The Last Man on Earth returns with a surprisingly somber episode

Every show from Rectify to The Walking Dead features an episode where a character isolates themselves from the main story line, learning important lessons from guest stars, one-off roles reserved for the best of America’s character actors. What’s surprising about “Pitch Black, The Last Man on Earth‘s first episode of the spring, is not its position as one of those aforementioned ‘reverse bottle’ episodes – it’s how it centers itself around Mike Miller, leaving both Phils and the rest of the Tucson gang in the dark for the entirety of the episode.

Doing so sets the back half of The Last Man‘s second season on an exciting, unpredictable path: how long will we follow Mike’s journey from space, to when he inevitably runs into Phil (the real – and only – Phil Miller left, if the midseason cliffhanger is to hold true)? Of course, this could turn out to be a true one-off and we don’t see Mike again for awhile, but it really opens up Last Man‘s storytelling avenues in intriguing ways moving forward, whether it decides to stick with Mike’s point of view, return to Phil’s next week, or continue bouncing back and forth between the two throughout the season.

Far and away the most striking feature of “Pitch Black”, is how it leans into Pat Brown’s character to fill out the back story of “the virus” a little bit, in turn filling out Mike’s character in interesting ways. He’s got the Miller family optimism in him, that’s for sure: even after Pat brings him to the massively overpopulated “safe havens” the government turned into impromptu mass burial sites, Mike clings onto the hope that Phil (his brother, not the worm) is out there, and alive somewhere. Three years in space will mess with a man’s brain (how much? We may know a bit more ourselves, thanks to Scott Kelly’s return from his year in space), and Mike’s clearly still trying to wrap his head around the end of the world – a wonderful juxtaposition noted by Last Man, contrasting moments like Mike crying over the feeling of solid land beneath his feet with those of him standing in a haz mat suit, staring at hundreds of dead bodies overlaid by Pat’s panicking face.

“Pitch Black” does linger a little too long on its humorous bits to be as effective as the series’ first two episodes: the riffing between Mark Boone Junior and Jason Sudeikis is entertaining and all, but it only goes so far in empathizing Pat’s difficulties with living on land anymore. His paranoia is self-constructed, rather than informed by experiences we see or truths he conveys to Mike: his fears seem entirely internal, and since Last Man is more interested in Mike than Pat, his character doesn’t quite propel the tragic arc of the episode enough to carry it emotionally. A bit of a nitpick, yes, but there’s a certain thinness to Pat’s character that both helps propel this episode forward, and ultimately holds it back as Pat and Mike struggle to find a moment of connection between each other.

Taken as a whole, however, and the purpose of “Pitch Black” is obvious – and Last Man on Earth makes a compelling story out of it, despite all the head trauma Mike endures as part of the plot. Mike’s short time with Pat offers a microcosm of what society became over time, perhaps for the first time in the series: for all intents and purposes, Pat “lived” through the apocalypse in very different ways than Phil Thandy Miller and crew did, and thus feels like a character with a completely different set of emotional scars for Last Man to explore. Considering this is an episode about Mike beginning the journey to find his family, I’m not quite sure “Pitch Black” wanted us to buy so far into the Pat character – yet somehow, it all coalesces into a fine return for the show, offering a welcome departure from its typical formula for a touching (if formulaic) story about a man driven crazy by the “new world”, losing his grip on reality while another grasps desperately for it. The Last Man on Earth is back and firing on all cylinders – and none of the main cast have even appeared on screen yet, only raising the bar higher for the episode(s) to follow.

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