“Baby Steps” is not only a fitting name for this week’s episode of The Last Man on Earth, but the second season as a whole. Season 2 has been about two things: rebuilding Phil Miller as a human being, and taking the time to build out the other characters from the Tucson crew, in order to create a show that doesn’t have to completely revolve around Phil, and occasionally Carol. “Baby Steps” is a definitive marker of that process, capturing what’s worked (and what hasn’t) about these new dynamics in a particularly tight, funny episode of Last Man on Earth.
In the wake of Phil 2.0’s speech and Erica’s subsequent announcement, “Baby Steps” surprisingly focuses little on Erica (still the most disappointing aspect of the show, even when her character is a little more central to the proceedings), instead diverting its attention to Phil and Phil 2.0’s relationship, centered around Thandy’s attempts to get Phil 2.0 to like him again in order to get him to listen to him about how to repair his relationship with the group. As the group has slowly warmed up to Thandy – and by that, I mean slowly – Phil finds himself in a favorable position to someone else for once, one that he can exploit a lot further than Todd’s hidden bacon, which really only caused a rift between Todd and Melissa (more on that in a moment).
Instead, O.G. Phil takes the advice he gave others, and forgives Phil 2.0, ultimately saving him from a suicide attempt, and locking him in the stocks so he can “D the T” like everyone else, and get back to minimum respectability. As light as this is played, this is a really big turn for our protagonist, but smartly one that’s not played with a heavy, knowing hand. Phil’s sudden display of empathy is new for his character, an unexpected trait that goes against the grain of the show’s normal formula to pursue cringe humor at its best. Original Phil’s behavior in “Baby Steps” moves away from the grating awkwardness of previous episodes into something with a little more pathos, trying to convince the others to change through his own behavior rather than waste his time attempting to persuade others there’s a path to redemption for Phil, who just confessed his love to Carol (who was really considering leaving with him, if we’re all being honest) and insulted the mother of his child.
Now, the arc of the episode happens a little quick: it’s only 24 hours between Erica’s announcement and Phil’s attempted suicide, which is a little drastic for a show like Last Man on Earth, which relies on the slow burn of its most awkward turns and moments for most of its humor and pathos. But that heightened sense of drama helps bring some color and immediacy to other conflicts around the mansion, like Gail’s growing loneliness or Todd and Melissa’s conflict about childbearing, brought to a head when Thandy spills him and Melissa were going to have a child together (if Thandy hadn’t already been married and tried to convince Melissa otherwise, of course). “Baby Steps” is an episode designed around the mutual regret everyone feels for each other, and uses the heightened drama of Phil and Erica’s loud, angry conflict to accelerate them. Whether it’s Carol’s desire to have children, or Todd’s resignation about his relationship with Melissa (which seems to be failing because she has the flattest personality ever), “Baby Steps” goes out of its way to establish these conflicts are more immediate, pressing concerns, threads I fully expect the back half of Season 2 to pick up on.
The continued growth of The Last Man on Earth has been something to watch this fall. While the show hasn’t really changed its comedic formula at all, how it approaches these portrayals comes from a completely different place. The humor is not that these people are all terrible, all the time; it’s that, like most humans, they fall victim to their worst habits and traits despite their best attempts to resist them. Without the crutches of technology or society to help soften the blow of that eventual failure to ‘be better,’ it’s easy for those flaws and mistakes to become magnified. “Baby Steps,” in a very quiet way, captures that quite effectively, giving some needed breadth to another story of a Phil being shunned by the group.
[Photo credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOX]
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