Over the course of 13 episodes, we’ve watched The Last Man on Earth’s Phil Miller go from a man crazed by loneliness to a man crazed by other people. But the season’s final episode brings us somewhere close to full circle, giving us a Phil we can root for again — and then twists its concept one last time.
There is a peppering of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit in The Last Man on Earth. The show has always worn its contrivances on its sleeve, with the introduction of each new character tailored to antagonize Will Forte’s Phil Miller. It’s clearly a world designed by a cruel intelligence — not the Devil in this case, but a team of sitcom writers. The first of those characters, of course, was Kristen Schaal’s Carol, who at once seemed Phil’s polar opposite and his perfect match. Where she sought order to a fault, he reveled in chaos and destruction. But together, they were dazzling, a mixture of oil and water that creates a swirl of rainbow.
But no sooner did Carol and Phil marry and settle into post-apocalyptic domestic bliss than a third character appeared, January Jones’ Melissa. Melissa, and each subsequent character served to pull Phil farther and farther from Carol, until the two finally agreed to divorce.
It initially struck me as such a shame that the show went to such great lengths to unpeel these characters from each other. Forte and Schaal have such incredible chemistry, and watching Phil painfully flirt with the other women of the cul-de-sac was never as satisfying as watching him engage in a good verbal sparring with Carol.
And, because he wasn’t trying to impress her, Phil was often a better version of himself with Carol. With other people, Phil could hardly open his mouth without telling a lie. With Carol, though, moments of honesty would happen incidentally, just by virtue of them playing husband and wife. Yes, he did keep insisting that he was going to fix her front door, but he’d also come to her when he needed someone to rub salve on his back. While he was trying to sleep with the other women in Tucson, he was developing an intimacy with Carol without really noticing.
But of course, the writers noticed. They’re the ones that put that intimacy there in the first place. And in “Screw the Moon,” we finally get to see the payoff of Carol and Phil’s contentious relationship. Phil isn’t Phil Miller anymore. After another man named Phil Miller arrives in Tucson, our old Phil Miller starts going by Tandy. (And, to highlight the deliberate artificiality of the show, everyone else in the cul-de-sac immediately switches to calling him Tandy without ever slipping up.) New Phil Miller is physically strong, technologically literate, and wild for Carol. When they agreed to divorce, Old Phil thought he would be the one moving on to a new relationship (two new relationships, actually, with Erika and Gail). But it was Carol who quickly bonded with New Phil, both emotionally and genitally.
And it’s only when he sees Carol with New Phil that Old Phil realizes that he’s in love with her.
After all the damage Old Phil has done to his relationships with Carol and the other cul-de-sac dwellers, there are two questions that the finale decides to answer: First, has Old Phil made himself intolerable to the remnants of human civilization? And second, has he truly lost Carol?
The first question comes up while Old Phil and Todd are plotting to murder New Phil. Last week, they seemed ready to throw the hot new guy off the edge of the world, but this week, they’re all talk, all bravado. Todd realizes that he doesn’t actually want to kill anyone, not even New Phil. Old Phil assured him that it’s easy; they just drive New Phil out to the desert and leave him there.
That’s when it finally dawns on Todd: Once upon a time, Phil wanted to kill him, too. For a man with exactly one friend left on Earth, this is a devastating realization.
Todd’s response is to retreat to his house and eat chips. But later that night, when New Phil learns that Old Phil plotted to dump him out in the desert, New Phil suggests something much more drastic: exile. That prompts Old Phil to have a rare, honest moment at the fire pit. He doesn’t want to leave Tucson because it’s always been his home and he can’t stand the thought of leaving it. So instead he does the mature thing and barricades himself inside his house.
By now, most of the cul-de-sac dwellers are used to Old Phil’s antics. By the time Carol declares a truce and convinces Old Phil to come back to the fire pit (three days later), the women are smiling at him. Todd looks more ambivalent, but I’m sure, if given enough time, Old Phil could anti-charm his way back into Todd’s good graces.
He doesn’t get a chance to, however. New Phil breaks Carol’s truce and tackles Old Phil before carting him out to the desert with two days’ worth of supplies. He tells Old Phil that he’s driving back to Tucson and that Old Phil should go the other way.
Old Phil tells himself that New Phil will come back to get him, but he doesn’t really believe it, just like he didn’t really believe he could leave Todd in the desert. But New Phil isn’t him. When New Phil says he’ll do something, he follows through, whether it’s fixing Carol’s door or exiling a guy. For a moment, it looks like Old Phil might be back where he started: alone.
While Phil is pondering his fate (and eating through his supplies), one relationship in the cul-de-sac is starting to repair itself. After learning that Old Phil kind of, sort of planned to kill Todd, Melissa comes to Todd’s door and they make amends and realize their problem was one of communication, not lack of love.
Love is coming for Old Phil as well. Earlier in the episode, Phil tried to woo Carol with flowers and trinkets and, in a typically Phil Miller sort of way, claimed that he wrote her a song. “It’s called ‘Carol,’” he says, as if he’s clearly lying, “so that’s proof.” But when Carol shows up with Phil’s volleyball friend and more supplies, she asks if he really wrote a song. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode, perhaps the biggest surprise of a show built on contrived surprises, is that Phil really did write a song, and it’s a really sweet one.
That’s when Carol decides to leave Tucson with Old Phil Miller. “I gotta be honest, Carol,” Phil tells her. “I feel like you’re making a big mistake here.” Once again, she’s the only person he’s truly honest with. She gets it, but she wants to be with him anyway. So they start over, not at gunpoint, but in the car as if they’re people on a blind date. But, in a nod to their old pattern, as they drive off quite literally into the sunset, Carol asks Phil to put his seatbelt on and he resists for a moment before agreeing. There will be plenty of bumps in the road ahead, but I think these two will be okay.
But just when The Last Man on Earth lets us think it will end on this sweet moment, it pulls out one last surprise. We zoom away from Tucson, away from Earth to a space station, where an astronaut has been tallying the days since he last heard from another human. His last name? Miller. Phil Miller may not be the last man on Earth, but another Miller is the last man somewhere.
This fellow, played by Jason Sudeikis, has actually appeared once on the show before, in a photograph. If you’re curious as to who he is, head over to Entertainment Weekly, which explains the ending.
The Last Man on Earth has been a very interesting show to follow, but this episode is what really makes it feel like more than the sum of its parts. Much of the season has been spent gleefully playing with the conventions of both sitcoms and the cozy catastrophe. Individual episodes have been funny and weird, but taken as a whole, the first season feels like a complete, absurd drama about failing to get the things you think you want and finding something more valuable in the end. We’ve watched Phil Miller’s Tucson turn into a hell of other people and seen Phil come out the other end a stranger but perhaps more sensitive person. And with the two best parts of the show united in the end, we’re curious to see where next season takes them.