The Last Man on Earth’s mid-season finale is a tonal mixed bag. Ultimately that’s to its benefit: The last two episodes have been so middle-of-the-road that takes route in 2/3 of this episode is a welcome switch-up. While it isn’t quite as satisfying or interesting as the second season’s midyear episode was, it’s a good one for where the show has gone in season three.
“If You’re Happy And You Know It” is a very ironic title for two-thirds of this episode. It’s interesting that the plot featuring the show’s two main characters is comparatively the comic relief of the episode, even though much of that plot is more sweet and endearing than funny barring a couple major gags. The other two, meanwhile are some of the darkest set-pieces the show has ever done. Not quite as dark as the cliffhanger with Phil II’s appendectomy, but fairly close to it.
Gail (Mary Steenburgen) is still stuck in the elevator in the other building and has become despondent in her increasingly hopeless situation. Everyone believes she has become fed up with them and left, and all of her attempts alert them have failed, including this week’s gambit with the building’s still operational Roomba. I would liked this episode to finally be the one where this arc ends and Gail somehow escaped, but that wasn’t to be, even in a show that has built its entire plot out of little miracles.
Steenburgen is one of the show’s greatest assets, in particular the way that she bounces off the rest of the cast. Having Gail accidentally wound herself and slowly die in the elevator seems like the lesser of several ideas the writers could have taken, particularly with the “miracle” theme of the Carol and Tandy plot. Her fate is left ambiguous at the end of the episode and I hope – somehow – that she has survived. It wound be an uncharacteristically sad end to a major character and it would feel like a disappointing end to Mary Steenburgen’s time on this show.
The plot featuring Todd (Mel Rodriguez) and Melissa (January Jones) isn’t as bleak as the one with Gail, but it’s certainly a dark turn in a season long arc involving Melissa’s increasing detachment from reality. Melissa does not remember her abrupt departure from the group and her unstable, unpredictably behavior has crossed into dangerous territory, including hanging out on top of buildings.
By the end of the episode, when Todd has trapped Melissa in a focus group room with a locking door and two way mirror in order to keep her safe, it’s obvious that his heart is broken and he’s as much of an emotional wreck as Melissa is a mental one. Although it would have been better to wrap this arc up too, I can at least understand having the Melissa plot go on a little long considering all the time we’ve spent on it. It’s been in the background for so long that this feels like the most attention it has ever gotten.
Hopefully the show sets some time to finally fully explore Melissa’s deterioration when it comes back in the spring. It would be disappointing if they kept sluggishly pacing it out the way they have.
Carol and Tandy, meanwhile have a considerably more optimistic plot and the best one of the episode by far. Carol is still reeling from Gail’s supposed departure, Todd snapping at her and her realization that her personality had driven Gail away. Tandy being Tandy, he opts to distract his wife with a honeymoon. Carol is reluctant, but is slowly won over by a handful of little things, including Tandy’s unyielding optimism and his faithful recreation of the camp site where they met.
The tone of their plot is still a little awkward until Carol catches a living catfish. the Millers are ecstatic to encounter one of few living animals they’ve seen since the virus, and Carol opts to name the fish after Gail. Naturally, they’re crushed when they find that it had died over night and Carol insists that Tandy give it “reverse CPR”, leading to the best string of jokes in the entire episode. That the fish suddenly reanimates could be a harbinger to what happens to the real Gail. Only time will tell.
This plot is a real winner, like many that feature only Forte and Schaal playing off one another. This pairing never fails to please, and acts like a ray of sunshine in an otherwise incredibly dark and emotional episode. Even with all the bad things happening to 3/7 of the show’s cast, you can’t help but smile at things like Will Forte bouncing on a trampoline in a dinosaur costume.
There’s also a smaller plot here with Lewis (Kenneth Choi) and Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) in the flight simulator. It’s pretty much just one scene before it merges back into the Todd plot, and I really wish the writers would do more with these two, who have become the show’s most underutilized characters. Erica has been relatively neglected as a character since she was introduced, with relatively little development and few arcs revolving around her. Lewis had a strong start, with several episodes worth of attention, but has recently receeded into the background. It would be interesting to see if this flight simulator plot turns into anything, and if its results in these characters finally getting some love.
Overall, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” succeeds despite some of its plots feeling like missed opportunities. The episode’s darkness is fine enough for a show set after the apocalypse, but the Gail plot in particular feels bleaker than it needs to be. However, the strength of the Carol and Tandy is what really brings it up to snuff.
Moreover, the episode is a solid mid-season finale that leaves enough tension in place for the show’s return in the spring.