Would it be lonelier to discover you are the last person left on earth, knowing you will never again interact with another human being, or would it be lonelier knowing that other people are out there somewhere, to know that you could be talking to them and enjoying their company, but that you might never find them again? The Last Man on Earth began as a show about a guy who thought, wrongly, that he was all alone in the world, and then transitioned into a show about a guy who, if he wasn’t really the last man on earth, might as well have been. If the first season (back then I called it the “weirdest show on network television” and that hasn’t changed much since, more than that though it was also a very funny, sad, sometimes difficult and heartfelt show) was about the way that people can unwittingly force their own isolation with selfishness and pettiness, season two starts by exploring the way that relationships can make the feeling of loneliness more pronounced when those relationships are lost.
The second season of The Last Man on Earth begins with Phil Miller (Will Forte) and Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal) together, having affectionately reunited after divorcing and being kicked out of “the group” in Tucson (and who, aside from our Phil Miller, wouldn’t want to be part of a group composed of January Jones, Mel Rodriguez and Mary Steenburgen?), looking for the perfect place to settle down. They live in the White House for a while, putting on puppet shows with Presidential busts and breaking vases with hockey sticks. It’s fun for a few days but Carol seems a bit down, so Phil takes her to a place that he knows will cheer her up: her childhood home.
Carol shows Phil family photos and her sibling’s bedrooms and it becomes clear that Carol had a loving, if odd family. The home is sunny and bright and is exactly as Carol left it just empty, making it more and more depressing as Phil and Carol walk from room to room. But Carol’s room is full. It is full of a crafts (pillows, knitted objects, flags, posters), one for each person she loved who died of the virus that wiped out most of earth’s population – and Carol loved a lot of people. Phil is horrified (there’s a serial killer-esque quality about the room) but he ends up telling Carol that it is sweet and it’s clear that he is being honest. They spend the night in Carol’s childhood bed. Phil reads a pornographic magazine. The night is a good one.
But they end up moving on from there, too, back on the road in an RV, siphoning gas from the many abandoned gas stations along the way. It is at one of these gas stations, that Carol decides to do a bit of “shopping”. Carol is in the convenience store glittering-up a shirt that she finds, when Phil takes off, thinking Carol still sleeping in the back of the RV. It isn’t until Phil is hundreds of miles up the highway (after calling out to Carol about the “World’s Largest Plate” and she does not respond) that he realizes he has lost her. Phil retraces his steps but can’t remember which gas station he last stopped – there are so many of them – and even when he thinks he has chanced upon the station, Carol is nowhere to be found. It is Phil and Carol’s relationship in microcosm: Phil is finally starting to enjoy Carol’s company, then he does something stupid, intentionally or not, that pushes Carol away. It is the same thing that he does with everyone.
Phil realizes after looking through the drawings in Carol’s sketchpad, that what she was really missing – more than a place to call home – was the Tucson gang, so he sucks up his pride (and puts on a Ghillie suit to properly camouflage himself) and heads back to the suburban cul-de-sac where he lived peacefully until it was overrun with a bunch of annoying people. But no one is there either. And Phil’s old house has been burned out. One of the most eerily beautiful and sad things I’ve seen on TV for some time is Phil walking around the abandoned ruins of his house in his grass suit, like some animal or alien creature, looking for something, someone and finding exactly nothing. Phil is lost but more than that he is something altogether different than the remaining humans on the planet – he’s forgotten how to be a person amongst people, or maybe he never, ever really was.
In season one, after many years of being alone, with only his inanimate ball “friends” to talk to, Phil learned that other people survived just like he did. And as quickly as Phil would rejoice in finding these people he would realize that they were complicating his solitude. Phil liked doing things his way and it was his overwhelming selfishness, his inability to compromise, his lying and cheating that made him impossible to live with. So the group kicked him out. And in some ways that was easier for Phil. It was other people who Phil had a problem with – connecting with them, living with them, sharing with them. In Phil’s mind everything left on earth was his and his alone. Never was this more apparent than when another (more attractive, nicer, more compassionate, better) Phil Miller moved into the Tucson suburb. Not even Phil’s name was his anymore. The group forced him to go by his middle name, Tandy. Even in Phil’s own imagination, his ball friends would argue with him.
But it was Carol that came back to find Phil. The first season had its issues, it circled around the same plot over and over again and Phil was a difficult and miserable character to follow, the saving grace here being Forte’s abundant comedic talents. And, because of the show’s structure, having a “cliffhanger” or twist at the end of every episode, it fell into a neat rhythm. This rhythm became less and less exciting and more and more predictable over the course of the series (the cliffhanger would inevitably be someone else showing up or Phil blowing it again). But the reunion of Carol and Phil at the end of season one felt right, sweet and ultimately justified. Phil and Carol may not be the only people left on earth but, at this point, they seem to be the two strangest. And so they fit together – Phil has even convinced Carol to partake in and enjoy his margarita pools.
Phil learned or remembered that he couldn’t always have things his own way and, at the start of season two, this really does seem learned, as is apparent in a conversation Carol and Phil have as they drive the empty streets in a stealth bomber. Phil accidentally “drops” a bomb in a grocery store parking lot. Carol asks him to go back and get it but Phil doesn’t know how he’d put it back into the aircraft. As a compromise, Phil says he’ll go back the following day and put a safety cone next to it. Carol seems satisfied. This level of compromise and regard for another person’s feelings is also apparent in Phil’s tour around the country to find Carol an adequate home. Phil is still a selfish, wriggly guy but Carol’s empathy has rubbed off on him a bit. At least in terms of her.
Phil’s loneliness after losing Carol is palpable, emotional and fully realized, more so than any of the early, booze-fuelled loneliness at the start of season one. At the end of the episode we see Phil alone, Carol alone and then we see Phil’s astronaut brother (Jason Sudekis) alone, floating through space in a space station, desperately looking down at earth for signs of life. Phil’s brother reminds us of Phil’s state at the start of the series (while also reminding us that there is someone else out there, from Phil’s past, who might love Phil and who Phil may also love), how adrift and lost he was, on the verge of suicide. Being alone for that long made Phil not want to go on living, he had nothing to live for. But perhaps worse than that loneliness, Phil realizes, is knowing someone you love, the one person that gets you, is out there somewhere and you can’t find them. And that it’s your fault for losing them. Phil is much more alone without Carol than he was before he met her, as is Carol without Phil. And somewhere above the earth, Phil’s brother is drifting around not knowing what is going on below. If he did, his loneliness would double.