As its fans well know, The Last Man On Earth is everything a comedy is supposed to be — funny, vibrant, creative. It also has a superpower few sitcoms can claim: a mean sucker-punch to the gut. Just when you think you’re settling in for a half-hour of Tandy “booms,” you get hit with television that leaves you in tears. It happened when Phil died on the table; it happened when Tandy struggled to let go of his sick brother, Mike. And it happens again tonight, in the aptly titled “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths,” when Tandy takes Lewis home.
Lewis — “poor Lewis,” as our refrain goes — has been the most recent recipient of Tandy’s manic golden-lab advances. You know, the prying, the forcing of friendship, the accusations of power-grid sabotage. All along, Kenneth Choi’s Lewis has sighed patiently and stroked his beard, coming off almost impossibly likable, charming us into wanting more out of Lewis than constant Tandy resistance. Tonight, the show delivers: When Lewis lets slip it’s his anniversary with his partner, Mark, Tandy insists they drive to Seattle to make absolutely sure Mark isn’t waiting there for Lewis.
Mark was stuck on a flight to Tokyo when The Virus broke out; he somehow got word to Lewis he was trying to sail back to Seattle. But that was almost three years ago. (Another thing that makes Last Man so impressive: it mines the backstories of the gang’s lost love ones so infrequently that the technique never loses its tragic punch.) Unshakably pragmatic as he is, Lewis knows Mark won’t be at their house when he gets there. And like any good pragmatist with a broken heart, he’s furious at Tandy for forcing him to confront what he already knows.
In an almost excruciatingly funny-sad moment, Lewis stares at a photo of him and Mark, then turns with a quiver of hope when he hears the floorboards creaking. But it’s just Tandy, following him in from the car.
In this moment, we all want to shove Tandy out the door for Lewis (who ends up doing it himself). But tonight is one of those episodes we need thrice a season or so in this show; the kind that remind us that for all his irritating quirks, Tandy’s improbable optimism is what keeps the new world running. At Tandy’s behest, Lewis leaves a note — just in case Mark ever comes back. Then, the two men road trip to Tucson, where Tandy goes back inside his family’s home for what’s surely to be the last time. He is 99.9 percent sure Mike’s body lies in his bedroom, but he can’t bring himself to open the door. So he, too, leaves a note for his favorite person in the world. And though his brother is dead inside, he tacks it to the front door. Hope is just as important to people who know the worst as it is to people who only suspect it.
NEXT: Mel Rodriguez Freeman will set you free
Elsewhere in Last–Man-land, Carol begs Gail to be the grandmother of her child, not at all deterred by the fact Gail is completely uninterested in the gig. (Let’s pause to empathize with the future spawn of Carol and Tandy for a second. Are there two more stubborn, determined people on the planet?) When Gail wearily agrees, Carol takes it one step further: She’d like Gail to formally adopt her, to make the relation logistics line up. Gail refuses, Carol persists, and it all culminates in a scene full of tender confessions: Carol is scared to have a baby without her mother there to see her through it. Gail doesn’t want to adopt Carol because she’s still mourning the loss of her son — a son no one knew she had, a son she lost long before sickness wiped took over the planet.
At this point, the show can only keep us from flat-out bawling with a true gem of a Carol line. As Carol tells Gail she reminds her of her mom, she corrects herself: “… Not in every way. You drink, you smoke, you swear, you are bad at crafts, Gail, and you run around with young men. I guess really you just remind me of her because of your age. And because I love you.”
Last Man has plenty to do with smoothing out Tandy and Lewis/Gail and Carol in this episode, so we get no Erica and only a glimpse of Todd and Melissa, who are still struggling with Melissa’s mental illness and sudden urge to have a baby. But what a glimpse it is: In her quest to get pregnant, Melissa sets an elaborate role-playing scene with a deeply unsexy theme — Shawshank Redemption. (She even dug a tunnel in the wall.) Decidedly put off, Todd rebuffs her in character, and Mel Rodriguez’s nervously demurring Morgan Freeman impression is a glorious thing to behold. He even slips into narration: “Some would say, Red was a little concerned about his old friend Andy.” Melissa is nonplussed, stepping forward in her prison blues: “Let’s get busy gettin’ busy, or get busy dyin’,'” she purrs.
And as hilarious and expertly crafted as that line is, it takes on an eerie cast in a story like this, for it brings up the thought the gang (and we, as viewers) have to try to tamp down every so often: Really, what are these people doing besides trying to delay death? In a week in which it seems like even funny things shouldn’t be funny yet, Last Man hits all the right notes. Existential anxiety. Melancholy acceptance of a world not everyone wanted. Tentative enthusiasm for the future. Boom, boom, boom.