The Last Bro on Earth: Masculinity in the Postapocalyptic WastelandFox
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 980,263 people live in the Tucson metropolitan area. The city itself is 227 square miles. There’s an airport, a streetcar system that serves a bustling downtown area, and various natural and man-made attractions. It even has a biosphere that opened in 1991 — a completely closed environmental system that includes a wetlands and a coral reef.
The Tucson that’s home to Phil Tandy Miller on The Last Man on Earth is significantly more claustrophobic and far less hospitable to human beings. The limited budgets that television (even broadcast television) must operate under dictate that the viewer doesn’t see much more of Last Man’s setting than a few McMansions, a bar, and a handful of strip malls. Don’t let anyone tell you that’s all there is to see in Tucson. There’s a folk festival! And a racetrack! Did I mention the biosphere?
The lack of places to run off to lends The Last Man on Earth a sense of heightened desperation. The unspoken terror of Last Man is not zombies, radioactive coyotes, or even a leisurely demise by hunger — it’s loneliness. Even if Phil hightailed it to the University of Arizona dorms and helped himself to whatever freeze-dried slop was left in the cafeteria kitchen, he’d slowly go mad reading the same “dangers of STDs” pamphlet 50 times. What really scares Phil is what scares every selfish American male of a certain age: that he will die alone having lived a life only for himself. That existential crisis carries an extra bit of poignancy when there are only six other people left on the planet.
There must be something comforting about imagining the end of the world. Just look at the sheer volume of popular entertainment that dramatizes the end of the human race, either through the exhilarating ball of flame popularized by the likes of George Pal and Roland Emmerich or “survivor” narratives like A Boy and His Dog and The Road. Doomsday fantasies remind us that even though we’ll be dead sooner than we think, the entire planet is going to suffer the same miserable fate too. Not only are we all in this together, it’s also going to get appreciably worse for the poor bastards left behind to sweep up the mess. We’re actually better off making an early exit.
Apocalyptic films are usually macho affairs — masculine stories featuring stoic antiheroes, hubristic or myopic villains, and the traditional damsel-in-distress story line. The brutal assault of Max Rockatansky’s wife by a roving gang leads him over the edge and sends him off on the journey of revenge and regret that comprises the Mad Max series. Sometimes, that dynamic is subverted, as in A Boy and His Dog, where the protagonist feeds the female lead to man’s best friend — with whom he also happens to be telepathically connected — in a pitch-black satire of sexual politics and story conventions. Films like that are an outlier in a genre filled with troubled men who can be softened only by “women in trouble.”
In the Mad Max sequels (and the upcoming Fury Road), Max’s sulking is interrupted when his basic decency demands he defend a helpless group of fellow survivors (always women and children, always more optimistic than he is) against a band of sadists and mutants.
Phil Miller isn’t a rapist, a murderer, or a mutant,1 but he certainly doesn’t have much in the way of social graces. When we first meet Phil, he’s getting day-drunk (and night-drunk) and shitting in a pool. When he’s not enjoying those two pastimes, he’s blowing up potentially valuable resources and masturbating without consequence — a.k.a. the ultimate fantasy life of the average bachelor. The only thing missing from his idyllic existence is a Domino’s that delivers pizza (and pornography) 24/7.
The Phil Miller we meet in the pilot is the final form of the archetypal Judd Apatow protagonist. He’s what Seth Rogen in Knocked Up would do if freed from the responsibility of adulthood. Apatow, and his spiritual progenitor Kevin Smith, made their careers by putting a menagerie of stunted men through crises that force them to reexamine their choice to remain in a type of adolescence — whether that’s being a middle-aged virgin, a convenience store clerk, or a hugely successful stand-up comedian. The transformation from slacker to engaged grown-up is usually triggered by one thing: a woman beseeching them to cut the crap.
Sometimes, like in Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl, actual children or pregnancies are involved in this delayed maturation. The same is true of the post-apocalypse genre. In The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Max has to drop the pretense of not caring and eating dog food when women and children interrupt his pitiful existence in the wasteland. The plot of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld hinges on a mother and daughter who convince a man content to drink purified water made from his own pee and sell trash for a living to save the world. These stories assume the paternal instinct is stronger than the natural inclination to spend life alone. The Last Man on Earth plays this out over the course of a season. Being drunk all the time and setting things on fire loses its luster for Phil. He’s living in filth and has resorted to flirting with a store mannequin. Left with the idea of spending the rest of his days alone, he decides to make a drastic change. Just as he’s about to kill himself, Kristen Schaal’s Carol Pilbasian appears to rescue him from his predicament.
For the first time, but not the last, Phil’s prayers are answered. I like to pretend that in his backstory, there’s an incident in which Phil wishes he could be left alone to do as he pleases the day before a virus swept everyone else off the planet. His paradise is lost pretty swiftly, as he learns that Carol expects more of him than just a few quick ugly bumps in the middle of the night. She wants to be made an honest woman. She expects romance. She thinks Phil shouldn’t shit in a pool or masturbate himself raw. In short, she’s an adult; a slightly annoying adult, but an adult nonetheless. She makes him stop at stop signs and refrain from parking in handicap spots, despite the very evident lack of other people on the planet.
