Christmas episodes tend to bring the best out of television. The general spirit of the season coupled with a familiarity with a group of characters inevitably means a host of sweet moments and an overall feeling of togetherness. But on a show as acerbic as The Last Man On Earth, it’s hard to say how they would handle a Christmas episode. After all, the Thanksgiving episode featured everyone at each other’s throats only for the murder of a bull to bring them together. Phil and Carol may be closer than ever, but the group itself remains in a fragile state. Sensitive egos and competing emotional agendas inevitably divide people, but they especially rear their ugly head around the Christmas holidays. It’s an even more tenuous situation when most of the world’s population has been wiped out.
But for most of its running time, “Secret Santa” keeps everything loose and buoyant, instilling good cheer in a hopelessly bad situation. Carol takes it upon herself to organize a Secret Santa ritual amongst the group so as to get everyone in the holiday spirit. Naturally, she goes overboard with the decorations and the positivity, but though the group initially finds this irritating, they all mostly come around to Secret Santa and that it’s more about the thoughtful surprise than the gift itself. It’s important to remember that the Malibu Crew is together by circumstance, not necessarily by choice. Sure, they could live separate from each other, but as the series has demonstrated over and over again, a community is necessary for survival. So naturally holidays that feed off the intimacy of family or a close group of friends may not work with such a ragtag crew, but if anyone could conceivably bring them together, it’s the persistently optimistic Carol, who is in very fine form in this episode. Kristen Schaal has put in stellar work this season, but the true testament to her performance is how she can render a character that would come off grating in anyone else’s hands into a generous spirit of good will.
Yet Carol can’t mend the lingering resentments and dissatisfactions amongst the group. Melissa initially finds herself put off by Carol’s good cheer, but then she becomes even more upset by Todd’s indifference towards her entire presence. Meanwhile, Todd and Gail are awkwardly trying to keep their relationship a secret from the rest of the group. And finally, Phil desperately wants recognition from Phil 2.0 for saving his life and bringing him back into the group, even going so far as to give Erica’s name to him and the Hope Diamond as a potential present. As during the most traditional holiday season, these conflicts all bubble underneath the surface while people participate in the standard rituals and traditions. It makes sense that there isn’t a big blow-up because, like in real life, everyone wants to keep the peace.
So, the group gives each other gifts, and because there’s the freedom of giving anything, the gifts are fun and interesting. Erica gives Carol a chair from Oprah’s studio as well as Jennifer Lopez’s green dress. Todd gives Gail the ZZ Top Eliminator car. Phil gives himself rapper Pitbull’s yacht to blow up. These are all well and good, but nothing holds a candle to the sweetest moment in the episode: Phil 2.0 gives Erica medical equipment for a chance to see her baby. It’s a small gesture of good will that has the most measurable impact on the entire group for no other reason than it’s the first new life after the virus (well, except Phil who’s still pissed that Phil 2.0 hasn’t thanked him for anything.) It’s a communal moment that feels earned, especially after a few weeks of infighting and bickering, which reminds the audience that in spite of everything, they’re still a family.
The slight problem with the episode comes from the Melissa storyline, which should have the most emotional impact but ends up being a little muted and forced. Melissa plays the role of the disaffected participant in the holiday traditions, believing that Secret Santa is only about the presents and seemingly a little over the whole concept. However, she eventually comes around when she receives some silly homemade boots from Carol and sees how much Erica’s baby makes Todd so happy. Moreover, she’s disappointed that her gift to Todd—a prom king outfit—was received unenthusiastically by him and she rediscovers her feelings towards him. It’s a standard Christmas narrative that usually works like gangbusters on me, but because it’s spread a little thing between all the other characters, we don’t really get a great sense of Melissa’s indifference nor her transformation. Her proposal at the end was nice in theory, but didn’t do much for me in practice because it wasn’t well established by the previous twenty minutes. It’s a shame that it’s a little hollow, especially given the rest of the episode was generally charming.
Meanwhile up in space, Mike is still reeling from his depression and nitrous binge. Mike’s adventures in space have far and away been one of my favorite parts of this season, and it’s because the Last Man On Earth team take the emotional beats of Mike’s alienation seriously. The moment when Terry dies is fairly devastating because of how much the show has demonstrated Mike’s relationship with a worm has kept him alive. It’s another small illustration of how much connection with another living thing keeps people going in even the worst of circumstances. It’s only the sight of another worm that convinces Mike not to commit suicide by hurling himself into space. Unfortunately, he’s a little too late.
Overall, “Secret Santa” was a very nice Christmas episode with enough sweet moments to keep it going, but I want to see how they handle the two cliffhangers at the end of the episode—Phil 2.0 keeling over in agony and Mike accidentally being shot into space. I have a lot of faith in The Last Man On Earth team mostly because the high stakes of the series’ premise afford them the opportunity to explore humanity’s importance in relatively small-scale ways, but I’m interested how they deal with the possible loss of two of its characters, one entangled within the ensemble and the other floating far above them. The Last Man On Earth is best in the most despairing of situations, and leading into their fall finale, this seems like their best challenge yet.
- Phil’s struggles with Phil 2.0’s approval didn’t do much for me until the scene when they go to the bar at the end. It’s palpable how much Phil 2.0’s gift means for Phil, and it’s another nice gesture from Phil 2.0. That they sit in silence really sells the moment for me.
- Phil emerging from the Christmas tree was so silly but it worked on me.
- The best Will Forte moment of the episode? His angry clapping while the group sings, “This Little Light Of Mine.”
- Kristen Schaal’s reaction to her present was fantastic and hilarious.
- “Even gorillas don’t have hair on their nipples.” “Yeah, but I bet they wish they did.”
- “Rest in peace, my literal dog. Boom.”
- “Phil, you’re up, and I don’t mean the continent!”
- “My glasses are basically crap-colored.”