One of the most intriguing things about reality television is the question of how much of it is true. Is a contestant actually having a breakdown or have they been pushed by the producers to do something dramatic? Are they exposing their actual personality or playing a part that they think will earn them votes or a post-season career opportunity? How much control do the show’s creators really have over how things unfold?
Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel The Last One makes its biggest misstep in the book’s first chapter by telling the readers exactly what’s going on: A deadly pandemic has spread across the world. Its death toll includes much of the crew of a big-budget reality TV show that pushes its contestants to their physical and psychological limits until they surrender. Much of the story revolves around one contestant who believes that the horrors of the plague are the work of the twisted producers; knowing that she’s wrong removes a major source of tension and makes for frustration as she ignores increasingly obvious signs that she’s totally alone.
The Last One’s narrative alternates between the filming of the show before the pandemic takes hold and the journeys of one contestant—referred to as Zoo—after the cameramen disappear. The pre-plague chapters are laden with commentary about reality TV tropes and stereotypes, with the characters only referred to by occupational tags like Rancher and Engineer. While the criticism can get a little heavy-handed— particularly the emphasis on each character’s race and the way it shapes how viewers perceive them—Oliva does an excellent job of imagining the people behind the television personas.
The ultra-competent Tracker is torn about how much to help his fellow contestants/competitors, but his moments of compassion are edited out to maintain his image as the likely and cocky victor that more likable contestants must overcome. The creators also try to smooth over Zoo’s image when she shows her more callous and competitive side to make her more sympathetic to those at home. Wildcard Exorcist casts himself as a villain with YouTube-ready antics, like a sabotage of one of Tracker’s projects, followed by pelting his competitors with squirrel tails. But Oliva shows the deep fears that drive Exorcist’s behavior, a light touch that she applies to most of her large cast to make each of them sympathetic in their own way.
Zoo’s chapters are more inconsistent. The theory that she’s taking part in a reality TV challenge helps Oliva examine many of the inherent conflicts of post-apocalyptic stories, giving the genre’s tropes the same treatment she applies to reality TV. Zoo insists on following the show’s rules, so she won’t leave a survivor who asks her for help because she assumes he’s an actor cast to accompany her. She refuses to avoid hazards like threatening signs from other survivors or a school bus strewn with rotting bodies because she views them all as part of the challenge. Knowing that she’s wrong creates dramatic tension as she takes unnecessary risks. But it’s hard to fully respect the character’s intelligence as she takes way too long to realize that painting everything through the lens of “part of the show” is more coping mechanism than reasonable theory.
Zoo signed up to compete as a last adventure before she and her husband start trying to have their first child, and much of her character arc both within and outside of the game is devoted to the expectations of women as caregivers. In the game, the other female contestants judge Zoo for not comforting the incompetent but attractive Waitress the way they do; they see her lack of compassion as jealousy rather than impatience. Oliva aptly describes Zoo’s recurring nightmares about killing her future child as a horrifying and realistic anxiety dream. She would do better to rely more on these descriptive techniques, or moments like the simple joy Zoo takes from preparing a meal for a teenager at a grocery store they raid, rather than translating Zoo’s thoughts about motherhood and her fitness for it.
The Last One certainly doesn’t drag, but it also doesn’t produce an especially satisfying conclusion. A twist meant to produce both an emotional climax and something of a happy ending for Zoo feels forced. Far more intriguing are the epilogues for the rest of her competitors and the lack of any closure given to the three characters that gave up on the show before everything collapsed. Oliva’s got clear potential, particularly if she gets better at balancing what to reveal and what’s best left behind the scenes.