To Phil, it’s a given that, in the absence governments, authority figures, or laws, he can do whatever the hell he wants whenever he wants. Carol doggedly clings to the old world’s systems of order in the face of the ultimate cataclysm. In that sense, Phil is the classic postapocalyptic hero: eager to cast off the shackles of a failed society and embrace his toxic id. Sure, he’s not maiming anyone or tying dudes to dog collars, but he could if he really wanted to.
It’s a form of adolescent power fantasy to imagine oneself to be the last man on earth. There’s no one left to struggle with, not a single soul remaining to tell you that you’re just not good enough. Phil might have to abide by traffic laws when Carol’s around, but at least he can call himself president of the United States without being challenged. All it takes to ruin Phil’s life again is for more people to show up, and they do with startling regularity in Last Man’s frustrating second act.
As more survivors squeeze into the narrative, Phil’s mental state gets progressively worse. January Jones’s Melissa Shart unleashes his perpetual horniness. Todd’s burgeoning romance with Melissa turns Phil’s behavior from mildly narcissistic to borderline sociopathic. Finally, Phil 2 punctures his ego and renders him redundant. The show just about lost me when Phil was plotting to strand poor, sad Todd in the middle of the desert just so he could have sex with Melissa. A protagonist that self-involved works just fine in the context of a sitcom set in a paper company or late-night talk show, but the end of days is less of a natural setting for comedy. Every second Phil isn’t pumping little Miller-Pilbasians out with Carol is a point against the cause of the human race. It becomes near impossible to sympathize with someone who focuses solely on where to put his penis, but consensus opinion is that that’s all men care about anyway.
That can be a highly unpleasant basis for a network sitcom, which almost explains Fox’s odd choice to air new editions of Last Man back-to-back during this middle period, as though it were burning off a failed series. The show has been a ratings success and was picked up for a second season, but I can see the rationale behind getting past the most depressing half-hours of the show’s run as quickly as possible. There’s something inherently sour about the initial episodes featuring Todd that make you want to look away in horror.
But analyzing this show through the lens of Phil’s likability prevents the viewer from seeing Last Man for what it really is: an allegory for humanity’s grand shortcomings.
We’re all so satisfied to enjoy ourselves that we can’t quite see the calamity just up the road — the water evaporating, the fossil fuels being used up, the oceans rising, and our neighbors running out of food. Ignoring the second-season pickup, The Last Man on Earth tells a complete story, one of a man who comes to accept that he needs other people and has to give in order to receive. All Carol ever wanted was a gesture of genuine affection from him, but Phil wanted to be loved by everyone, even if he doesn’t love those people back. He casually divorces Carol so he can have the chance to sleep with two sexually frustrated survivors who show up in Tucson looking to hop into bed with any eligible male suitor. When Carol moves on with hunky Phil 2, Phil (now rechristened Tandy) begins to seethe with jealousy, even though Carol annoys the hell out of him for the rest of the season. It isn’t until he sings a gentle, heartfelt, yet shabby song he wrote for her while holed up in his mansion that she gets that sliver of genuine sentiment she was waiting for. Until that point, Phil’s only responses to stimulus were desire and jealousy.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve searched for an ex-girlfriend on Facebook just to make sure she hasn’t replaced me with a smarter, more successful, sexier version of me. If she hasn’t, I can lie back on my couch and ponder all the ways in which my life has improved since we parted ways. If she has, then my next move is to cry and silently wish there were a 24/7 Domino’s that delivered pizza and pornography. The Last Man on Earth can be devastating to watch at times, because it lays bare so many nightmares for the modern “bro.” What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not strong enough? What if no one wants to have sex with me? What if the only person who wants to have sex with me demands I make my bed and trim my nose hair?
These anxieties lead to the primacy of accumulating toys, trinkets, and sexual partners to silence the nagging feeling of inadequacy. Over on Mad Men, Don Draper is suffering the consequences associated with such a life. He never truly cared for anyone but himself, and now he’s totally alone, driving through the America he so eloquently described in countless ad campaigns. Don isn’t too far removed from Max, cruising through the infinite abyss with no particular destination in mind. In the season finale of The Last Man on Earth, Phil Miller escaped the void and learned to see the virtue in Carol’s traditional, ordered, mundane life — the very thing the archetypal bro is running from at the start of every Apatow or Smith comedy.
The finale, titled “Screw the Moon” after a lyric from Phil’s song, ends (spoilers ahead) with the two mismatched lovers reconnecting in the middle of the desert. Carol has decided they’re meant for each other, and suggests they leave Tucson to start over. A pullback into space reveals that Phil’s brother, played by Will Forte’s fellow SNL alum Jason Sudeikis, is stranded on the International Space Station. The addition of a family member for Phil will surely lead to yet another bout of self-hatred and ego bruising. I’d certainly have developed a complex if my brother were an astronaut and I were stuck in a less glamorous, more terrestrial profession. Even in the twilight of the human race, the one thing you can’t run from is yourself. Like those of us out here in the pre-apocalypse, our greatest enemy is the voice in our head telling us we just don’t cut it.