tv review

The Handsome Tragedies of Y: The Last Man

Photo: Rafy Winterfeld/FX

Everyone in the new series Y: The Last Man — no matter race, gender identity, or closely held loyalties — is experiencing the worst day of their lives in perpetuity. They’re surrounded by the iconography we’ve come to associate with dystopia: splintered glass and crashed cars, dirty fingernails and hollow eyes, rotting animal carcasses punctuating a snow-dappled field, the shock of blood against pedestrian environments. Posters, strewn with pleas for “Our Sons” or the stark visage of a president believed to be hiding truths about the wreckage humanity is now navigating, line the streets. A helicopter teeters on the edge of a building, overlooking a desolate metropolis undone as much by external chaos as the internal horrors of humankind. Here, the series is at its least intriguing.

We’ve seen this imagery countless times before, sometimes artfully (Children of Men) and other times bluntly (The Walking Dead). That it glides by rather than pierces is telling given the world this show has been born into. Almost 700,000 people are dead from COVID-19 in this country alone. Fierce ideological divides and ongoing chaos have seeped into every aspect of our lives. All these ideas are tangled within the series itself, and Y: The Last Man simmers in charting what happens among people in the wake of great collective and personal trauma. In the “event,” everyone with a Y chromosome, mammalian animals included, died brutally and bloodily. The fallout sees survivors jockeying for power and control even as it becomes evident that such things are unavailable for absolute possession. But it also sees people finding communion amid horror or clinging fiercely to ideologies that can no longer serve them.

Y: The Last Man, which airs Mondays on FX on Hulu, was ushered into existence by showrunner Eliza Clark after such a lengthy production history, I’m surprised it got made at all, let alone this well. At its pinnacle, it functions boldly on multiple levels — as a gripping thriller cast against a world plunged into dystopia, a curious thought experiment blooming with ideas about gender, a portrait of a family’s healing backdropped by darkness, and an adaptation that is already besting the graphic novel source material by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra by pushing its gender and political commentary into fascinating, if a touch didactic, directions.

The series poses increasingly tricksy questions as it charts the consequences of this cataclysm and the lives of the only beings with a Y chromosome spared: the somewhat sad-sack, late 20-something escape artist Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and his beloved monkey, Ampersand. Sure, there are the knotted scientific and political questions around how all this death and sorrow truly started. But I’m more interested in what lies elsewhere. How can we heal in the face of continuous trauma? Is the nature of humankind to destroy and subdue, or are there gleams of tenderness and love to be found? How do women perpetuate the very systems of oppression that have led our world to rot? How can we rebuild toward something better than what came before? All rich questions. After watching the seven episodes made available to critics, it’s clear the artists behind the series are interested in prodding this story in directions even bolder than I expected, balancing swift entertainment with heady political and bodily consideration. But will they have the gumption and intelligence necessary to answer these questions with the fullness they deserve?

Clark and her collaborators are smart enough to know that Yorick shouldn’t be the sole emotional focal point of the series. He’s a touch lovable and more than a little naïve, a trust-fund kid supported by his parents — including his congresswoman mother, Jennifer (Diane Lane), who, because of the line of succession, becomes president of an increasingly torn United States of America —and unable to grasp the gravity of his fate beyond whatever present predicament he’s navigating. He’s preoccupied by a search for his girlfriend, Beth (Juliana Canfield), despite the fact that she turned down his proposal right before everything went to hell. After a brief reconnection with his stunned mother, who is camping out with the administration in the Pentagon, Yorick is sent to find a geneticist to untangle the truth of his survival, accompanied by Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), a grimly determined undercover operative who saves his life countless times. Agent 355 is the kind of character who brings up more questions than answers, especially since the shadowy assignment she received right before the crisis — to protect the now-dead president (Paul Gross) — may be more integral to the mysteries of the event than anyone realizes.

Yorick moves about the decay around him like a child, never heeding the obvious danger — as Agent 355 tells him in episode four, “You need to grow the fuck up.” How Yorick functions isn’t always rooted in curiosity so much as privilege; he’s used to being given the benefit of the doubt, of moving through rooms unseen until he wants to be acknowledged. His life has been defined by ease. Honestly, Yorick is the least compelling aspect of the series, even though Schnetzer plays him with an easygoing charm. What inspires is the broad range of characters interlocking into his story, all of whom are scrounging together an existence among the debris of a past that can never be returned to.

Among them is Yorick’s sister, Hero (a cutting Olivia Thirlby). In the world before, she was an EMT in a complicated relationship with her married boss, a man she accidentally kills in the heat of an argument. Using the gender apocalypse to hide her crime, she finds herself on the road with her all-too-kind friend, Sam (Elliot Fletcher), who struggles mightily as a trans man in places that require him to constantly explain who he is. Sam exemplifies the tension between the old world and this new one, the people we are and the person others want us to be for their own ease. His efforts to find testosterone or navigate an enclave of armed, transphobic women who provide shelter and supplies he and Hero could never obtain otherwise are touching reminders of not only the various losses these survivors must face, but the seeming impossibility of finding solace.

