Y: The Last Man Kills Half the Population Then Focuses on Questions of Gender

S1E1, “The Day Before”, S1E2, “Would the World Be Kind”, and S1E3 “Neil”

Yorick, in full black hazmat suit and gas mask, carries a pet carrier through a city street and looks up at the sky
Photo Courtesy of FX/ Rafy Winterfeld

Y: The Last Man is a commentary on the nature of gender and gender roles and how pain and loss affect people in times of crisis. So, like Hulu’s big show The Handmaid’s Tale, it certainly has all the elements to be the show that encapsulates the moment. The central crisis at the heart of the show (referred to throughout as “the event”) is the devastating and unexplained death of every creature with a Y chromosome. This leaves the world populated and controlled mostly by women. The show is based on the popular and influential comic book series by Bryan K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra, but showrunner Eliza Clark has expanded and developed the ideas to a much larger scope.

I have never read the Y: The Last Man comics, mostly because the critiques of Vaughn’s stories left me underwhelmed with how he handled the implications of the premise. Because of this, I had a lot of trepidation about watching the show. Centering the story around the “Y chromosome” can lead to really problematic storytelling if it is not handled delicately.

In the comics, apparently, the effects are limited to just the mammals, but the show depicts birds being affected as well. So I think the implication is that “the event” is happening to all creatures. With this subject as the premise, the creators have to grapple with lots of questions about gender and sex, and I was worried the show would gloss over the greater implications of this. Or that they might depict the issue in a way that might diminish the experiences of trans and non-binary people. (The show is called “the last man” after all.) 

Thankfully, Clark has addressed this head-on. The creative team of the show has tried to avoid some of the comic’s dated notions of gender essentialism and instead they have included a wider assortment of genders in the show, including trans men and non-binary characters. There are entire characters and storylines in the show that were developed by Clark and the other writers to ensure that trans and non-binary experiences were included. By doing so, the concept of what it means to be a specific gender is explored in greater depth.

The entire nature of identity is complicated, and by being clear that men are not just defined by biology the show is able to create characters and explore issues that may have been overlooked previously. In the comics, it is clear that the main intent is to depict a world where“all men are dead”. The television series of Y: The Last Man instead asks the viewers to ponder what it means to have some biological markers and what it means to hold your identity in a world marked by incredible, and devastating, change.

Yorick's hands are in the left of the frame, dead bodies litter a city street and Ampersand the monkey sits on the ground reaching up
Photo Courtesy of FX/ Rafy Winterfeld

S1E1 “The Day Before” opens in the days after “the event”. With the cold open following Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and his capuchin monkey Ampersand as they navigate around a mostly abandoned New York City filled with bodies. Yorick is “the last man” of the title and it is quickly clear that there is a lot of meaning packed into that title. The Y is both a reference to the Y chromosome and to Yorick’s name, but also it turns out that the title is also a question: Why is this guy the last man?

There is no explanation of “the event” or reason for Yorick’s and Ampersand’s survival (the monkey is also established as having the Y chromosome). These first glimpses give a pretty clear indication of Yorick’s abilities and it is clear that his failings will be abundant. He does get a classic “Save the Cat” moment too though, as he saves Ampersand from a falling helicopter, which is good because almost every scene he is in for the next three episodes establishes him as a more and more terrible petulant baby.

The rest of “The Day Before” tries to establish ties to the characters and the world by allowing a glimpse into their lives before “the event”. The idea of doing this is solid as it is certainly easier to relate to the character’s pain and loss having at least met the families and loved ones that we know they are doomed to lose. But it also seems a bit too rushed to be emotionally affecting.

There were too many characters, in too many locations, all of whom were too similar to each other, to keep complete track of what was happening. The viewer got to meet all the characters of the world and learn why the ones that would die mattered to the ones that would live. But since it was already established who would live and who would die, many of these scenes were not as tense as they could have been. It must be said though that there was a certain pathos of knowing these moments would be the characters’ last moments together.

“The event” doesn’t actually happen until the opening scene of S1E2, “Would the World Be Kind”. And once it does, it definitely shatters everything that had been set up. All the relationships established in S1E1 are altered and the entire structure of the series changes. Before the event, there was a lot of jumping around in time and from character to character, but afterward, director Louise Friedberg and episode writer Clark take time to settle down. Episode 2 also skips ahead a few weeks after “the event” which is a good move.

As interesting as the initial moments after the crisis may have been, the short-term survival issues would have been less dramatically compelling. (Though how on earth Yorick survived those early days would have been a fascinating thing to watch, considering he is established as both incompetent and lazy.) The narrative of Y: The Last Man shifts back and forth between the attempts to reconstruct the government and the smaller personal stories of some survivors, notably Yorick and his sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby).

