Eliza Clark on Exploding Y: The Last Man’s Definition of Gender

“Allison Mann, played by Diana Bang, gets to have this speech where she talks about how the idea that she will somehow be bringing back men is reductive and ridiculous and also that some of the people we lost were women. That’s incredibly tragic.” Photo: Rafy/FX

A screen adaptation of Y: The Last Man, the much-loved 2003 comic-book series from Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, had started to seem like a cursed project. It bubbled along in various stages of development for over a decade, with one early version planned as a film starring Shia LaBeouf and another as a TV series run by Michael Green with Barry Keoghan in the lead role. The project seemed so troubled, in fact, that by the time Eliza Clark came on as showrunner, coverage of Y began to sound downright dubious. (One piece reporting the news that Clark’s series had begun production started with “Hoo boy.”)

But as the first six episodes of Clark’s adaptation appeared on FX on Hulu over the past several weeks, it became clear that this long, troubled period of waiting has created a version of Y: The Last Man that likely would not have existed if the series had been made in 2007. The show is intent on presenting a less binary understanding of gender, but it’s also influenced by political imagery from the past few years and a fascination with how people get radicalized — elements present in the original comics but framed differently for a TV show in 2021. I spoke with Clark about her early experience with the book, the female gaze and the dual funerals of episode six, and her insistence on building a multi-season plan for Y.

Could you take me back to the moment you first found the comics? At what point in your life were you? 
In 2009, I moved from New York to L.A. to write on a show called Rubicon that like five people watched — but they really liked it, those five people. That show is the foundation of my career but also my life. I met my husband, Zack Whedon, on it, and he’s the person who gave me Y: The Last Man. It was very early in our relationship; we were sort of friends who worked together, and there was, you know, maybe a little something there. He’s a writer, and he’d read my plays and he was like, “This really reminds me of your writing.” And I read it because I was into him.

We’ve all been there. 
It was like, What’s he trying to tell me? What’s the message he’s sending? Does it say “I love you” somewhere in these pages? But I could totally see what he saw of me in it. I love speculative fiction. I’m not really a sci-fi person, but I’m super-interested in the thought experiment and world-building of that kind of story.

At that point in my life, I was a writers’ assistant. I would never have been the person who would be picked to make the adaptation. At the time, I thought they were going to make a movie out of it with Shia LaBeouf, and it was like, “I can’t wait to see it!” Although it should never be a movie — the book is so much about identity, how it changes, the belief systems that are formed around what people think happened. A movie would just be a disaster movie about what caused the apocalypse, which is kind of the least interesting part of it. I’m super-grateful that it took this long to become a show because I needed 12 years building my career so I could be in a position where it was like, It should be me.

Because the show was stuck in development for so long, you must have had some trepidation about taking on a project that so many people had never managed to make happen. 
When it became available, I was not interested in coming in and taking over someone else’s adaptation. I had my own point of view about the story and the characters and how I wanted to approach it. I had concerns about how to make a show that needed updating in terms of how it dealt with gender. I loved the book so much, but a lot has happened in 20 years. I didn’t want to make something that was essentialist. I wanted to expand how we think about the diversity of gender in the series and not shy away from the parts that feel sticky or scary. I was like, “This is my point of view on the material, this is my take on it,” and FX was like, “Cool. Do it.” So I was able to come in with a clean slate, and that was nice.

It’s pretty clear in the early episodes that you’re trying to introduce a less gender-essentialized worldview in this story. Sam, a trans character, is present from very early on, and you have scenes with other trans men who are still alive, are wearing masks, are trying to source their hormones. Without knowing much about what this adaptation was going to be like, I watched the first episode and was just dreading some moment where a character yells, “All the men! The men are all dead!” 
I saw a review — I shouldn’t read reviews — but I saw a review where someone was saying, “And why do they never say all the men are dead?” Well, because they’re not. And also, what?!

Yeah, ouch. This awareness of gender as something not wedded to chromosomes feels like it’s present but incidental in the earlier episodes. Then you get to episode five, where the show introduces Dr. Mann, and she has a hefty speech on this idea, a big thesis-statement type of monologue. 
That speech is my heart on a page. It’s the show. It’s what I’m trying to say with the show. It wasn’t enough to me to include trans characters. Obviously, that’s essential to the story, but it’s also important to deconstruct the ways we think about gender. Sam is a man. He has a very binary understanding of his gender. He has difficulties that he has to deal with, of being a visible man in this world. He’s an artist in a world where he’s wondering if art exists anymore. He has this complicated relationship with Hero, all these other things — he’s a character, not a theory.

