“Y: The Last Man” Review: FX-on-Hulu’s New Post-Apocalyptic Political Drama Flips Gender Stereotypes
In the new FX show Y: The Last Man — the first three episodes of the season premiere on Hulu September 13 — an event kills every one of Earth’s mammals with a Y chromosome. Only one cisgender man, Yorick (Ben Schnetzer), and his male capuchin monkey, Ampersand, survive.
When it comes to being the only human left alive with a Y chromosome, Yorick couldn’t be a more disappointing specimen. At 27, he’s a self-absorbed, spoiled dude whose rent is being paid by his parents. His job is pretty much non-existent — he’s an escape artist who’s supposed to be developing a sort of magic show opening number, but he’s more of a procrastinator than anything else.
Fortunately, and even though the title of the show might indicate otherwise, Yorick is not the protagonist of this story. He’s just one of the many players in an ensemble cast led by Diane Lane (House of Cards), who plays Jennifer Brown, Yorick’s mom and most importantly a congresswoman-turned-president of the U.S. when the line of succession gets suddenly decimated. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) is Hero, Yorick’s sister and a former EMT with a dark past and the will to remain as far away from her mother as possible. Elliot Fletcher (Shameless) is Sam, Hero’s best friend and a trans man grappling with the consequences of living in a post-apocalyptic world where he’s more of a minority than ever. Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants) is Kimberly, the daughter of the former president and a conservative celebrity. Diana Bang (The Baby-Sitters Club) is doctor Allison Mann, a brilliant geneticist who doesn’t shy away from controversial research. She could be the key to discovering why Yorick survived.
But the absolute revelation of Y: The Last Man is Ashley Romans (Shameless). She’s Agent 355, a member of a covert task force that answers directly to the president. She can pilot a helicopter, perform CPR, shoot any kind of gun, manipulate explosives, kick ass at hand-to-hand combat, run in style, and talk her way into any room. She simply exudes confidence and charisma. She looks good in anything too but tends to favor faux-leather black jackets and skinny pants. Plus, her past is one of the many mysteries you’ll want the show to uncover.
Upending Gender Stereotypes
Agent 355 is the one to find Yorick alive and keep him safe from harm. Gender stereotypes are completely reversed between the two of them. She drives the motorcycle while he sits on the back. She does all the saving of the lad in distress. And Yorick finds himself in distress often. Mainly because he’s unable to follow very simple commands, but also because he’s obsessed with the idea of finding his lost girlfriend, Beth (Juliana Canfield), and doesn’t care for much else.
“Do you have any sense of what we’re doing here?” Agent 355 asks Yorick, who has a hard time understanding his genetic uniqueness. “Now that you actually are the most special person in the room, you couldn’t give a shit.” That’s not the only reference to white male privilege in the show. We’re told how, prior to the Event, then-Congresswoman Brown had a 20-year career in politics during which time she’d been extremely scrutinized, taking flack for everything from the color of a power suit to chipped nail polish of her aids. She wasn’t a big fan of her predecessor and it’s difficult to blame her for it. Only two women occupied cabinet-level positions in the previous administration.
“This place is a Rachel Madow fever dream,” Kimberly says of the new reality, which is mainly run by women. She also believes that her liberal peers are relieved to finally be rid of men. “This is the world they always wanted,” she says. But don’t assume this is just a men versus women show.
“We are making a show that affirms that trans women are women, trans men are men, nonbinary people are nonbinary. That is part of the richness of the world we get to play with,” executive producer and showrunner Eliza Clark explained in a recent virtual panel in front of the Television Critics Association (TCA). “The show is asking questions about what is gender; what is identity; what makes a man; what makes a woman; what makes a human being.”
The show is based on a series of science-fiction comic books by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra that started publishing in 2002. But it’s found a way of updating its binary premise. Several characters in Y: The Last Man spend time explaining to the viewer and other characters that not only men died because of the Event, and not all the men died. “We’ve found plenty of men. None with a Y chromosome,” President Brown points out. “Not everyone with a Y chromosome is a man,” Allison Mann adds to that, talking about the women who died during the Event. One of the women in the show tells Fletcher’s character, Sam, she can’t understand why he chose to be a man. “I am a man,” he simply replies.
“In this world, post the Event, gender is somewhat irrelevant,” Fletcher said at the same TCA panel when asked about the binary representation of the original material. “I think one of the hilarious things about this show is, post the Event, Yorick can walk around without a mask on because he’s assumed to be trans, rather than, pre the Event, people are assumed to be cisgender. It sort of flips the traditional idea of gender completely on its head.”
Parallels to Today’s Situation
Besides its apocalyptic premise — or maybe perhaps because of it — the show draws many parallels to today’s situation. Granted, this pandemic has decimated a much smaller portion of the world’s population and we’ve been able to keep the power on and barely noticed any change when it comes to the food supply chain in the U.S. But the show manages to mirror our society in its depiction of radical partisanship within this country.
“We would like to think of ourselves as people who come together in a crisis, but we have not proven ourselves to be those people,” Executive Producer Nina Jacobson said at the TCA panel, explaining the comic books were written post-9/11, a unifying moment compared to the present. “Brian and Pia anticipated intense polarization.”
And whereas most of the characters in the show don’t necessarily align themselves with the previous heteronormative and patriarchal regime, Kimberly is not the only conservative in the show. There’s also a secretary (Jennifer Wigmore) from the former administration who’s basically defined as anti-immigrant, anti-government and anti-vax, and says things like “Jesus wasn’t vaccinated.” From her, we learn feminism is only for liberals. It’s during those political exchanges between liberals and conservatives that you’ll feel the show is not necessarily only a piece of science fiction.
All 10 episodes of the first season of Y: The Last Man have been directed by women and feature women cinematographers. And, at least in the six that were available for review, it shows. Clark cites the “female gaze,” for lack of a better term, as how people, objects and landscapes were photographed. “Yes, there is violence. Yes, there is tragedy, and there is death, but we were really specific about how we chose to photograph that,” the showrunner said, adding that her intention was not to make intimacy, action or violence gratuitous. “Everything has to be born from character.”
I’m curious to see how Y: The Last Man keeps developing. I feel it was still trying to find itself during the six episodes that I could watch. But I liked how Clark and the rest of her team made it something completely distinctive than what a show like this could have been if adapted 15 or even five years ago, with a most likely white cisgender heterosexual man as the showrunner. If I can take anything away from Y: The Last Man, which portrays a society that, although governed by women, doesn’t always run smoothly, is our need to keep upending cliched gender dynamics.