While Yorick has a central role to play due to his chromosomes, his sister and mother provide the show with its dramatic weight. While Yorick is presented as a slacker man-child, Hero is considerably more messed up. She is introduced while attending a court-mandated drug rehab program and, just a few minutes before “the event” accidentally kills her married lover during a fight. Oliva Thirlby plays these moments really well. Her performance is inundated with a sadness that goes beyond the grief being felt by many of the others. Hero seems to know that her pains are beyond this current moment, and are mostly self-inflicted. This also gives deeper meaning to her ultimate choice to put away her pride and try to find her mother for her best friend Sam Jordan (Elliott Fletcher).

Sam (Elliot Fletcher) and Hero (Olivia Thirlby) look to the left with an orange light behind them
Photo Courtesy of FX/ Rafy Winterfeld

Sam is the character, created by Eliza Clark specifically for the show, who addresses the experiences that trans men would have in this world. The pain in Sam’s voice as he recounts the questions and accusations he faced off-screen due to his male presentation makes this profoundly palpable. Sam, and the others like him, have been singled out and hurt by society already due to their expression of who they are and now—post “event”—this is even more acute, as there are no longer cis men around for Sam to use to blend into a crowd.

The part was also specifically cast with a trans male actor in the role, which is sadly not often the case, and which allows Fletcher to make a commentary on some of his own experiences as well. Y may be hit or miss with some of the social commentaries it is making, but the inclusion and specificity of the trans and non-binary characters in the show is one of the best things that Clark and the creative team have done so far.

I have more questions about the show’s depictions of the women in power. The most powerful woman in the story so far is President Jennifer Blake (Diane Lane). Lane is incredible in the role, embodying both the power and gravitas that she shows as a leader and the quieter moments as well. Before “the event”, Blake was a Congressperson, though a powerful and ambitious one. But she was quickly pushed up the ranks to become President due to the decimation of the line of succession. This was made possible by the fact that former President Ted Campbell (Paul Gross) only had two women in his cabinet. Which would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so recently true.

Blake, who is also Yorick and Hero’s mother, is a commanding presence and Lane is pitch-perfect in the part. But the women around her are quite underwhelming. Early in Y: The Last Man, there is a moment where the military women and other high-ranking government survivors seem to lose all control of their emotions, which just felt out of place. (My partner had me stop the show to ask if it was written by a man and she seemed incredulous when I told her the creative team were almost all women.) Thankfully most of the focus on President Blake avoids that.

Kimberley Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn) and President Blake (Diane Lane) stand in a darkened room in front of a sign that says "Hall of Heroes" staring straight ahead
Photo Courtesy of FX/ Rafy Winterfeld

What Blake does not avoid is controversy. At the end of S1E2, she is reunited with Yorick and almost immediately things start to veer out of control. S1E3, “Neil” focuses mostly on President Blake and Yorick’s reunion and her ultimate decision to cover up his arrival and send him to be tested to see if they can understand what happened and how he survived.

Yorick spends most of “Neil” being petulant or ridiculous in turns and winds up getting seen by the former first lady. This does set up what promised to be the best dynamic of the show. The showdown between the commanding and left-leaning President Blake and the firebrand Republican former first daughter, Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn). Kimberley is established and cunning and cutthroat, which she will certainly use against the Blakes throughout the show.

President Blake does have a secret weapon though, Agent 355 (Ashely Romans). 355 is the type of insanely competent, deadly secret agent that could seemingly take out James Bond or Jason Bourne with ease. Romans is amazing in the role as her incredible deadpan in the face of mass destruction is matched only by her eye-rolls and expressions of disgust at Yorick. The character is also part of a hyper-secret agency that may turn out to have ties to “the event”.

The character’s level of badassery is coupled with an air of mystery that really sets 355 up to be an essential player in the show. At the end of S1E3, she clearly engineers the assassination of the two military pilots who know about Yorick (and were also clearly about to break) so her morality is also very much in question. There is a powerful essence to 355. Romans plays her as a person who is not to be trifled with, but it is also clear that her story will have many twists before the show ends.

355 (Ashley Romans) walks through a glass door with a sign that reads "Sorry we're Closed"
Photo Courtesy of FX/ Rafy Winterfeld

Y: The Last Man has a lot going for it. Romans and Lane are fantastic, the plot is intriguing, and the world-building is pretty well defined. It just feels like something isn’t quite gelling in the first three episodes in some of the characterizations, particularly in the way the women sometimes seem so overwhelmed by the basic processes of governance. It is certainly a show with a lot of things to say, and Eliza Clark has it in good hands. When it takes it time and focuses on the personal stories I think Y: The Last Man is pretty fantastic viewing, it just sometimes seems far too interested in jumping around frenetically instead.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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