We spent a lot of time doing research, talking to experts, but the science is also so interesting. Chromosomes aren’t equal to gender, but even chromosomes are far more varied and interesting than XX and XY. Allison Mann, played by Diana Bang, gets to have this speech where she talks about how the idea that she will somehow be bringing back men is reductive and ridiculous and also that some of the people we lost were women. That’s incredibly tragic. It’s a fact of the premise that is heartbreaking to me and to that character. It’s something I didn’t feel we could gloss over and pretend wasn’t true.

I am so much more interested in the way people treat each other and the way identity is formed from both within and without. Gender is just one component of that, but especially to how people see the show, what they know of the source material, it just felt important. It’s not the last time stuff like that was going to get said, but it felt like the first time I got to be like, “You know what? Let’s take a seat and think about this for a second.”

How much were you thinking about people who love the original book and are going to be mad that the show is asking them to take a seat and think about gender? 
You know, that stuff is in the book. It’s just a very teeny, small part of it. You’d have to ask Brian, but I’ve done interviews with him and he’s said, “If I were going to do it again, I’d do it differently. I was 25 years old. My understanding of the world has changed.” There are trans characters in Y: The Last Man the book; they’re just such a minute part of it. And you do have characters that say things like “All the men are dead,” which is contradictory.

For me, I care deeply about how gender diversity is portrayed in the show. That is way more important to me than whether that pisses somebody off. I don’t give a shit. But I also love the book, and I think it’s about identity in the same way the show is about identity. The book is maybe simpler in its understanding of gender, but it’s taking that old adage of “If women ran the world, there’d be peace” and it’s saying no, women are people, and people are flawed.

At the same time, there are trans people who’ve read the books and found them intensely, profoundly alienating. 
I care very deeply about what trans people think of the show. I’m not promising that I did it perfectly, but that matters deeply to me. And I understand the criticism of the book. I understand the criticism of even making this idea. But I think it’s a really interesting way in to talk about our humanity.

Clark first encountered Y: The Last Man when she received the comics 12 years ago from her now-husband. Photo: Courtesy of Eliza Clark

Ultimately, I felt like we could do it. We could get in there and make something that would appeal to fans of the comic book who may or may not have expansive views of gender, and maybe they could see the show and start to have an understanding about that. And also to people who felt harmed or left out of the narrative in the source material but who might be able to approach it anew, knowing it was one of the most important things I was thinking about, along with the writers, the directors, and the actors.

What were your goals in building a writers’ room for this show? 
All writers’ rooms should be as diverse as possible because all workplaces should be. Multiple points of view are always going to be more interesting than “Everybody’s a white dude who went to Harvard.” Fuck Harvard. No, I’m just kidding. [Chuckles.]

What I ended up with was a room that had a person I worked with before, a couple of playwrights, a novelist, and a short-story writer who had a sci-fi point of view. It was a great group of people, and everybody was there to bring all of themselves to the project. All of the ways that their identities intersect as people and as writers.

Regarding the speech Dr. Mann gives, the thing about thesis statements is that they’re bracing and clarifying but can also feel didactic. Was that something you thought about? 
I think it’s great. What a great stroke of luck for me that that character is a queer scientist, a woman in a man’s world, and you will find out more about who she is as the season and the series go on and why that speech is both true from a scientific perspective but also personal to her. Stay tuned for why that matters so deeply to Allison.

I don’t know how you felt about watching that particular moment, but to me, that feels really born from character. She’s so excited about it! Why are you so stupid? Why are you thinking about the world in this way? It’s obviously me being like, Fuckin’ pay attention, audience! But also, she’s saying, Pay attention, Yorick! You think you’re so important — you’re not important! I don’t think it’s didactic because it really comes from her. I also think the show only gets better at hiding that ball. Because it was important for me to be like, This is what we’re making here. Get on fucking board.

Didacticism sounds terrible, I know, but I also meant it as something potentially positive! It’s a thing TV can maybe do differently from other mediums. 
I think because it’s an adventure story and it’s kind of a Western, there are action elements and there’s humor, and there’s way more humor to come. It gets way more weird and funny as you get into the world and further away from the event itself. I think there’s something to be said about popular art. I write plays, I love theater. But you’re speaking to 200 people who elected to be there, who paid a ton of money to be there, and often your audience is very white, pretty old, and kind of all agrees with you. I think there’s something really magical about a story that can bring you characters you care about and are excited to watch go on a big adventure. If, in the process of watching that show, you start to identify with characters who aren’t you — that’s the power of television.

