I had mixed feelings about the end of last week’s episode of The Last Man On Earth. On the one hand, Mary Steenburgen leading the group of survivors in an accordion rendition of Snow’s “Informer” is basically all I’ve ever asked for in life, and Will Ferrell’s brief life-and-death cameo was both funny and a great way of complicating the impending reunion.

However, on the other hand, the unevenness of season one stemmed from the show’s struggle to balance Phil’s personality with a larger community. The show kept repeating the same pattern over and over again: Phil is entitled and selfish, the community rejects him, Phil “learns his lesson” and then tentatively rejoins the community until they’re reminded he’s still kind of a douche at his core. And so while Phil and Carol’s isolated journey has offered a strong start to the season not dissimilar to the strong start in season one, the return of the other characters has the potential to throw the show off balance again.

“Dead Man Walking” is definitely a slight step down from the previous two episodes, if only because the show’s tone and humor work better in isolation. The more characters that appear in a given episode, the harder it becomes for the show to track their different reactions to what remains a post-apocalyptic hellscape on some level. We never really got any of their stories in season one: they existed as a test of Phil and Carol, the Adam and Eve of the show and its sense of humor. And so when we’re thrown back into this group, and they’ve been living off on their own without that anchor, I don’t entirely know who they are, or how I’m supposed to react to them.

That having been said, the episode uses the reality of the show’s limited supporting character work last season effectively, harnessing the disorienting return as a way of testing Phil and Carol’s respective problem-solving skills. Both Carol and Phil desperately want to be a part of this community. Carol has no regrets about choosing to go with Phil instead of stay in Tucson, but she also made friends in a way that Phil didn’t, and values having friends in a way he’s never been able to. And while Phil was basically thrown out, he legitimately feels bad for what he’s done, and feels like this is his chance to apologize and make amends. The problem is not that they’re unsure of how they feel: rather, it’s that both of them are really, really terrible at communicating that.

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Kristen Schaal gets lots to work with in Carol’s return, stumbling her way through empty remorse for a man she didn’t know, fake grief for a man who’s busy shooting M&Ms out his nose on an RV, and an ill-advised rehabilitation campaign. “Killing” Phil—I’m just going to keep calling him Phil even with the other Phil back, because Phil Miller 2.0 can suck it—is a terrible idea, even worse because it means trying to draft off of Gail’s existing grief over losing Gordon. And yet it’s also so very Carol, allowing her to channel her artistic skills and turn this whole scenario into a twisted episode of Candid Camera.

Beyond giving Schaal a chance to work on her veiled beach wailing (as though she needed any practice), though, the story gives us a chance to see what the former residents of Tucson really think about Phil Miller. And I was struck throughout the episode by how it played with how justified they were in their hatred. On the one hand, I think Phil did some terrible things last season, and I don’t think they’re wrong to hold those against him. However, on the other hand, the way they presume Carol had to have been kidnapped strips her of any agency, and presumes that Phil is fundamentally irredeemable, which seems like a difficult position to take when you’re mourning a mean drunk who you only put up with because he let you live in his palatial mansion with 13 non-functioning bathrooms. They’re not wrong to be angry at Phil, but the way they initially disrespect Carol’s decision rubbed me the wrong way, and made me feel more sympathy toward Phil than I have for a long time.

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And so by the time the story reaches its climax, as Carol announces Phil is still alive at the worst possible moment and Phil slinks away realizing that they want nothing to do with him, I was legitimately rooting for Phil. Will Forte has always done good work as Phil, but there’s a special sadness to his scenes with his different ball friends, and the way it plays alongside Carol’s honest admission to the group about her belief that Phil has changed was very touching. The show has dipped into the emotional well effectively throughout these early episodes, and this felt like a real turning point that could bring everyone together.

And then you remember that this is an offbeat sitcom starring and created by Will Forte, and you should have seen Phil moving from “How can I get them to listen to my apology?” to “I could hold them at gunpoint” faster than Snow spits rhymes coming from a mile away. I almost wish they hadn’t gone to commercial immediately, because there was really no suspense over what was about to happen: Forte’s manic energy is made for a scene like this, and the writing crisply merged the heartfelt emotion of the previous scenes with both the nervous energy of a hostage situation and the comedy of this all being bundled together. It’s a funny scene, but it also never fully loses the edge of danger, making it a wholly unsettling note on which to end a complicated half-hour of comic television.

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“Dead Man Walking” reaffirms that The Last Man On Earth is a better show when it’s not centered exclusively on Phil, once again allowing Carol to play a more central role and expanding its point-of-view accordingly. However, it also acknowledges that the show will always be a struggle over its center: not only is it about Phil and Carol working out the balance of their relationship, but it’s also about understanding where that relationship sits relative to the “community” around them. This episode doesn’t do a lot to isolate any single one of the returning characters, but rather reintroduces them as a jury of Phil’s peers, a role they’ll likely continue to play with Phil locked in medieval stocks at episode’s end, and a role that hopefully the show can reconcile better than it managed last season.

Stray observations:

  • While some shows would use flashbacks to show us what happened to this group between Tucson and Malibu, that doesn’t really seem to be in the cards here. That having been said, Todd and Melissa—the two characters we had the strongest handle on—don’t get a whole lot of time here, and we never see any of the characters interacting alone without Carol or Phil, so we’ll see what emerges in the weeks to come.
  • So, given that Phil and Carol were gone for six months, isn’t a little strange that there’s been no talk of pregnancy? Are there issues with conception, or is that no longer the group’s primary goal? You would think that for Melissa and Erica, this would have been perceived as a priority for the future of humanity.
  • So while Schaal was great here—“That’s my favorite red and white horse shirt!”—I feel like Mary Steenburgen has just been getting some great material. First she’s playing “Informer” on the accordion, and then she’s delivering that monologue about how Gordon was great except for all the ways he was actually a racist chauvinist. Lots of fun.
  • “You’re a regular Brad Garrett today”—I know this is intended as a slam against Brad Garrett, and I’m not against that, but let the record show that Brad Garrett has a good presence in season two of Fargo.
  • “Yet another canyon handstand statistic”—I could just quote Carol lines all night, folks.
  • “Well, you’re in the minority on that—most people remember “Beat It,” or “P.Y.T.!”—see?
  • My thanks to Vikram for letting me fill in—he’ll be back next week.

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