Mary Steenburgen, Mel Rodriguez (Image: Fox)

One of the things The Last Man On Earth never dealt with in its first two seasons with is the idea of an outside threat. The virus took care of most any other human or animal that could pose a physical danger to the Malibu crew, and while resources are finite there’s still enough of them around that starvation is far off on the horizon. Any threats to the group are threats that come from within, the potential for them to tear each other apart with interpersonal conflicts and misguided intentions. So when a real threat emerges, as it does in “The Wild Guess Express,” it understandably drives them crazy—and yet somehow also draws them even closer together.

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The action picks up right after the end of “General Breast Theme With Cobras,” the group driving away from the house in a panic and eventually coming to rest at a mansion belonging to none other than Cher. It makes sense for budgetary reasons why the crew rarely leaves their Malibu house, but with a wide world emptied by the virus there’s no logical reason we can’t see them explore the greater California area, and it’s fun to see them temporarily in a new environment. True, it’s just a new Malibu house, but this one has all new furnishings and awards to break for weapons and fancy clothes to play around with. And of course, the delightfully macabre experience of finding the body of the Queen of Camp herself. (Carol: “She still looks radiant.”)

Of course, the reason for their departure is still back at the old house, and Phil volunteers to check things out—with a little help from some U.S. Marines and MMA fighters he ran into down the road, portrayed in a series of increasingly unconvincing voices. As we’ve learned since the beginning of the series, Will Forte acting with inanimate objects is never not fun to witness, and he gets some great pantomime comedy out of his makeshift single-file march to affirm if Pat’s alive or dead. (Removing the hat from one dummy to show respect is a particular highlight.) The latter is confirmed, he offers his one-time friend a proper burial by way of the trash pile, and it looks like everything’s going to get back to normal.

Some things however aren’t allowed to go back to normal. Last week Phil could be flippant about how half the group has murdered someone, but the reality of the situation lands far harder on poor Todd, distinguished ever since his first appearance as a sweet, good-natured guy. Adding “murderer” to that list of character traits is a rough fusion, leading to some excellent hysterical crying from Mel Rodriguez and some awkward comforting from Forte. Going back to their bacon bonding in “Crickets,” we know that there’s a genuine friendship that’s bloomed between Todd and Phil, so it’s good to see the latter try to do the right thing and keep his friend’s spirits up.

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But while Phil’s grown considerably as a person since the start of The Last Man On Earth, his go-to reaction still remains doing the wrong thing, and he tells a little white lie to Todd that Pat survived the accident. It’s a farce that’s predictable on its face, but writer Andy Bobrow keeps it fresh by making the farce so distinctively Phil, the white lie becoming bloody red as his commitment to it leads to staging a crime scene at the Malibu house—one staged in a very Tandy way, littered with “clues” that allow him to seem clever by providing an exact timeframe of when “Pat” was last in the house. And when his lie to Todd collides with the truth he told the group, the end result is another masterful piece of work from Forte as he tries to balance them, saying one thing and then immediately turning his head to say another until he has a human 404 error and shorts out into desperate stammering.

To Phil’s credit, once everything falls apart and he’s got the group ready for attack his first instinct is to come clean to his wife. Phil and Carol’s marriage, for all its bizarre origins and mad ups and downs, continues to secure itself as one of the better marriages on television, and Bobrow embraces that for the “The Wild Guess Express’s” third act. Phil’s absorbed Carol’s constant desire to do the right thing, and Carol’s absorbed Phil’s penchant for dramatic gestures, the two merging into yet another farce that will absolve Todd of his guilt and make the group feel safe. Said farce perfectly pairs Kristen Schaal’s excited recounting and Forte’s manic physicality as they try to convince the group that a mannequin is Pat, and Phil’s saving them all in a fight culminating in hacksaw decapitation. (Carol periodically yells “The baby!” in an effort to up the stakes of the conflict.)

Lewis, however, isn’t buying it. It’s been a while since we’ve had to deal with Phil introducing himself to an outsider, and Lewis reacts to him in all the ways you’d expect: annoyance at the wounded way he acts when corrected, frustrated in his efforts to control the group, and outright angry at his shenanigans. It’s not clear if Lewis is a short-term addition to the narrative or here to stay, but his genuine anger as opposed to the jaded reactions of the others is a different flavor, and one that gets something more genuine out of Phil than his usual remorse at his plans not working out. (Forte’s quivering lip when Lewis calls him on his shit is every bit as good as all his comedic beats.)

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But in judging Phil, Lewis is surprisingly in the minority. Gail reaffirms herself as the best when she shushes Lewis’s complaints (“Just let it play out. I like to see where these things go”) and Erica and Melissa’s immediate reactions are less rage than weary resignation. And once the truth comes out, the focus shifts immediately from the lies to Todd’s newfound devastation, Phil admitting his genuinely good intentions, and a group hug that Lewis can only regard with confusion. Much has been made in these reviews of the way The Last Man On Earth came together as an ensemble comedy, and this moment is the one that affirms a near-universal truth of those comedies (i.e. Cougar Town, Community, Happy Endings): that your core group can come across as insane to anyone not in it. Phil will no doubt do many dumb things in episodes to come, but the days of doing them for self-centered reasons are in the past, and as much as he may annoy the rest of the group they understand where he’s coming from.

And that unity may prove to be important, as they return home to discover that Pat’s boat—and his body—aren’t where they left it. “The Wild Guess Express” spends the bulk of its running time keeping its cast in the dark about what happened to Pat, and pulls a neat trick at the end by making the viewers equally unaware of where he is and just what his intentions are. The Last Man On Earth introduced a serious threat to the group this season, and it looks like that threat is in no danger of being taken out with the trash.

Stray observations:

  • Big thanks to Vikram for letting me sub in on one of my favorite comedies! He, or a soccer ball with his face drawn on it, will be back next week.
  • Speaking of drawings, the best sight gag this episode has to be Phil’s recreation of Pat’s vengeance jeans, which feature a poorly drawn Pat stabbing Todd with the speech bubble of “Thanks a lot he said sarcastically!”
  • So much time is spent on Todd’s reaction to killing someone that Melissa’s reactions almost fly under the radar, but the feeling that there’s something dangerous simmering in the latter comes across loud and clear. She’s back to her old behavior of destroying things (in this case Cher’s vases with Cher’s bocce balls from Cher’s tree), volunteers to go back and finish Pat off without batting an eye, and “reassures” Melissa that she can turn it on and off like a faucet.
  • I hope Phil never grows his eyebrows back, because those fake ones remain comedic gold.
  • “Oh yeah, a lot of people pull through situations where their intestines shoot through their butts.”
  • “I told them what they needed to hear! You know I do that from time to time.”
  • “I mean, you blew it on many, many levels, but your intentions were beyond heroic.”
  • “I’m pretty sure Pat’s body’s not made of foam.” “We don’t know everything about everyone.”
  • “Tandy, did you take a dump in the…” “Yeah.”

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