I also had a very different production team than I’ve ever had before. It was very women-led. All of our directors were women, most of our department heads were women, and I couldn’t let go. We met once a week to talk about movies. We all made this list of things we thought would be helpful to dissect and talk about in terms of our show; it ran the gamut from Children of Men to I May Destroy You to Thelma and Louise. There are a hundred titles on that list, and we didn’t get to all of them but we wanted to make something that had a different point of view that is rooted in, for lack of a better term, the female gaze. We decided that meant point of view, subjectivity, and detail. We get very close to people’s faces, we see their sweat, we see the roots of their hair growing out. The way we approached violence and nudity was purposeful, born from character and story.

So in episode six, there’s this scene where all the women are bathing in the PriceMax. That was a perfect example of, okay, we’ve all seen naked female bodies on television and in movies and art forever. Most of the time, that’s photographed by men, in a way that is … hungry is maybe the term I would use. Slow shots of the hip or the leg. I was like, How do we do this differently? Because it’s boring the way we’ve always seen it. How do we make it feel different and maybe make us question the way we always see it? They’re all beautiful; there’s a wide variety of body types. It’s all about their confidence, and there is a kind of seduction — not a sexual seduction, but they’re seducing Hero. She’s feeling a ton of shame about her body but also about who she is and what she’s done. She’s looking at all these women who seem to be okay with themselves.

This thread where Hero gets radicalized in this cult seems like it will be fairly close to how it plays out in the comics, but this is an area where you’ve made a lot of additions. The bathing scene, for instance, is not something we see in the book. What was its genesis? 
I’m really interested in how shame operates for these characters. For Hero, part of her struggle is that she’s an immensely privileged person who feels like she’s on the outs with the family. Her family has given her an identity that doesn’t fit her. She’s self-destructive in ways that hurt her but also hurt her friend. Because of that shame and guilt — the fear she has that maybe she’s a monster — it makes her really ripe for radicalization. It’s what happens in the book and on the show.

For me, the Daughters of the Amazons in the book is super-fun. But Hero shows up, and she’s just a member of that group — it’s like six weeks post the event; there’s a little bit of an early-aughts man-hating thing. I was interested in how something like that would work, what it says about power. There are plenty of women who’ve been genuinely hurt by men. As much as the show is about gender diversity, we’re living through a moment in history when there’s a huge reckoning about the ways men have abused power, have abused people but mainly women. I was excited to see how that female rage — which is something I feel constantly. I have spent a lot of years tamping down how angry I am. I thought it was an interesting thing to explore how a group like that gets formed and how it ends up hurting the person in her life who has really sacrificed for her. Sam is the one who gets fucked over by how much shame she feels.

That scene is so lovely and so terrifying, and there’s the similarly beautiful and scary scene in this episode when we see all these gathered women singing “Karma Police.” But the tone is very different. Can you talk a little about how you think about TV storytelling as a structure, trying to pull all these threads together, making all these tones fit in the same show? 
I see the show as an ensemble. Getting the breadth of the experiences of all of these characters is important. It is also a challenge, for sure. Every single one of the actors could have their own show. I think it’s important for episodes to stand on their own. I don’t want it to be one of those things like, Oh, you really have to watch the whole season. I hope you do watch the whole season, but it’s not a ten-hour movie. It’s a television show. But I like the ways that stories echo one another to be a surprise to me in the writing of it. I don’t approach it like, “Episode six, the theme is shame.” I like to follow the truth of the characters’ experience, but then there are echoes. We begin episode six with that Radiohead elegy and then we end the episode, but it’s a rebirth ceremony. And to be honest with you, I didn’t even realize that until I just fucking said it out loud to you, but they are meant to be in conversation with one another.

In another interview, you said you have a multi-season plan for the show. It’s exciting to hear a showrunner say something like that, but when you watch TV for many years, you start to worry that a plan like that can also be a curse. 
I do have a multi-season plan in my head. And saying it out loud is like … it is potentially a curse! But it’s also like, Don’t cancel me, I’ve got big plans. I love that this is a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. I really hope I get the opportunity to get all the way there.

Eliza Clark on Exploding How Y: The Last Man Defines Gender