Sunday, May 8, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Last Man on Earth' - Tension Rises Between Phil and the Group Over Mike in 'Smart and Stupid'

FOX's The Last Man on Earth - Episode 2.17 "Smart and Stupid"

Todd feels left out, as Phil warms to having his big brother back on Earth. Mike learns more about Erica than the group has ever uncovered about her.

The Last Man on Earth hasn't always been very forthcoming with details about the virus that wiped out most of humanity. It hasn't needed to either. Over its first two seasons, the show has primarily been about Phil and the rest of the gang learning how to survive in this changed world. They are all immune to the virus. Now, they have to figure out how to continue living. It was a lonely and traumatic existence. But then, they found each other and have formed a really strong community. They are forming the first building block to re-starting civilization. The virus is always a concern for them. They understand how it killed so many people. They know what the signs of the virus are. But there hasn't been a need to truly clarify those details for the audience. But now, the show has to embrace that uncertainty as it heads into its final two episodes of the season.

Mike stayed up in space for so long because he didn't know anything about the world he would be returning to. He knows about the virus as much as the audience does. He doesn't know the signs that it has started and he only has a little amount of time left. He knows some of the side effects. Through interactions with other people, the audience has learned that it causes bodily fluids to leak out of every hole in the human body and then be accompanied by a horrifying rash. And yet, Mike still chose to return to Earth because he could no longer live in space and he needed definitive answers about what happened to his family. Instead, he found a community of survivors where his own brother, Phil, was alive and well. Mike has been a fantastic addition to the group over the last few episodes. His dynamic with Phil is filled with so much dramatic and emotional tension. That continues to fuel so much of the storytelling in "Smart and Stupid."

At first glance, it seems like this episode is going to just continue the divide between Phil and Todd while also starting a romantic dynamic between Mike and Erica. The inclusion of both of those stories makes a lot of sense. Mike's presence has changed how Phil interacts with the rest of the group. He is happy that Carol is finally pregnant and that it's his baby. But his embracing of Mike has pushed Todd away a little bit. That's huge. Todd was the first person to welcome Phil into the Malibu society. Phil and Todd have a genuine relationship. And now, all of that is being ruined because Phil would rather spend time with his actual brother. It's a story that builds and builds in many strong comedic ways. Todd lashing out at Phil for giving Mike the last of the bacon is fantastic. To Todd, it feels like the rest of the group is making decisions without him even though he just exerted his dominance a little bit ago. It no longer feels like Phil takes Todd's feelings seriously. This dynamic has been really good for both of them. But now, it's at risk of unraveling apart due to a trivial breakdown of communication.

Meanwhile, Mike is having no trouble forging new relationships with the other members of the group. Putting Mike and Erica together romantically seems like a very formulaic and inevitable thing for the show to do. It loves matching characters up in romantic ways. Here, the two of them even address that they are only interested in each other because they are the only two single people in this community. Despite that though, their dynamic is still sweet and playful. However, it also suffers from Erica being the weakest character on the show. She really hasn't been defined by a whole lot. Her personality is still being developed - which is so weird and problematic at this stage of the series. A lot of stuff has happened to her but she hasn't really done a lot of things herself. The show tries to address that here with a rather weak explanation of the rest of the group just not wanting to dig deeper into her past beyond her being Australian. Mike gets some of those answers which reveal a much darker side to Erica. She's actually a criminal who did some manipulative things in both Australia and the United States. And yet, all of this blossoming dynamic is quickly undercut by a devastating twist with Mike.

This episode truly perks up once Mike starts coughing up blood and everyone is worried that he has the virus. Again, they understand what that means. They need to take this very seriously because they can't let anything destroy the little piece of civilization they have formed in this world. It forces all of them to make some harsh decisions regarding Mike. They are willing to alienate him and push him away just to ensure he doesn't destroy their happiness. It's a harsh and sudden turn. It's also one that Phil doesn't want to take so seriously. He fully believes that Mike just has a cold. He needs to believe that. He just got his brother back after believing that he died from the virus. He just can't accept that he may have to say goodbye to Mike all over again. He refuses to believe that is what's happening. The show also leaves it very vague as to whether or not Mike has the virus. Sure, coughing up blood is a sign of a serious condition. But the threat of potential death and destruction informs the character's actions in several alarming but compelling ways.

Mike is quarantined to a bubble while the rest of the survivors where hazmat suits. It's all to prevent anything serious from happening. But the group can't just continue to act like nothing is happening. They try doing that. They play games in the living room. And yet, the virus still informs so much of what they do. They literally can't get it out of their heads. The world changed around them and it still is too. They were so happy when they found the cow and when Mike joined the group. But now, the cow has died of unknown causes and Mike is showing some of the virus' symptoms. No matter how much they've enjoyed having Mike as a part of this community, they still abandon him in what could be his biggest time of need. It's an action of self-preservation. They are immune to the virus but they don't want to risk anything happening. They need to take this seriously. Sure, their argument is largely based around the uncertainty of Erica and Carol's babies also being immune. That's where the show struggles a little bit in defining the mechanics of the virus. Is it an airborne disease? If it is, wouldn't that place the babies in danger the moment they are born? But the survivors don't want to think about that. They just want Mike out of their lives before he infects everything they have made for themselves.

Phil is the only one to stand by Mike in the end. He doesn't want to send him away because it's a miracle that they were reunited in the first place. He needs his brother in his life. That has to have purpose. He can't bear to say goodbye again after only being with Mike for two weeks. It's a heartbreaking and devastating note to end the episode on. Phil is there for Mike but Mike also wants to take control of his situation as well. He recognizes that this is serious. He knows how it will wreak Phil. The two are able to share a sweet and moving moment together. The two of them singing "Falling Slowly" has so much importance now. It is the anthem of their dynamic. But now, that relationship has changed. It will never be the same. Mike leaves so Phil doesn't have to say goodbye. And yet, it's hard to imagine Phil letting that be it so easily - especially considering next week is the season finale.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Smart and Stupid" was written by Emily Spivey and directed by Payman Benz.
  • The drone showing up at the end of last week's episode was a very effective tease of a twist that's about to come. But now, it's being played as a mystery. Did Gail really see it and just couldn't describe it to the group? Or was she hallucinating it because of her drinking problem?
  • Which of Gail's descriptions of the done was your favorite: A flying record player? Flying skillets? Two hovering griddles? Or floating hair dryers?
  • How long is Phil going to be sporting that hair style? Mike did it to him as a joke. And yet, Phil has kept it to keep his brother from getting the last laugh. But now, they are in a good place and he is still wearing it. With Mike gone, Phil may have it for awhile.
  • So, Erica did some time in an Australian prison for armed robbery. And then, she came to the United States and got a job at the State Department by pretending to be someone else. That's an amusing and horrifying detail about her past. But it also feels like too little too late.
  • Carol's new shirt declaring that she has a "bun in the oven" is pretty great.
  • Carol: "Wait for me! It takes longer for me to get up nowadays. Already on the second trimester of my first week."