Everyone in the new series “Y: The Last Man” is living through the worst day of their lives in perpetuity, regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, or deeply held allegiance. Splintered glass and smashed cars, unclean fingernails and empty eyes, rotting animal carcasses punctuating a snow-dappled field, the shock of blood against pedestrian environments: they’re surrounded by the iconography we’ve come to associate with dystopia.
The streets are covered with posters pleading for “Our Sons” or the stern visage of a president suspected of concealing truths about the catastrophe humanity is now navigating. A helicopter teeters on the side of a building, looking out over a bleak metropolis torn apart as much by exterior disorder as by humankind’s interior evils. The series is at its most intriguing in this episode.
We’ve seen this imagery before, sometimes elegantly (Children of Men) and sometimes plainly (The Hunger Games) (The Walking Dead). Given the world into which this show was created, the fact that it glides past rather than pierces is telling. COVID-19 has killed about 700,000 people in the United States alone. Deep ideological schisms and unrest have pervaded all areas of our life. All of these issues are entwined throughout the series, and “Y: The Last Man” simmers in its depiction of what happens to humans in the aftermath of massive collective and personal suffering.
Everyone with a Y chromosome, even mammalian animals, died brutally and bloodily during the “event.” Survivors fight for power and control in the aftermath, even as it becomes clear that such things are not accessible for absolute possession. However, it also depicts people coming together in the face of a catastrophe or holding tenaciously to ideals that no longer serve them.
I’m shocked “Y: The Last Man”, which airs Mondays on FX on Hulu, got done at all, let alone this well, after such a long production history, thanks to showrunner Eliza Clark. At its best, it works on multiple levels — as a gripping thriller set in a dystopian world, a curious thought experiment brimming with gender ideas, a portrait of a family’s healing set against the backdrop of darkness, and an adaptation that is already outperforming the Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra graphic novel source material by pushing its gender and political commentary.
As the series progresses, it asks increasingly perplexing questions about the aftermath of the disaster and the lives of the only people still alive with a Y chromosome: Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), a somewhat sad-sack escape artist, and his beloved monkey, Ampersand. Sure, there are the tangled scientific and political problems surrounding the origins of all this mortality and grief. But I’m more interested in what’s on the other side.
In the face of ongoing trauma, how can we heal? Is it in human nature to destroy and subdue, or can we find glimmers of sensitivity and love? How do women contribute to the oppressive structures that have caused our world to rot? What can we do to rebuild something greater than what we have before? All of these are interesting questions. After seeing the seven episodes made available to critics, it’s evident that the creators of the series want to push this subject much further than I expected, blending fast-paced entertainment with thought-provoking political and bodily considerations. Will they, on the other hand, have the courage and intelligence to fully answer these questions?
Clark and her collaborators are astute enough to see that Yorick should not be the series’ main emotional focus. He’s a trust-fund kid supported by his parents — including his congresswoman mother, Jennifer (Diane Lane), who, due to the line of succession, becomes president of an increasingly torn United States of America —and unable to comprehend the gravity of his fate beyond whatever current predicament he’s navigating. Despite the fact that she turned down his proposal moments before things went to ruin, he’s focused on finding his girlfriend, Beth (Juliana Canfield).
Yorick is sent to find a geneticist to untangle the truth of his survival, accompanied by Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), a grimly determined undercover operative who saves his life countless times, after a brief reconnection with his stunned mother, who is camping out with the administration in the Pentagon. Agent 355 is the type of figure who raises more questions than answers, especially since the enigmatic mission she was given just before the catastrophe — to safeguard the now-dead president (Paul Gross) — may be more important to the event’s riddles than anyone understands.
Yorick runs around like a child, oblivious to the dangers surrounding him – as Agent 355 informs him in episode four, “You need to grow the fuck up.” Yorick’s behavior isn’t necessarily motivated by curiosity, but rather by luxury; he’s used to being given the benefit of the doubt, to wandering around rooms unnoticed until he wants to be noticed. His life has been characterized by comfort. Honestly, Yorick is the least interesting character in the series, despite Schnetzer’s easygoing charm. What motivates me is the diverse cast of characters who intertwine in his story, all of them are scraping by among the ruins of a history that can never be resurrected.
Hero, Yorick’s sister, is one of them (a cutting Olivia Thirlby). She was an EMT in the previous universe, with a difficult connection with her married supervisor, whom she mistakenly kills during an argument. She finds herself on the road with her all-too-kind companion, Sam (Elliot Fletcher), who struggles terribly as a trans man in areas that demand him to continually explain who he is, using the gender apocalypse to disguise her crime. Sam illustrates the conflict between the old and modern worlds, between who we are and who others want us to be for their own convenience.
His attempts to get testosterone or traverse an enclave of armed, transphobic women who give shelter and things he and Hero could never obtain otherwise are heartfelt reminders of not only the many losses these survivors must endure but also the almost impossible task of finding solace.
In Hero and Sam’s meetings with this hazardous group, led by former investigator Roxanne, the risks of this new reality are hammered home most vividly (a chilly and evocative Missi Pyle). These women consider themselves as Amazons, performing baptisms and naming rites among the wreckage of the big-box shop they now inhabit. They are brutal, domineering, and unfazed.
They perceive Sam as an outlier and are willing to beat anyone who talks to him alone to within an inch of their life in order to gain power from a world that previously denied it to them. In episode four, Sam had a conversation with one of their members: Sam is chastised for “choosing to be a man” with a gun pointed at him. Through this plot thread, the series is most ripe in its gender criticism, revealing the ways in which people with limited authority (in this case, cis women) are willing to harm those lower on the social totem pole in order to feel safer in their station. We uncover a tangled, festering emotional and psychological wound at the nexus of gender and power.
