It’d be a stretch to say last night’s entire episode was written to build up to a single great punchline. Will Ferrell’s surprise appearance among the old Tucson crew at their new camp in Malibu made it easy to forget the first twenty or so minutes of this episode, and his almost immediate unintentional death (caused by an overanxious Carol pulling a basic “boo!” prank) is already one of the greatest moments in this show’s young life. It was shocking twice over, between the unannounced stunt casting of one of the biggest actors in Hollywood and then his swift exit after barely three lines of dialogue. And one of those lines was rapping Snow’s “The Informer” over an accordion.
The Last Man on Earth can’t rely on surprises like this forever, but so far the unexpected has been the show’s stock in trade. It was shocking that a network would let somebody like Will Forte air an almost wordless pilot. It was more shocking that the show somehow caught on with viewers—while not a smash hit, it does better than a lot of shows on broadcast TV. From the regular drip of new survivors, to the revelation that Phil’s brother is alive in space, to the hate-filled and pitiful lead, Last Man has routinely tried to surprise us through both specific plot points and a general disinterest to follow the expected beats of a sitcom. The short on-screen life of Will Ferrell’s Gordon might be the most acutely hilarious of these surprises, but eventually every show runs out of ways to shock an audience. And as funny as Last Man is, it still hasn’t shown it can settle into a steady rhythm without losing a good bit of its appeal.
Last night’s episode brought a quick end to Phil and Carol’s accidental separation from last week’s season premiere. Carol was making do as well as she could at the gas station, enlisting one of those weird, wavy, inflatable air sculptures to try and catch Phil’s attention, bedazzling her clothes and building a Phil sculpture out of chewing tobacco and food paste, and still holding out hope that Phil would return. Phil, meanwhile, explored the abandoned subdivision in Tucson, feeling sorry for himself before deciding to take action to find Carol. Phil’s method doesn’t make a lot of realistic sense—how did he rig that train to conduct itself, complete with horns a-honking?—but it was the kind of outsized romantic gesture that Carol would clearly be thrilled by. And Phil accidentally steamrolling his soccer ball friend Bryce during his efforts is legitimately one of the saddest things I saw on TV this week.
Thankfully Carol’s triumphant return to Tucson wasn’t just used as a romantic climax. The two almost immediately get into a fight over what kind of gas station she was left at, with Phil insisting it was a Speedy Pump. And then, after immediately doing it in the middle of a dusty highway, they share a bit of fun Beatles-referencing dialogue that is pure Forte, corny but funny and in love with language. They resettle in Tucson and seem genuinely happy for a while, with Phil pledging he’ll be honest and true and Carol calling him her Honest Abe. And to make her feel less alone, they even make grotesque dolls of the old group, so she can have somebody to talk to like Phil talks to his sports balls.
The Phil and Carol relationship is strong enough to build an entire show around. Forte and Kristen Schaal are such amazing performers that they can make a weekly half-hour entertaining without any other characters. As good as Mary Steenburgen, Mel Rodriguez, January Jones and Boris Kodjoe were last year, the least interesting thing about that first season was the expanding circle of survivors. Phil and Carol each have their own peculiar sort of insanity that works fantastically with each other, but when combined with the rest of that crew they feel diminished. Carol becomes a stock sitcom type, and Phil becomes an outright villain. So when Phil finds a note from Melissa in Carol’s Tucson house saying that they moved from Tucson to Malibu, and for Carol to come find them without Phil, he has to decide between remaining honest with Carol or potentially losing her to Malibu. It’s another stock sitcom situation, and doesn’t contain dramatic spark or comic potential. It’s another example of the other survivors turning the show into a predictable sitcom.
Thankfully that beautiful final scene with Ferrell turns everything on its head. With his guilt building, Phil finally reveals the note to Carol, who’s momentarily mad before becoming even angrier with the others for telling her to leave Phil behind. Together they head out to Malibu, and find the others inexplicably having a campfire singalong to Snow’s “Informer” to the accompaniment of Steenburgen’s accordion. An excited Carol tells Phil to wait as she breaks the ice; she sneaks down, taps Ferrell on the shoulder, lets loose an enthusiastic “boo!”, and sends him into cardiac arrest. Hopefully we’ll learn more about Gordon and his role within the group, and hopefully Carol’s accidental murder of Gordon will cause some new friction and prevent the show from returning to the “everybody hates Phil” scenario it thoroughly exhausted last year.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections.