For a show that’s as much about death as it is about community and margarita pools, The Last Man On Earth rarely addresses the concept head-on. It’s mostly understandable given that it’s still a half-hour sitcom that prominently features Will Forte acting like a goofball. However, the series doesn’t really let you forget about it either, even if the series reminds you in unadorned shots of desolate landscapes or in conversations about forthcoming children. The Malibu gang isn’t made up of just regular people, but also survivors. Most people were not lucky enough to survive the virus, which means that every one of these characters has loved ones they’re grieving over. It may not always be the center of conversation, but it’s nevertheless a reality for everyone.
“The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths” tackles the characters’ grief with nuance and grace. It doesn’t proffer any solutions or tidy answers in the face of pain, but instead just depicts its characters in pain. Though The Last Man On Earth doesn’t adopt a funereal tone on a weekly basis, everyone from Tandy to Gail has suffered a great deal and there’s no reason to pretend they aren’t still reeling from a massive trauma. This episode embraces grief in all of its messiness and the results are moving.
However, before the episode settles into a more somber groove, it first features Tandy and Carol arguably at their most grating, and that’s saying quite a bit given their shared series history. It opens with Tandy trying to apologize to Lewis for accusing him of sabotaging the building with a song. Lewis isn’t appreciative of Tandy’s antics on a good, but he’s especially in no mood for them given that it’s his anniversary with his partner Mark. Energized by this news, Tandy immediately tries to get Lewis to travel to Seattle so he can see if Mark returned home from Tokyo. Of course, Lewis wants nothing to do with it, so Tandy tases him, throws him into a cop car, and starts heading for Lewis’ old home.
In a similar, parallel story, Carol desperately wants Gail to be her child’s grandmother, but Gail wants nothing to do with it. After harassing her for a couple scenes, Gail finally relents and says that Carol’s child can treat her like a grandma if that makes her happy. However, Carol goes even further and demands that Gail sign adoption paper so she can legally become Gail’s daughter. Appalled and befuddled, Gail absolutely refuses leading to a rift between the two.
The first half of “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths” is a little rough around the edges given that it requires the audience to have some patience with the annoying antics and the obnoxious behavior. It’s not that the behavior isn’t in line with the characters, it’s that it reads especially oblivious given the reactions of Tandy and Carol’s targets. However, credited writer Liz Cackowski purposefully stacks the deck against the show’s main couple for them to eventually expand on the reasoning of their behavior. It’s a risky gambit, but it ultimately pays off in the second half of the episode when the episode turns melancholic.
When Tandy finally arrives in Seattle, Lewis finds himself emotionally overwhelmed by the sight of his old house. Tandy desperately wants Lewis to leave a note saying that he’s alive just in case Mark returns to the house despite Lewis’ insistence that Mark has long since died. After a tense scene in which Lewis opens a bottle of champagne that he was supposed to share with Mark, Tandy finally caves and tells him the story of his suicide attempt and how the only thing that brought him to Carol were the signs that he left all over the country, which he was sure that no one would ever see. Forte plays the moment very well, keeping his voice steady and his face down, conveying both his inner turmoil as well as his relief and gratitude. Moved by Tandy’s words, Lewis agrees to leave a note on the door before they leave.
Meanwhile, Gail tries to apologize to Carol for her actions, but remains adamant that she won’t sign the adoption papers. Carol throws a tantrum and demands to know why until Gail comes out and says that she had a son who died and doesn’t want to be a mother again. Feeling guilty, Carol apologizes to Gail, saying that she never would have brought up the papers if she knew about her past. She admits that she only forced the issue because she misses her own mother and views Gail as a maternal figure. Though still upset and reeling from her own grief, Gail reciprocates Carol’s feelings and begrudgingly says that she will sign the papers. Mary Steenburgen gives a stellar performance in this episode as someone who’s very much frustrated by the tenor of her company. She numbs the pain with booze and keeps her distance from the gang, but clearly struggles alone. Here, she’s allowed to convey some pain without betraying the relative stoicism of the character.
But “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths” ends on a devastating note as Tandy realizes on the drive back home that he never actually witnessed his brother Mike’s death. He makes a beeline to his old house and slowly makes his way inside, taking in the memories of his past life and the time he spent with his brother. But when he’s face to face with Mike’s bedroom door, Tandy can’t go in. Maybe it would be too painful to actually see his dead brother. Maybe he wants to keep a flicker of hope alive that he’s still alive, even if it’s entirely farfetched. Regardless, Tandy leaves a note on his bedroom door, takes back Gary the beach ball from the living room, and leaves the house without any closure. It’s impressive that The Last Man On Earth accepts that sometimes wounds will never fully heal, and that sometimes loose ends aren’t ever really tied.
- The single funniest scene of the episode is also the one most divorced from the two plots. Worried about her mental state, Todd checks up on Melissa who has recently expressed interest in having a baby with him. He finds her trying to perform The Shawshank Redemption roleplay, with Melissa as Andy, originally played by Tim Robbins, and Mel Rodriguez as Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Two great details: 1. Rodriguez’s deep breath before he reluctantly adopts a Freeman accent for his character, and 2. Melissa’s Rita Hayworth poster that hides a hole in the wall.
- Two other funny moments in the episode: The shot of Tandy tasing Lewis, if only for the shock value, and Carol’s sexy grandmother drawings, especially her line, “Goldie Hawn! I bet she goes OVERBOARD showering her grandchildren with gifts!”