Few shows nail their premieres and their finales (even midseason finales) with such aplomb as Fox’s weird and occasionally wonderful The Last Man on Earth. Though she show meandered and lost its way through Season 1, it pulled things around for Season 2, which was by no means perfect, but dealt with its expanded world much better than before. After resetting its premise of Phil Miller (Will Forte) as a man alone in the world after a virus wiped almost everyone else out (and his personality made him a pariah among the survivors), The Last Man on Earth added back its other cast members in a way that felt far more natural than before.
In one great gag to kick off Season 2, Carol (Kristen Schaal) jumped out to greet her erstwhile crew, only to scare a new member, Gordon (Will Ferrell) literally to death. Gordon, it was revealed, was Gail’s (Mary Steenburgen) lover, and for the rest of the season, Gail dealt poorly with his death, even using a CPR dummy as his replacement and physical companion.
Steenburgen has appeared on TV in several unexpected places this year, including as a conniving witch on Justified, a confused and earnest mother on Orange Is the New Black, and as a hippie aunt in Lifetime’s bizarre Jim Henson movie Turkey Hollow. But nowhere has she been more magnetic and nuanced than on The Last Man on Earth. Though initially the show didn’t seem to know what to do with her, Gail has become a focal point in the season’s latest episodes, which culminated with a surgery she was forced to perform on Phil 2 (Boris Kodjoe) in “Silent Night.”
“Silent Night” was the nexus of a lot of things for Gail, including Phil and Todd (Mel Rodriguez) digging up Gordon’s body for her to use to practice on (which luckily, didn’t manifest). Gail had also been having an affair of sorts with Todd, who became her surgical nurse, but most pressingly, Gail has become the group’s default doctor. As a restaurant owner and chef, Gail was terrified at the idea of actually having to perform surgery (rightfully so), but was left without a choice.
In “Silent Night,” Steenburgen was firing on all cylinders. With Todd she was soft and kind (which is how she also is with Cleopatra Coleman’s Erica), and with Phil she’s cold, sharp, and dismissive, often all in the same scene. She also radiates Gail’s beleaguered nature at losing Gordon, drinking constantly and unable to seemingly find purpose. Todd reignites some of that in her, and her gleeful nature in being around him makes her seem almost girlish.
The Last Man on Earth allows Steenburgen to use her natural, Southern-lilted cadence that evokes such sweetness and warmth when she speaks. But lately she’s been putting a harder edge on it, like when she chastises Phil or tells Carol to knock it off with the Christmas overkill. And somehow, it only added and augmented her frantic pleas of distress when Phil 2’s vitals started slipping away during the surgery, as he bled out on the table. Her intensity and fear and half-crazed desire to believe something could still be done was difficult to experience, and utterly heartbreaking.
It was the end of what had been — even in a short, half-hour episode — a journey for Gail to get from a straight refusal to actually making the first cut. Steenburgen portrayed a specific kind of confidence and vulnerability in Gail, who took a drink to steady herself, and demanded Pop Tart after Pop Tart to slice into, doggedly hopeful that she could perform the task on Phil 2. By the time she got to a real surgical practice dummy, she was actually smiling over the prospect of being able to pull this off. That all deteriorated, of course, once the procedure began. The episode cutting off right in the midst of Gail’s denials and desperation to keep Phil 2 alive was also traumatizing.
The Last Man on Earth has struggled since the start in knowing how to incorporate its ever-expanding cast, particularly Gail and Erica. But seeing Steenburgen finally getting to play a meatier role on the show and really use her abilities to explore all of Gail’s many moods and struggles has been wonderful to watch, and has also helped elevate the show overall. And now, more than ever, it’s hard to wait for the show to come back.
The Last Man on Earth will return to Fox in the spring; you can check out other TV Performers of the Week here.