Last Man Standing wrapped up its nine-season run with a two-part series finale that sees the Baxters’ green truck as a literal vehicle to celebrate nearly a decade of family, love and Outdoor Man.
Written by Ed Yeager, “Baxter Boot Camp” starts off with newly-minted “true Baxter” Jen (Krista Marie Yu) preparing for a camping trip with her friends visiting from Hong Kong. Concerned for her safety, Vanessa (Nancy Travis) offers to help Jen prepare for unpredictable scenarios by teaming up with Mandy (Molly McCook) for a challenging backyard bootcamp.
Meanwhile at Outdoor Man, Mike (Tim Allen) sees Kristin (Amanda Fuller) diving deep into work, which cuts into her family time. In the office next door, Kyle (Christoph Sanders) tells Ed (Hector Elizondo) that he seeks to shift to part-time duties as he takes on more responsibilities as a minister. But in order for Ed to approve his proposed schedule, Kyle must create a plan to help his boss get into heaven. With the help of Ryan (Jordan Masterson) and comics, Kyle decides that Ed deserves more than a simple answer about faith and is willing to hold a conversation about the afterlife with his boss, but as a pastor.
When Mike catches Kristin staying late at work again, he tells his daughter that it’s up to her to draw work-life boundaries. After hearing him out, Kristin tells her dad that she’s not worried about forgetting her family.
“You taught us how important family is,” she says.
The final episode “Keep Truckin’,” written by Allen, picks up right from the previous installment. While the kids and Jen enjoy hot cocoa, Mike tells Vanessa that the original owners of their beloved green truck sold the vehicle to Joe (Jay Leno). However, shortly after the truck’s back in Mike’s possession a thief drives away with it.
“I’ve had that truck for 10 years, that’s longer than I’ve done improvement on this home,” Mike tells Vanessa after the truck disappears.
The Baxter clan bands together to find the missing vehicle, reminiscing on their memories with the family staple. But when it seems the truck’s gone forever, Mike says he’s fine with letting it go, much to Vanessa’s surprise. Friends and family come together in the Baxter home for a “truck memorial.” Making a cameo from the Air Force Academy via FaceTime is Eve (Kaitlyn Dever), who shares that working on the truck “were some of the best times of my life.”
At this point, the metaphor of beloved truck isn’t all that elusive. But just in case it wasn’t obvious enough for viewers, Mike hits the symbolism on the head with his final Outdoor Man vlog. In his last webcast, which streams next to a slideshow of Baxter family photos, Mike thanks his viewers for tuning it and informs them of his recent loss.
“I loved every moment of that show — I mean truck. It was a classic from a simpler, happier time, the truck. That’s something that can’t be stolen from me,” he says.
Last Man Standing showrunner Kevin Abbott spoke to Deadline about leaving “nothing unspoken” with the pandemic-era finale, the “temporary housing” of network TV and more. Read the full interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.
DEADLINE: What was it like bringing Last Man Standing to a true finale after it prematurely ended on ABC?
KEVIN ABBOTT: It’s funny you bring that up, because I was running the show when it got cancelled on ABC, and we didn’t expect to get cancelled that year. The only year we got cancelled was the year we didn’t think we were on the bubble.
When we came back, we got the gift of being told it was the final season. It was a gift, it was really a great thing that they did for us, because it allowed us to plan, and to appreciate, and to really be grateful for what we had. I wanted to make sure that we did it right in our minds, and most importantly, Tim’s mind, because he’s the one most invested in it. He’s given a lot, over the years, to the show, and it was important to be rewarding him for that, to give him the respect that he deserves.
We sat down to think, what do we want out of this final episode? We quickly came to the conclusion, we didn’t want it to be a sad episode. Ideally, the series finale is the embodiment of what the show was, with the added message of saying, hopefully, “thank you.”
DEADLINE: What other finale ideas were in contention before arriving at the truck-centric storyline?
ABBOTT: We had an episode with B story where Kyle and Ed had talked about leaving for the priesthood. That was originally a much larger story, where Kyle left for the priesthood, and Ed went with him. We had people saying goodbye to them, in lieu of saying goodbye to the show, and you know, it just felt very maudlin. It just felt…there was no way that we were going to be able to keep the cast from not feeling the emotions they were feeling by saying goodbye to those people.
We also had a whole episode where Kristin took over Outdoor Man, again it became a B story, but the larger story was going to be that Kristin is going to take over, and Ed decides he’s going to leave, but that he has to find, for Kristin, her Ed. The guy that told Mike the hard truths. The guy that supported him in his other ideas. Kristin needed that person. That was going to be Mandy.
Matt Berry actually, pitched the idea of the truck, which has been in the show the entire series. I thought that’s a great idea. It allows us to write an episode that would’ve been just any other episode, during the season. It just would have been focused on theft and this theme was coming to grips with loss. Being okay with it, being grateful for what you had, not angry, bitter, or frustrated at it not being there anymore. That’s the message we wanted to send out.
