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Why Y: The Last Man dumped the Rolling Stones for Radiohead and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

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The sequence from the episode ‘Weird Al Is Dead’ made big changes, for understandable reasons

Women in choir robes, holding candles in the dark, sing Radiohead’s “Karma Police” in a sequence from Y: The Last Man. Image: FX on Hulu via Polygon

Episode 6 of FX’s comics adaptation Y: The Last Man got some extra attention when it aired on Oct. 4, due to its provocative title, “Weird Al Is Dead.” The name of the episode comes from a sequence a few minutes into the story: As series protagonist Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) is traveling cross-country with his protector Agent 355 (Ashley Romans) and controversial doctor Alison Mann (Diana Bang), they stumble across a ritual concert where women gather every week to sing songs recognizing the world’s dead men. As a solemn, candle-holding circle of women perform an a cappella version of Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” Yorick talks to one of the locals, a young trans man named Jack (Tsholo E. Khalema).

“I saw Radiohead live,” Yorick tells him. “My sister took me. I think she wanted me to know there was more to music than ‘Weird Al.’” Jack looks stricken, as if realizing for the first time that the death toll includes the musical satirist. “Rest in peace, ‘Weird Al,’” he says.

“Weird Al” himself responded to the episode via Twitter, with characteristic wryness.

The Radiohead segment stands out in a series that so far has mostly been lean and linear, focusing on character development and action, without many moments for reflection or artistry. It was inspired by a sequence in issue #4 of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man comic, but that version of the story is very different. For one thing, it takes place at a huge outdoor festival surrounding the Washington Monument. For another, the focus isn’t on Radiohead — it’s on the Rolling Stones.

Showrunner Eliza Clark tells Polygon that the series’ writing team decided to update the reference for a more contemporary audience: “The Rolling Stones are so old!” she says, laughing. “I feel like 20 years ago [when the comic came out], that was a different reference for Yorick than it would be for Yorick of 2021. I think it says so much about who he is as a person, that he listened to ‘Weird Al,’ and his sister was like, ‘Let me help you here.’ It says a lot about their relationship. It just felt more him to me.”

In a sequence of panels from the Y: The Last Man comic, Yorick talks to a stranger at a memorial at the Washington Monument who says she’s there to mourn Mick Jagger. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss anyone like I miss my pals, but it suddenly hit me today… The Rolling Stones are dead,” she tells him. Image: Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra/Vertigo Comics

The decision to reshape the scene was partly made for practical reasons. “I really love that part of the comic, the memorial,” Clark says. “I wanted to get that in the story, but we were not going to be in DC; we couldn’t do the Washington Memorial. I felt like we could do our own version of it.”

Episode director Destiny Ekaragha tells Polygon the sequence looked significantly different in the original script.

“We planned to have lanterns, and float them out over water,” Ekaragha says. “But finding a location that could accommodate what we wanted in the time we had was near impossible. [...] And we had the singers planned, but there were practical issues with that as well, because of COVID. We were going to have all these singers, and we were told, ‘OK, you can have six singers.’”

Ekaragha says she worked with production designer Alexandra Schaller and cinematographer Catherine Lutes to workshop the sequence with their available resources, focusing on lighting the scene almost entirely with candles. “I wanted some sort of light source in the middle, to bring the scene to life,” she says. “I thought, The obvious thing is to have bonfires, but they’re so played, man. Everybody uses bonfires; I don’t want to see another bonfire. So I told Alex, ‘I want something like a wedding cake, something tiered, that’s a light source.’ She went away and came back with this idea to have these cinder blocks that look like they could come from the location where they were performing, and she put little candles in the blocks and put the singers on top of it. I saw the design, and I fell in love immediately.”

A significant point of the scene, according to Ekaragha, was giving the characters some of the first breathing space they’ve had to actually process the massive changes in the world, and to mourn their losses.

“We all knew we wanted the song to be serene and quite sparse,” Ekaragha says. “When I heard the song demo, I was transported immediately. I wanted to feel that sensation when I created that scene, so I had that song playing in the background when I saw the location. I walked the circle myself to make sure it felt the way the song made me feel.”

“It’s a moment for Yorick and 355 to connect for the first time, for her to have a moment of grief for just a brief second, for us to see her mask slip,” Clark says. “Radiohead just popped into my head for the scene. I think that song is so beautiful, and the lyrics are really perfect for the story. Radiohead has this very masculine quality to me, and hearing ‘Karma Police’ reframed as a kind of funereal lament with female voices was really exciting. And then our music supervisor, Sue Jacobs, was on it. She was like, ‘I can make this amazing!’ So we talked about other songs we could use, but it never got better than ‘Karma Police.’”