When Yorick and Agent 355 meet geneticist Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang), she explains that “not everyone with a Y chromosome is a man.” However, such assertions are helpful in comprehending the form of Y’s world-building and the manner in which the writers are moving the graphic book beyond a difficult thought exercise into something actually engaging with potential radicalism.
The series cracks open a gimlet-eyed view on the questions and possibilities driving current dialogues about gender by obliquely highlighting that biology and gender aren’t as neat as we’d like to imagine they are. The show is also willing to address some difficult topics, such as how women perpetuate patriarchy in order to hold on to false shards of knowledge and power.
These kinds of women are at the heart of the series’ villainy, forces Jennifer must manage as she is thrown into the role of president, tasked with essentially saving the world. Regina Oliver (a slimy Jennifer Wigmore), a more senior member of the administration whom Jennifer previously publicly (and rightfully) labeled a xenophobe, is discovered alive in Tel Aviv, and she proves to be shrewd, kind, blunt, and increasingly good at identifying where her own weak points remain.
Diane Lane gives a powerful performance as a shattered mother trying to make sense of what’s left of her family, protect her son, and rebuild the country into something better than it was. Kimberly Campbell Cunninghan (Amber Tamblyn), the daughter of the last president, begins to exploit Jennifer’s flaws and build her own following in order to not only “take back” the White House but to bring back males in general. You’ve seen women like Kimberly before: glitzy, preoccupied with appearance, patriarchy’s foot soldiers who believe so strongly in the power of men that they’ll break the world in half for them.
Everyone is grieving, but Kimberly can only see her own suffering, and one of her warped ambitions is to work with Regina to destabilize Jennifer’s administration. These are white women who understand the worth of their tears and will use all means necessary to achieve their goals, regardless of the consequences.
From HBO’s The White Lotus to longer-running shows like The Good Fight, “Y: The Last Man” comes at a moment when white showrunners are interested in exploring and questioning whiteness. This is a difficult zone that practically every white showrunner has struggled to navigate. These works frequently believe that simply identifying privilege and whiteness, or framing it as an individual flaw, is sufficient to fully critique a system that has resulted in untold tragedy around the world.
Regina and, in particular, Kimberly, prove to be damning symbols of white femininity, but the show makes a mistake by making them arch in a way that is gratingly fun but not necessarily as illuminating as it should be. Yes, such women exist, but when characters scream things like Kimberly does in episode seven — “We have to exploit him to bring back males… We will be a nation of moms again!” — it’s easy to forget about them. ” — I’m concerned that the writers lack the dexterity to fully comprehend, examine, and critique the mores of whiteness without resorting to simplistic responses or bluntness. When the truth is significantly more devastating, it’s not enough to place all the blame on Republican mistresses.
Kimberly doesn’t feel lived in; she feels like a point hammered home, an easy layup for gaining points for criticizing the obvious rather than revealing with canny precision that Kimberly and Regina’s whiteness isn’t created in a vacuum or a singular experience, but rather represents a system of oppression and power. This point bleeds into another strange issue at the heart of the series: no one seems to be debating whether resurrecting the United States of America is a good, honorable thing to do, or whether starting over is the preferable option.
Agent 355, along with President Jennifer Brown, is by far the most intriguing figure. She’s a walking question mark that we’ve only scratched the surface of after seven episodes. She’s slick in the best possible sense, especially as it becomes clear that her loyalties are becoming more convoluted than just devotion to Jennifer.
She’s tough without being obnoxious. She’s mysterious without being void of interiority, as far too many Black female characters can be when they’re in the hands of a white showrunner. The strongest visual moments are frequently scrawled across actor Ashley Romans’ face and physicality: a glare, a quick punch, an eye roll toward one of Yorick’s wayward jokes, and a marked strain in her tightened jaw.
This is as much a credit to Romans’ abilities as it is a criticism of cinematographers Kira Kelly, Claudine Sauvé, and Catherine Lutes’ inertly lovely visual efforts on the episode. Sure, the show is attractive in the manner that much current television is: Characters speed down dimly lit corridors, plants bursting with color against the graying landscape they inhabit. A couple of images pique the mind but don’t quite stick to it; there are some intriguing editing choices here and there.
Despite the argument that television has become broadly cinematic, most television still moves and feels like television visually, with a focus on conveying information in the simplest way possible rather than putting thought into every shot, every piece of production design, and each garment of costuming in a way that feels revelatory or brims with intrigue. In order to unearth rich veins of thought and narrative innovation, the show moves quickly, hopping between multiple plotlines and locations. But there were times when I wanted it would slow down a beat and focus on the scars these folks are carrying rather than attempting to figure out why this happened.
“Y: The Last Man” has already received plaudits for having an all-female cast of directors and cinematographers, as well as a female-dominated writing staff. Such a thing shouldn’t be presented as innovative, because it isn’t – Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s sitcom, has been doing something similar for six seasons. What will be more telling about “Y: The Last Man’s” overarching purpose is if its creators can thread the needle of critiquing whiteness, transphobia, and limiting gender standards in a powerful and illuminating way.
So far, the adaptation has proven to be a sophisticated, interesting, and even thrilling piece of art. But if the writers and artists who bring it to life can’t adequately wrestle with the questions they’re trying to answer or push the series’ visual aspects farther, it won’t even come close to reaching the hem of greatness.