It’s true in comedy as well as catastrophe: Timing is everything. In 2002, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra launched a thought experiment in the form of the comic book Y: The Last Man. The premise — what would the world look like if every man on Earth died simultaneously, except one? — takes on entirely different implications in 2021.
Over the last 20 years, an assault on reproductive rights, a Supreme Court Justice nomination that served as grim shorthand for male impunity, and an activist movement borne from a sprawling Hollywood scandal have helped fundamentally change how gender is discussed in America. Other societal changes unfolding in parallel have shifted our language, our hiring practices, and our circles of influence so that these events are increasingly considered through the voices of those they have the most impact on. In the years between the debut of the comic book Y: The Last Man and the new FX on Hulu series that shares its name, entertaining the idea of a world without men has taken on a very different tenor. And yet the TV version mostly nails it.
Y: The Last Man takes place after the simultaneous, horrific death of every mammal on Earth with a Y chromosome, except for Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), a white cisgender man, and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand — two almost comically unremarkable males with no immediately discernible reason for survival. (Yorick’s one unusual trait is being a self-proclaimed professional escape artist; this is annoying before the gender apocalypse, and annoyingly useful after it.)
While Yorick and Ampersand’s survival is the mystery driving Y’s plot, its interest — much like the comics it is based on — lies in fleshing out a world violently remade by sudden disaster. Unlike Vaughan and Guerra’s comics (the duo are executive producers on the show), the TV version of Y: The Last Man fleshes out that world slowly, walking back the comic’s international scope (at least initially) and squarely focusing on the fate of the United States before and after the cataclysm.
As changes made for screen adaptations go, this judgment call made by Y: The Last Man showrunner Eliza Clark and her team is an excellent one, streamlining the story arc covered by the first several issues, and digging into a rich supporting cast with a focus that the comic’s propulsive plotting did not allow for. The slower pace proves essential, as the comics series, which ran from September 2002 to March 2008, often took a gender-essentialist tack, often adhering to a rigid gender binary in story arcs that heavily depended on most of its characters being suspiciously invested in traditional gender roles. While it acknowledged gender and sexual diversity, it did so in a manner that was often superficial and sensational. Comics Yorick regularly assumes he is going to be used for sex, man-hating “Amazon” cultists are the 1990s’ “feminazi” stereotype taken to an extreme, and there’s often a playful wink to the writing that, upon revisiting, veers a little too close to adolescent leering. (Example: A story arc called “Girl on Girl.”)
In other words, the writers of Y: The Last Man have their work cut out for them in adapting a work that processed a massive worldwide trauma almost exclusively through the largely petty problems of the story’s only remaining man, and didn’t present queer or trans characters sensitively. But the work isn’t all reparative: Vaughan built his story around a post-apocalyptic road trip that often meant he abandoned his ideas as quickly as he introduced them. The show’s writers don’t have to be as hurried, to the story’s benefit.
The TV version isn’t a radical reinterpretation of the comic. It’s largely similar in its broad strokes, sending Yorick and his bodyguard, the secret agent known only as 355 (Ashley Romans), on a quest to find Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang), the only scientist who might be able to deduce how the global androcide happened, and why Yorick and Ampersand are an exception. Along the way, they encounter many of the same threats they do in the book, just with a more modern, less sensationalistic touch.
The first and most important change is how the story approaches gender. In spite of the generalization implied by the show’s title, Y: The Last Man makes it clear that its disaster impacts every mammal with a Y chromosome, and eventually starts to delve into what that means in a world where gender is not as clear-cut as ideologues present it to be. Trans men are also centered in this version of Y, with one character, Sam Jordan (Elliot Fletcher) created for the show as a regular cast member. He joins the show as an AA sponsor for Yorick’s sister, Hero (Olivia Thirlby), an EMT who’s trying to get her act together, and mostly failing at it.
In a further expansion on the source material, Y: The Last Man devotes considerable time to the power struggles that emerge in Washington, D.C., as seen through the eyes of Yorick and Hero’s mother Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), a congresswoman so far down the line of succession that she’s stunned to learn she is now president of the United States. In these scenes, Y: The Last Man suggests that its genre conceit is only a small part of the story, and that stories about gender are also stories about power: power to live your life as you see fit, and power to shape how other people have to live.
Echoing our pandemic reality, the political forces in Y: The Last Man do not universally respond to the greatest catastrophe of their careers by supplying relief and aid to the survivors. Instead, they immediately pivot to power-jockeying. The sudden disappearance of men doesn’t cause many of America’s familiar problems to disappear: there are still anti-vaxxers, far-right agitators, venomous partisan infighting, and militias with too many guns. Even on the same side of the political aisle, there is disagreement and discontent over what the leadership sees as a priority and what it doesn’t. Even cult-like factions — a genre trope mostly employed to up the stakes in the original comic — are sympathetically reworked. In the show, they emerge as survivors band together in their recognition that those in power will always let people fall through the cracks.
This focus on power has an odd side effect on Y: The Last Man — in spite of the diverse cast, its story is predominantly told through white characters. Yorick’s whiteness adds to the narrative. There’s a cruel and darkly funny irony in the last white cis man alive becoming potentially the most important person in the world — obtaining through catastrophe the entitlement he was socialized to assume regardless of merit. But he is also, ironically, too important in the new world Y envisions, and he flails pathetically against the boundaries Agent 355 enforces on him while emphasizing he has to live in the service of humanity (which is now mostly women), and not himself.
Agent 355’s role brings the show’s power dynamics into focus: She’s a capable, lethal player with a strong sense of purpose and loyalty, and the knowhow to steer sinking ships to safety. But she’s also at the whims of the white women in Washington, reactive to the unpredictable petulance of her white ward, and on guard against the militant white women who have imposed their will on survivor settlements. In Y: The Last Man, institutional power is almost the sole domain of whiteness.
Hero’s story also mirrors this dynamic. Like Yorick, she’s paired with a character from a marginalized perspective, and saddled with a hefty dramatic weight — moments before the gender apocalypse, Hero is involved in a sudden, horrific death that continues to weigh on her even when worldwide death makes one more dead man moot. For her, surviving is only the first half of the equation: She also has to survive with her guilt. At times, that guilt is a vacuum. Sam has his own story, as a trans man in a world where men are newly vulnerable, and where he’s particularly at risk, given the difficulty of finding testosterone treatments. But as their story plays out, his worries become subservient to hers.
At other moments, Hero’s problems underline the ideas about power that Y: The Last Man’s writers are most interested in: Hero’s journey is about the powerlessness and shame she feels in a distinctly gendered way. In Y: The Last Man’s sharpest moments, her struggle to process those feelings and reclaim her agency leaves her ripe for manipulation, even as the gendered world that birthed her pain falls away.
It’s a curious wrinkle that there’s plenty of space for the show to iron out as it executes its grand plan. Showrunner Eliza Clark has already said that she intends to slowly expand the scope of the show in, ideally, a five-season run. The raw materials of the first half of this season are promising. (Six of the first season’s 10 episodes were provided for critics.) For now, what’s most compelling is Y’s specific lens on one of the most familiar post-apocalyptic tropes: how disaster not only brings out the best in us, but also the worst. Or, put another way: Maybe men had it coming, and maybe we all did.
Y: The Last Man premieres on FX on Hulu Sept. 13, 2021, with new episodes streaming on Mondays.