I love the tv show The Last Man on Earth, maybe because it speaks upon what makes us human, and what makes us happy. Happiness -said bluntly- is a social phenomenon, which may cause some cognitive dissonance for those who think material objects can make them happy. No other item of pop-culture has been able to capture what constitutes happiness so lucidly.
Phil Miller is seemingly the only person left alive after a virus (or some other apocalypse causing event) nearly wipes out Humanity. He immediately searches for any trace of human life, driving from coast to coast of North America, and leaving signs behind indicating he will be alive and waiting in Tucson, Arizona. So what does Phil Miller do in his free time? With no one around –and no moral or legal institutions to keep him in check– he has absolute freedom to do what he wills.
He drives through store windows, bowls using fish tanks as pins, burns things with a blowtorch and even uses a swimming pool in an affluent neighborhood as his personal toilet bowl. Freedom without obligations quickly becomes meaningless, but it’s fun as a spectacle, and as one would imagine, to participate in. However if this was a real event, it would start to ring very, very hollow. He has all his basic needs met and then some: he lives in a nice house, there is “free” food and alcohol everywhere, and he also doesn’t seem to have any dangers to worry about. The greatest danger is the one of boredom and loneliness. He mocks the idea of talking to a vollyball in the movie Castaway yet he ends up doing the same thing on a magnified level, he has a whole cast of balls with faces to converse with.
The problem he thinks, and tells his ball-friends is he needs to get laid. While on a topical level this is humorous, and we can safely laugh at it, we fail to conjecture why this is funny. A fundamental part of the human condition is that we are all mortal beings who will one day die. His need to get laid reflects on the biological necessity to procreate and create offspring of some kind. He needs to leave something behind or his life will be incomplete, to leave something behind after you’re gone is a deep and driving desire of us all. We laugh because we recognize ourselves and our vulnerability, a truth has been spoken of in hushed whispers.
We can understand the fear of dying in this sense as the fear of not having mattered. We have an inflated sense of purpose that we are afraid will be popped unless we do something about it. The greatest danger to Phil Miller is the realization his life is meaningless. That meaning ultimately cannot be found in freedom, security, productivity or creativity unless there are others to validate his actions as having meaning. This is why people garner for Facebook likes, Instagram hearts, Twitter followers or Tumblr reposts. It is why some try to make us much money as possible or try to substitute accomplishment with the things money allows us to buy. We seek affirmation both in and outside of social-media, for any kind of truth is impossible to prove from the standpoint of one. The truth of, what am I worth or who am I can only be answered through another, whether that is another person, a ball with a face, or what we conceive as God.
Phil Miller does finally meet other survivors, and it is only then that his life regains any purpose. The first and most obvious goal is to repopulate the Earth. However our protagonist reluctantly goes along with the idea (he is not attracted to his new found friend, at all), and when the first opportunity to make a different choice arrives he starts to botch up everything. However what do you expect from a man who has degraded into an animal and all social mores have become pointless and therefore (and appropriately) evaporated into nothing? If you look past the comedy, the story is one of a man trying to regain –through awkward social negotiation– his humanity. He forgot in his time alone how he is supposed to interact with people, a skill he absolutely must regain.
We yearn for connection with others, which Phil so pathetically portrays later on in the first season. However he needs to negotiate the social contract, but he tries to bypass it with lies, deceit and almost murder at one point. He finds his efforts wasted though, trickery or force is not sufficient and he is revealed for who he is. I’m sure that would be a horrifying experience for many, yet he reaped what he sowed. Meaning can only be found and affirmed with our interactions with others, but Phil only sees people as tools to get what he wants, he doesn’t seem to realize they are people too. It is only through the mirror of the other can we achieve great things, and it is only through great things can we can subsume ourselves, i.e. transcend into something bigger and more meaningful.
An implicit thing that makes us more than an animal, at the very root is our dignity. The problem with Phil Miller is he has seemed to have lost it since being left to his own devices. Consider the toilet situation, at first he is content with using the pool as his feces and urine reservoir, but after meeting Carol he begins to feel ashamed because he knows he should know –and be better. Now that there are others, they can work out new norms and ways of being that makes them greater than they are alone. Human dignity is a seemingly emergent phenomenon that arises when there is a plurality of people, at least if we are to believe this protagonist is representative of us.
I think this is why this show speaks so loudly to me, it speaks truth to what makes us human, what constitutes meaning and happiness. It is about living up to your potential and living a full and complete life, which just isn’t possible without a plurality of people. At first it is about necessity, afterwards comes the affirmation which you derive your self worth. Affirmation and worth is tied into your identity or what makes you unique and special. Phil is slowly trying to regain an identity through his interactions, however hilarious those interactions may seem. At one point the group of survivors outside of Phil make the judgment that he is “human garbage,” Phil is desperately trying to change their feelings; he wants to belong and be with others, indeed he needs to.
He has a long way to go, and that’s what makes the show so entertaining. It also speaks to the truism that only through struggle (and I would add social interaction) do we find meaning. If no one was around to judge Phil he would only rise to meet his impulsive desires. With others to judge, he can now rise up and build his personhood, something more worthy than he was.