'Last Man on Earth' Star Mary Steenburgen on Gail's "Painful" Past and Uncertain Fate

The actress discusses the cliffhanger midseason finale and the few sentences that she says define her character.
Adam Taylor/FOX
Mary Steenburgen in 'Last Man on Earth'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the midseason finale of Fox's Last Man on Earth, "If You're Happy And You Know It."]

One of the last men on Earth is stuck. 

In Sunday's midseason finale of Last Man on Earth, Gail (Mary Steenburgen) found herself stranded in an elevator after days of being trapped, and to add injury to injury, she had – literally – shot herself in the foot.

Leading up to the episode, the group was worried about Melissa’s (January Jones) goodbye note but attributed Gail’s disappearance to her wanting to be alone, more specifically far away from her newly adopted daughter Carol (Kristen Schaal). Meanwhile, Tandy (Will Forte) tried to reignite Carol's optimism with a brief honeymoon while Todd (Mel Rodriguez) and the rest of the group try to help Melissa. She went missing only to be found at home again after an exhaustive search with little memory of what she did while away.

After Melissa was finally found, the only one still at large was Gail (Todd thinks she is avoiding Carol, Tandy assumes she's in Napa). Stuck in the elevator, she tried to think of a way to get a note to the rest of the group so they would know where she is. Plan A fails when the Roomba eats her note instead of carrying it away for her. Frustrated, she shot her gun wildly as Plan B, and one of the shots backfired, hitting her in the leg. 

Earlier this season, viewers learned a lot about Gail in just a few sentences. In a brief scene, Gail told Carol that the reason she was hesitant to adopt Carol as a daughter was because she had been a mother before. She had a son and lost him. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Steenburgen called the scene a moment that truly “sums Gail up” as a character, explaining a lot of her behavior in very few words.

Isolating herself, Gail then tried to find her own “hideaway” where she isn’t being chased down by her new daughter, which is when she found the perfect place (at the time): the elevator.

Days later, while Gail was in the elevator wishing she could "see those freakin' idiots" one more time, Tandy and Carol found and failed to save a fish they caught and lovingly named Gail. They even had a burial for her, before finding out she was fine after all. Is this possibly foreshadowing human Gail’s fate?

The episode ended to the song "Shangri-La" by The Kinks, as Tandy and Carol welcomed fish Gail home to their kiddie pool and as human Gail picked up her gun. For one more shot to get out of the elevator? To end it all? 

Steenburgen talked to THR about Gail’s journey so far this season and how she wound up in this situation below.

Before we get into this episode, can you take me through Gail’s season up to this point? A lot of the characters are beginning to deal with the end of the world in their own unique ways. How is Gail coping? 

It’s always a privilege to be on this show because I find it to be such a unique and creative show. I love that it’s a comedy that’s got honesty with humanity and loss. It would be a very shallow thing to have the end of the world and to have these people have gone through what they’ve gone through without sometimes exploring that loss. And the fact that we do that and then two seconds later have some bizarre Tandy situation or something where people are laughing, it’s, to me, the height of an actor of being on a creative edge that I really enjoy and appreciate. I know that I’m lucky to be able to ride that and deal with that. I love things that aren’t safe and there’s nothing safe about this show. No one’s really safe in our world.

There is a very quick moment this season that Gail has, where she tells you a lot about who she has been. In the scene with Kristen Schaal when I tell her that I’ve already been a mother and I had a son and he died, and I don’t tell her any more about that, or how he died, that was a choice we all made, because I had sort of been working with that in the back of my mind anyway, and the writers and I talked about it and they used that idea so beautifully. So where is Gail at now? In this season, you learn why Gail isolates herself quite a bit sometimes and that she has things she’s running away from, or needs time to cope with. So I think that one scene sort of sums Gail up.

This season has been rough on Gail. She finally gets an "adopted" daughter and is part of a family only to end up here. What do you think has changed for her this season? Has she changed? 

I think that she’s always been somebody who’s a grounding force in the show, and I’ve been sort of the truth teller in the bunch, the one who doesn’t take any of Tandy’s stuff. And I don’t think that’s changed. Gail didn’t suddenly become cuddly and all sentimental and emotional, but I think she’s carried that secret around a long time and the fact that somebody knows it, I think made her connect more than she would have, and made her open up. Even though she may think they’re crazy, there’s also a sense of fondness.

Let's talk about where Gail starts off in this episode — she just wanted to some peace and quiet but she's stranded. What is running through her mind? 

I think she sees her life flashing before her eyes and she knows she’s most likely not gonna make it, and she probably has some regrets about how she was stubborn and pushed everybody away. There's a part of Gail that believes her son is out there somewhere, there’s some comfort in that, and a sense of, in her version of heaven or whatever that is, I just think she’s feeling, she got herself into this situation so she knows it's self-inflicted.

When Gail shoots and it backfires, she seems to lose all hope. What do you think she regrets as she sits there? 

She literally shot herself in the leg – literally and figuratively it’s her own fault, so her fate not only lies in her own hands but it was created by her. I can understand wanting to get away from these people (not these actors, I’m in love with all of them), but these characters. But I can understand why she did it, and I think everything about her goes back to the fact that she had a son. Every single thing she does has to be about that, and the subject of family is very painful and the subject of being alone or being of value or choosing to live or choosing to die, all of that is informed by a couple of sentences a couple of episodes ago, that we never revisited again, and I love that about the writing.  

This episode seems to be a lot of the characters' breaking point. What do you think it is that's suddenly affecting them in this way? 

I think the fact that they were shot at and there was this path that made them feel unsafe, that affected them in different ways. Suddenly our world was threatened — the life and deathness of it became much more epic. It felt like a bigger story and not just a small storyline, and there still is the charm of making things work (showers, Todd lighting the sprinklers) and little things how they cope in this world, but a lot of this season has been about life and death and connection and family.

Going forward, what are your hopes for the group?

One of the things I love about this show is two characters you couldn’t imagine loving each other really [Tandy and Carol] and start a relationship on television. I love that, without being sappy, you can see that these two people who are so dysfunctional, they make something very real in the sense of love, and my hope for them is that their baby and Erica's is OK.

The show recognizes it’s a dangerous world – it’s not safe, but it’s also so creative, people being as creative as they can possibly be. I like things that are edgy and I like when I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I love that, it’s a privilege, that’s why I got into this business. 

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