So, he pitched that. We went through a couple of variations. We actually tracked down a car, a truck like Tim’s, that we were going to wreck because you know, we thought it would make a really good ending, to visually see this, to uncover it like we were at an autopsy, with a big sheet over the truck, and then you uncover it, and see it but she’s ruined.
It kind of went away from where we wound up going, which was this isn’t just Tim’s loss. It’s not Mike’s loss. It’s everybody’s loss, and we need to give them an opportunity to deal with it.
DEADLINE: Tim Allen previously said he emotionally prefers the “sudden death” of a cancellation as opposed to the drawn out planning of a series finale. Do you feel the same way after having been part of the LMS team for so long?
ABBOTT: I’ve lost two brothers. One to sudden death, and one to an extended illness, and while it’s not the same, this is work, and our lives go on. I do not prefer a sudden death.
To use the losing a loved one as a metaphor, I prefer to the opportunity to say goodbye, and to feel like you left nothing unsaid. Nothing unspoken. No loose ends. It’s all going to end badly for us in the end. We all die at the end of the book. So, I would prefer to go out of that tale feeling like all the loose ends were tied up, as opposed to messy, and maybe leaving family members without an ability to grasp with the loss.
I very much appreciated knowing at the beginning of the season that it was going to be the final season.
DEADLINE: What did it mean to you to craft an image of joy and family amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis?
ABBOTT: That was something that we felt very strongly about, we did not want to end on a down note. We’re there to help them through tough times. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the feelings of loss, in that moment, and we felt like that would be a betrayal to what the show actually was.
We felt like we wanted to deal with issues, and some weightier issues, and we wanted to deal with them with emotion, but we would save that emotion for a scene, and a moment, where it would have the most impact. We didn’t want to wallow in anything like that.
The truck gave us the opportunity to do that. To tell a funny story, but then, to also have the memorial scene, where you could be emotional and real. That was important because it meant that the actors weren’t being asked to play that “oh, we’re really sad throughout the entire thing.”
It allowed us to have fun, and then hit the moment of the emotion, and then get back to the place where I wanted, and I felt Tim wanted to end the show. An attitude of gratitude. We fiddled around with gratitude as the end point.
Loss is something that’s going to be there. You’re going to have to deal with it throughout your life. We would like people to have an opportunity to laugh during it, and to have a little joy, and to, when they’re not experiencing loss, appreciate the good moments.
DEADLINE: How did the lack of a live studio audience for this last chapter influence its final moments?
ABBOTT: It was tough. This year was tough, because it’s your last season, and we don’t have shows. The actors don’t get curtain calls. It’s all different, and a lot of the things that were marvelous about the production of the show – table reads, and show nights, and the joy that we all had on show nights – those were all gone. What we wanted to do for the final episode is bring in “an audience.” We had 45 people. They were production people, or friends of production people, that were in individual, plastic-lined booths, up in the audience, six feet apart. They were not allowed to come down on stage, or move out of them. They had to stay up in there, in their little enclosed spaces. We normally have 175 people just for point of reference, but it was something.
We wanted to give the cast at least the opportunity for one final curtain call, rather than just shooting a final scene, and then, everybody says, “that’s a wrap,” and you’re gone. We don’t get a wrap party, obviously, and we had to be hustled off the stage, because they were shooting a pilot, and we couldn’t say goodbye to anybody after the show was done.
DEADLINE: What was the final scene to shoot?
ABBOTT: The vlog was the last one. When Tim said the words “Baxter out,” he stopped. Very emotional, and the cast joined him in Mike’s office to say goodbye to everybody. To each other. To hug, and to comfort each other, and then, we did the curtain call. It’s all very moving stuff. I wish I could have included it.
I personally didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, in the moment, to people, because we couldn’t. That was actually harder than the cancellation, because the first cancellation with ABC, we did say goodbye for the hiatus. We had that opportunity to have a wrap party, and everything. This just felt like it stopped in that moment. We got a taste of it, at least.
DEADLINE: How did Mike’s final Outdoor Man vlog come together?
ABBOTT: Kevin Hench wrote the vast majority of vlogs throughout the course of the series, and what would typically happen is, I’d give him the theme to the episode, and he would craft a vlog, and he and Tim would work on it together until they shot it Monday, or Tuesday.
With this one, the mandate was we were going to have a patio scene, where Vanessa and Mike would have a moment together, and that couple would have a chance to say goodbye, in essence, to the audience. We wanted Ed to have a chance to have his moment, which was Hector coming in, and then, Mike was the only character that, in the episode, that didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the show, to the truck. We did that deliberately.
We were saving him. He was saving his emotion until the final moment. So, the mandate was this is Mike/Tim’s goodbye. The message to the audience was a message of appreciation, but also positivity. It can be a note of heartfelt emotion, but it had to emphasize the positive emotions that are also available in loss. So, Hench didn’t include things like the truck. Tim felt those moments.
