This feels to me like an odd debate to be having, but in light of several critics noting that the payoff in Last Man on Earth was worth the middle episode slog (most notably, a very fine piece by Pilot Viruet on Flavorwire), it’s worth exploring the notion that the point is not the journey itself, but the destination.
Personally, I find the argument to be specious in the context of a television series, although I understand the instinct to believe in it. After all, I stuck with Dexter long past its expiration date in the hopes that it could be redeemed by the finale (it was not. See also: How I Met Your Mother). In fact, it’s very seldom the case — and I can think of no immediate instances — in which a great finale overshadows an otherwise bad season of television (although, the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy comes to mind as an example of great finale capping off a terrible season, but it didn’t work to retroactively make the rest of the fourth season better).
Viruet, however, contends that Sunday night’s finale of Last Man on Earth not only redeemed the series, but in a retroactive sense, improved the dismal middle episodes. In other words, the arrival point in the destination was not only satisfying, it leapt back in time and made the journey more enjoyable, as well. I don’t buy it personally, although I will certainly grant that binge-watching the series — as Viruet did — would at least diminish the problems in the middle half of Last Man on Earth, but I don’t think it would redeem the rest of the series for me.
Granted, part of the reason for that is because I didn’t find the last-minute twist in the season one finale all that satisfying in the first place. You’ve got a terrible person in Phil Miller (Will Forte), who treated everyone horribly all year long in an effort to fuck the hottest person remaining on Earth, and we are asked to forgive him because Carol (Kristen Schaal) forgave him. And why did she forgive him and ultimately reject the “new” Phil Miller (Boris Kodjoe), a handsome, sensitive, and thoughtful guy who proved himself, in the end, to be as territorial as the Old Phil Miller? Because the New Phil Miller drove the Old Phil Miller out into the desert to let him die, while the Old Phil Miller drove Todd out into the middle of the desert to let him die but changed his mind before doing so.
That only makes the Old Phil Miller slightly murder-y than the New Phil Miller, who at least left the Old Phil two days worth of food, presumably enough for him to walk to the next city. Meanwhile, the only reason the New Phil drove the Old Phil out into the desert in the first place was because the Old Phil had designs on doing that to the New Phil, plans that were only aborted because of nice guy Todd.
And what was it about the New Phil that redeemed him for Carol? Was it the fact that he holed himself up in an attic for three days and pouted? Was it because of how strenuously he objected to leaving his home? No. It was because he had written a song for Carol, thus demonstrating his true affection for her. Either that, or it demonstrated just how much he wanted to avoid dying out in the middle of the desert.
At any rate, Carol took him back, but instead of driving Old Phil back to Tucson, Carol decided to leave everyone else behind and take Phil to a new destination, which is where the first season of Last Man on Earth ended, although there was one more surprise twist: Old Phil’s brother (Jason Sudeikis) is still alive and trapped in a space station orbiting the Earth. (In other words, instead of dealing with their problems, they left the only other remaining people on the planet … until the writers decide to introduce even more people).
I can appreciate that there was an arc for Forte’s Phil Miller, and that the writers had to tear him down in order to redeem him. But I didn’t find anything in the finale that made Phil all that more likable. He may have demonstrated his true feelings for Carol, but I have a hard time believing that a form of the same cycle won’t repeat itself in a different city next season. To be honest, I’m not so sure why he’s even enamored with Carol, who has proven herself to be little more than a nagging, shrewish stereotype subverted only long enough for her to have shallow, casual sex with the New Phil.
Last month, I complained about what I felt to be a disappointing third season finale to The Americans. The series had developed a multitude of subplots and, for the most part, either dropped them or provided no satisfying conclusions in the finale. And yet, my disappointment in the finale didn’t retroactively diminish my appreciation or enjoyment of the rest of the season. The Americans is a stellar show.
Likewise, I wouldn’t have thought much — if any — less of Breaking Bad if Vince Gilligan had shat the bed in the series finale, and unless Don Draper actually turns out to be Bob Dylan in the Mad Men finale, I can’t imagine how Weiner could do anything to ruin what I consider to be seven of the best all-time seasons of television. Conversely, I don’t imagine there’s anything that the writers can do on Last Man on Earth that will improve my enjoyment of the seven episodes that preceded the finale unless, of course, we find out in the end that Phil Miller is actually Bob Dylan. Because in this context? That would be amazing.