Immediately after the The Last Picture Show, with the trilogy comprising Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), and Terms of Endearment (1975), McMurtry drew considerable notice for developing the “urban Western,” a new convention portraying the instability of human relationships in an increasingly urbanized, motorized American West. The Last Picture Show represents a transition in that direction from the rural, wide-open-spaces setting and focus of McMurtry’s earliest novels. Even in a small town such as Thalia, suggests McMurtry, life is crowded and in a constant state of flux; only the internal-combustion engine, mounted in a car or pickup truck, offers any hope of escape, and, more often than not, that hope turns out to have been an illusion. The Last Picture Show presages McMurtry’s later work also through its generally bleak portrayal of modern marriage, in which happiness or even compatibility are in like manner illusory: Of those couples seen at closest range, the Farrows are hopelessly out of phase with each other, and the Poppers’ marriage is a disaster; similarly, the mendacious foundation of Jacy’s brief marriage to Sonny would seem to leave little hope for either of them in the future. Sonny, meanwhile, is left with little more than the fleeting consolation of his adulterous attachment to Ruth Popper.
If The Last Picture Show marks a transition between McMurtry’s rural novels and his urban ones, its title also insists upon the fact of transition itself as an inevitable feature of contemporary life. During the course of the novel, civilization, such as it is, is moving away from towns such as Thalia in the general direction of the cities, such as Houston, that loom large in McMurtry’s later fiction: Not surprisingly, those cities will be largely populated by deracinated misfits from the country, as well as from small towns such as Thalia.