There’s only so much change that can ever occur on television. Sure, locations change, new faces are introduced, some characters are born, others die, but the central dynamics of any TV show, whether it’s a network sitcom or a prestige cable drama, essentially remain the same. It’s a central tenant of the medium and it allows for shows to sustain themselves and build a loyal audience over many years. Most series’ make a big show of “fundamental change” because it’s good drama, even though they will eventually settle into the comfortable rhythms that audiences know and love. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, the mark of a good show is its ability to sell the illusion that any change is permanent and that the status quo will forever be altered by certain events.

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So, credit where it’s due: The Last Man On Earth is genuinely good at selling that illusion. LMOE never receives quite enough credit for its constant adaptation as well as its consistency. It embraces change within its own limitations, which has kept the series from becoming stale as it enters its middle years. The LMOE team frequently adds new obstacles to the series so that they keep their characters moving forward, but still rely on established characterizations and the ensemble’s performances to maintain a level of familiarity. Though it’s a tight rope to walk, they usually do it pretty well and with panache.

In terms of balance, i.e. juggling a half a dozen proverbial narrative balls in the air, LMOE’s one-hour third season finale arguably stands as the show’s finest hour. A brief rundown of what happens over the course of two episodes: Erica goes into labor and successfully gives birth after some complications; Tandy and Jasper discover that a San Jose nuclear reactor has caught fire; the gang quickly gets out of dodge for fear of radiation poisoning; they eventually end up in Los Angeles where they decide to move on a boat; they are quickly found by the still-alive, homicidal Pat (Mark Boone Junior) who plans to kill them all until Pamela (Kristen Wiig) shoots him first.

LMOE covers all this ground admirably, courtesy of credited writers Tim McAuffile and Kira Kalush, and mines plenty of comedy and compelling drama out of the fast-changing situation as well. The series utilizes the strengths of the entire ensemble, including new face Keith L. Williams as young Jasper, and organically develops every new narrative turn without pausing or skipping a beat.

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“When The Going Gets Tough” is the better of the two episodes if only because Erica’s sudden delivery has more literal urgency than a fire over the horizon. The series uses its history to its advantage and calls back to Gail’s failed attempt to remove Phil’s appendix in the second season, but while the gang might still be amateurs, they’re not going to allow the same mistake to happen twice. Gail, Melissa, and Todd contend with an understandably terrified Erica, who briefly passes out during the birth, as they slowly try to get her baby out safely. They quickly realize that the baby is breech and must turn it safely to avoid a complicated caesarian section. Eventually, the gang (minus Tandy and Jasper, who are looking down a different gun barrel) delivers Erica’s child and she names her Dawn, as in the dawn of a new day.

Director Payman Benz keeps the drama grounded without moving it into mawkish territory, and maintains equal focus on everyone’s fears. While Gail, Melissa, and Todd are of course afraid of a delivery gone south, they aren’t the only one’s holding onto terror. Carol goes into full-on panic mode because she believes her future delivery will be messy and unsuccessful if Erica’s goes poorly. Though his unmovable stoicism might suggest otherwise, Jasper casually accepts that Erica will likely die, like everyone else he has met. It’s somewhat poetic that Tandy is the only one not remotely paralyzed by his worst thoughts. He might have annoyed the hell out of everyone in the early stages of Erica’s delivery, but he also provides comfort to Jasper, telling him that death isn’t an immediate concern for their group because they’re made of stronger stuff.

Of course, that thought gets cut short by the sight of a large nuclear fire. “Nature’s Horchata” isn’t as tight as “When The Going Gets Tough,” and certain moments feel especially padded to move everyone into place for the tense final moments. Yet, the cumulative effect of the episode still hits, mostly because the focus remains on Carol as she deals with rapid change to her environment while feeling especially anxious about her pregnancy. She’s forced to move away from the comfort of her office building, and though Tandy attaches her makeshift home to the back of the RV, it burns down after a mishap with candles and Gregorian chants. While the rest of the gang adapts quickly to the changing environment, Carol lags behind, mostly because she craves stability for her child, even though that concept died along with the majority of the planet. It’s not just a luxury they can’t afford. It no longer exists.

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But all of that is thrown in sharp relief when Pat invades the gang’s new boat. It’s a bit of a cheap jump scare, especially since we instinctively know that key cast members like Tandy or Carol are not in any immediate danger. However, it’s saved by the sudden but foreshadowed appearance of Pamela, carrying a pistol and a nervous introduction.

LMOE has spun its wheels quite a bit this past season, with dead-end arcs like Melissa’s mental breakdown and Carol’s adoption obsession especially weighing it down. Though LMOE hasn’t so far dipped into outright bad territory, and there’s no reason to expect it to, it can be a frustrating watch at times precisely because episodes like “When The Going Gets Tough” and “Nature’s Horchata” prove that the greatness lies within its grasp. When LMOE works at top speed, there’s nothing like it on network TV. That’s something to cherish. Here’s hoping for more developments in a warm place with no memory.

Stray observations

  • Tandy believes Phil is jamming out with Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Tony Levin, legendary session bassist who worked with King Crimson and “Mr. Sledgehammer” Pete Gabriel.
  • Funny Carol moments: Her commitment to proper grammar amidst utter panic (“The CD to which I’m listening…”), her off-kilter commentary during Dawn’s birth, and her seemingly irrelevant Mexican restaurant anecdote that eventually explains her comfort in the office building.
  • Funniest joke of the hour? The gang all forgets to bring the cow with them on the RV.
  • Melissa doesn’t mince words with Jasper, even though everyone else desperately tries to hide obvious truths from him. She even explains a prolapsed anus: “It’s when you poop your butt.”
  • Tandy’s explanation of Erica’s birthing pains: “See, babies are quite large but the openings they come out of are quite small. It’s a design flaw. So what you were hearing was just totally natural. Erica’s baby has been sitting in her stomach for nine months, eating her poo and drinking her pee, and like most nine-month-old fetuses, they start looking for a lifestyle that’s a little less gross. So they decide very obviously to move to the outside world, and the screaming you hear from Erica was just the baby winding its way through her intestines.”
  • Season Grade: B+
  • Thanks to everyone who read and commented all season! Hopefully I’ll see you next time around.

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