Tim’s instincts are phenomenal. We trust them. so, they worked together on that. Hench had chosen to emphasize, and wanted to emphasize the notion of shaking oneself off, after something that has knocked you down, and moving forward, and keeping that spirit of determination.
DEADLINE: Where do you think the Baxters will end up in the next five to ten years?
ABBOTT: I see Kristin and Mandy running Outdoor Person, ten years down the line. I think there’s probably a big fight between Mike Baxter and his daughters, about whether “Outdoor Man” is appropriate anymore. I think that Eve has stayed in the Air Force. I think she’s a decorated pilot. I think Kyle has moved into the priesthood, as a minister, and is doing wonderfully, and is spreading messages of joy, and hope, and resilience.
I think Mike, and Chuck, and Joe are still running their car restoration business, and they’re very happy about it. I think in between-times, Mike goes back on all those wonderful trips he took for Outdoor Man in the catalog, but this time he brings Vanessa with him and they hit all the highlights.
DEADLINE: What happens with “true Baxter,” Jen? Do you see her returning to Hong Kong, or does she stay with the Baxters?
ABBOTT: Yeah. Absolutely. COVID interrupted and altered a lot of plans we laid. François Chau, who played her father, Henry, on the series, we were able to sneak him in that one time, but we would have loved to have had him in for the finale.
I mean, same with Susan Sullivan. That’s a tough year to not be able to bring in Ed’s wife, Bonnie, because we had so much planned for them. We were unable to do that because of COVID protocols, which was heart wrenching.
When Kaitlyn left the show, Jen was brought on, in many ways, to bring the influence that Eve brought to Mike. You know, the person who would spout off to him. Krista Marie made Jen her own. She’s not a mini Eve. She is her own character, and we just loved what she brought.
When it came to portraying the Hong Kong protests, we did what we could. I see Jen going back, and taking what she believes she learned from Mike Baxter, back to Hong Kong, because I believe her heart is in Hong Kong.
DEADLINE: What were the challenges, or the rewards, of diving into timely subjects like weed legalization, the Hong Kong protests and racism, through the sitcom?
ABBOTT: We like to, not necessarily opine on social issues, but say that these social issues affect our characters, because our characters would be affected by them. That’s the way we tell stories. We talked about the social justice movement, Black Lives Matter, through Chuck being arrested, when he was doing the same thing that Mike and Joe were. That’s how we prefer to comment on these things.
That’s how we chose to tell stories, and ultimately, and I don’t want to be on a soap box, we want to have fun. We want to have a fun story attached to it, where we can get real, and emotional about it, in one scene, and in one moment, we can be really impactful, and then, move on and have more fun.
Hollywood obviously is stereotypically left leaning. My writer’s room is definitely left leaning. I am definitely left leaning. You know, Mike Baxter is a conservative. Tim is a conservative. At a time of great polarization, I’m not going to pretend that there weren’t times when I was angry about things, and I’ve got to go in, and work with people that feel exactly the opposite as I do.
You know what? It’s a valuable lesson, because we all respected each other, and talked about these things. We didn’t necessarily change minds, or come to agreements, but we co-existed wonderfully, and we care about each other. If anything comes through in this final season, I want that to come through that Mike Baxter talks about being connected, respecting the other side, even when you disagree with it. Get past where we’re at right now, in terms of the polarization and the demonizing of the people you don’t agree with. Every day, I had to go in, and hear things I didn’t necessarily agree with, and I found it enlightening, and it made me a better person.
DEADLINE: What do you think you’ll miss most about working on Last Man Standing?
ABBOTT: The longevity, I guess. In the show business, they only provide temporary housing. That’s all we ever get. Nothing lasts. So, to have the opportunity to rent a house for nine years, where you feel like you actually own it? It’s special, and heartbreaking at the same time.
It was great to be able to spend a decade of my life with these people, and really get to know them. The good and the bad. The hard and the easy. The fun and the difficult. I got the full gamut. You don’t really get that on most shows.
DEADLINE: Are you walking away with any new lessons as a showrunner?
ABBOTT: New lessons don’t come to me often. I would say this – that creative problems require creative solutions. That you get used to doing things a certain way, and when you’re not longer allowed to do them, at first, it panics you a little bit, and you think, how the hell are we going to do this? And you know what? You find a way to do it, but it’s rewarding in a very different way.
DEADLINE: You’re speaking about the pandemic, right?
ABBOTT: Absolutely. Trying to generate a show, and produce a show, under the conditions that we produced them under, you know, and that we got the full season in – I did not believe that we were going to be able to do that. The ability of everybody to step up was remarkable and so inspiring, to me. Yeah. It was a huge challenge. Yet, finishing it, getting through that task, it was rewarding.
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