you filmed for the show?

(Laughs) I can’t say.

In this episode, we met a catfish that Carol names Gail. How are you feeling about a catfish possibly replacing you?Are you cool with that?

It symbolizes maybe the sort of eternal soul, and it might not have been the animal I would have chosen (laughs). But there is something kind of cool about a catfish. I mean, I’m Southern, I relate to them as Southern beings. So maybe it’s not so bad.

If Gail is, in fact, a goner, what kind of psychological impact will this have on Carol? She all but drove Gail away, as Todd told her. Should we be worried about her?

It’s a show that deals with both redemption and loss constantly. Certainly Tandy had those things with his brother, too. I mean, it was his brother who shaved off his hair and beard and eyebrows. So these themes of redemption and loss and redemption are just a part of it and of how who we are to each other and how we treat each other, and then surviving each other as well as life and this plague. For people who have survived this apocalypse, I love that nobody’s talking existential theories about life and death; we’re in some ways just as small and petty as people are who haven’t seen what we’ve seen. And now and then, you see the effects of their past lives on their present lives. And I do love just the thought that these people have all seen a tremendous amount of death. They don’t talk about it very often at all. They love fiercely again as opposed to being robotic or being detached. They connect, which is what ultimately I think we’re all put here to do and that we desire to do. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but in terms of Carol, I think that all those things will be true, you know?

If Gail is alive, will this give her a new lease on life? She says incredulously to herself, “I’d give anything to see those freakin’ idiots right now.”

(laughs) Yeah. I could see it giving her an appreciation for things. Yeah, it could go either way.

I know you have to go, but I have a couple more questions if that’s okay.

You’d be amazed at how much I don’t have to get going. I am avoiding learning something on my accordion that I wrote for a friend, and it’s so frickin’ hard to learn, I’m just staring at it on the table thinking, “Ha ha, I don’t have to play you for a few minutes.”

I love that. You’re good at accordion by the way. The stuff you did on the show was great—

I’m really not very good, but I will say there are probably very few people in the world that have played as many bizarre songs on the accordion—

“Informer.”

“Informer.” “Love in a Elevator” by Aerosmith is not something that comes easily to the accordion.

I understand. It seemed like the bullet that hit Gail was causing to bleed out, and maybe she wanted to end it before it came to that, and maybe also that she had reached final frustration. Is that why she appeared to resort to such a drastic measure? Was it also because what you said about her son too?

Right. There’s that. And I think there’s also just a question of “If this is going to happen, do I take control of this? Do I have control or do I give up control and have hope?” There’s only one bullet, so once that’s gone, then that’s it. You have to have hope for as long as you’re alive there. But I think the question is: Which is more important: Hope or control over a situation that has been not what you would have chosen? It’s the final ability to make a choice.

Any hints about another story line — the mental decline health of Melissa? It’s a really dark story.

It is. I think she’s doing such a good job of it. I don’t know if it completely resolves itself right away, but I think it becomes even more fascinating. I will say that.

Those storylines are contrasted with something more positive: Lewis (Kenneth Choi) finally landing his test simulation flight. Speaking of hope, should we have some hope for that he might make it to Tokyo to search for his boyfriend?

I think so. Just as hope is what’s fueling him. I love that whole drive of he and Tandy going back to his house. All of that just was very moving, and he’s just a wonderful actor.

Any final thoughts to leave people hanging on? Anything you say could have meaning as people wait for months.

Well, if you love this show, you will not be let down by it. I feel as somebody who loves this show — and loves all the characters and loves the people — that rather than having gotten more careful or anything, this season in particular just continues to amaze. I really, really mean that. So I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.

And if you do come back, are you willing to pledge that you’ll play more accordion?

If I come back, I’ll play more accordion. (laughs) And I’m sure it would be bizarre ’80s, ’90s songs that do not lend themselves to accordion at all.

Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, the last man on Earth, who is just trying to get by in Tucson, Arizona.
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