The dangers of this new world are hammered home most eloquently in Hero and Sam’s encounters with this dangerous collective, led by former detective Roxanne (a chilly and evocative Missi Pyle). Brutal, commanding, and undaunted, these women see themselves as Amazons, performing baptisms and naming rituals among the ruins of the big-box store they now inhabit. Their practices seek to grasp power from a world that previously denied it to them; they view Sam as an aberration and are willing to beat anyone who talks to him alone within an inch of their lives. Consider an exchange between Sam and one of their members in episode four: With a gun pointed at him, Sam is denigrated for “choosing to be a man.” The series is most ripe in its gender commentary through this story line, uncovering the ways people with little power (in this case, cis women) are willing to harm those below them on the social totem pole in order to feel more secure in their station. Here, at the intersection of gender and power, we find a knotted, festering emotional and psychic wounding.

Conversations about gender increase in their didacticism when Yorick and Agent 355 find the geneticist Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang); as she says, “Not everyone with a Y chromosome is a man.” But such statements are useful for understanding the shape of Y’s world-building and the ways the writers are pushing the graphic novel beyond a frustrating thought experiment into something truly engaging with potential radicalism. By opaquely noting that biology and gender aren’t as neat as we’d like to pretend they are, the series cracks open a gimlet-eyed perspective on the questions and possibilities driving current conversations around gender. The show is also willing to touch on some bitter subject matter, revealing the various ways women perpetuate the patriarchy in order to hold onto illusory scraps of understanding and power.

The locus of villainy in the series is rooted in these kinds of women, forces Jennifer must navigate as she’s thrust into the role of president with the task of essentially saving the world. She proves to be cunning, kind, blunt, and increasingly adept at noticing where her own weak points remain, especially once Regina Oliver (a slimy Jennifer Wigmore), a more senior member of the government whom Jennifer once publicly (and rightly) deemed a xenophobe, is found alive in Tel Aviv. Diane Lane’s performance has a sharp magnificence; she’s at once a bruised woman trying to make sense of what’s left of her family, protect her son, and rebuild the country into something better than it was before. The impossible odds she’s up against multiply as Kimberly Campbell Cunninghan (Amber Tamblyn), the daughter of the previous president, starts to exploit Jennifer’s weaknesses and grow her own following — not only to “take back” the White House, but bring back men period. You’ve seen women like Kimberly before: glossy, obsessed with presentation, foot soldiers for the patriarchy who so fiercely believe in the power of men they’ll break the world in two for them. Everyone is grieving, but Kimberly can only see her own pain, and teaming up with Regina in order to dismantle Jennifer’s presidency is just one of her twisted goals. These are white women who know how their tears are valued and won’t hesitate to use everything at their disposal to get what they desire — no matter the catastrophic effects.

Y: The Last Man comes at a time when white showrunners are keen on exploring and critiquing whiteness, from HBO’s The White Lotus to longer-running works like The Good Fight. This is complicated territory that nearly every white showrunner has failed to fully grapple with. These works often think merely mentioning privilege and whiteness, or positioning it as an individual failing, is enough to thoroughly critique a system that has caused untold horror throughout the world. Regina and especially Kimberly prove to be damning emblems of the nature of white femininity, but the show trips up by making them arch in a way that is gratingly entertaining but not always as revealing as it should be. Yes, women like this exist, but when characters scream things like Kimberly does in episode seven — “We have to use him to bring back men … We will be a nation of mothers again!” — I worry the writers don’t have the finesse to wholly understand, interrogate, and critique the mores of whiteness without simplistic answers or bluntness. It’s not enough to lay all the blame at the feet of Republican monstresses when the truth is in fact far more damning.

Part of the problem is that the show is not served well by Amber Tamblyn’s performance. When called toward great emotion like the penultimate scene in episode seven, which see Kimberly trembling from totemic loss, her mouth agape as she releases a guttural scream through the halls of the Pentagon, Tamblyn is too aware of what the character represents to infuse her with nuance or incite mixed emotions in the viewer. But the larger problem comes down to the writing: Kimberly edges toward parody in many scenes, a Meghan McCain-esque simulacrum of the white woman so keen to support the patriarchy, she is wholly incapable of seeing how it destroys everything around her. Kimberly doesn’t feel lived in; she feels like a point hammered home, an easy layup to gain points for criticizing the obvious rather than revealing with canny precision that Kimberly and Regina’s whiteness isn’t created in a vacuum or a singular experience, but representative of a system of oppression and power. This point bleeds into another curious issue at the core of the series: No one seems to be questioning whether bringing back the United States of America is a good, worthy thing, or if starting completely anew is the better path forward.

Alongside President Jennifer Brown, the most intriguing character by far is that of Agent 355. She’s a walking question mark that, seven episodes in, we’ve only touched the surface of. She’s slippery in the best way, especially as it becomes apparent that her loyalties are growing increasingly complicated beyond fealty for Jennifer. She’s steely without being blandly strong. She’s a mystery without feeling emptied of interiority, the way far too many Black women characters can feel in the hands of a white showrunner. The best visual moments are often written across actor Ashley Romans’s face and physicality: a glare, a swift punch, an eye roll toward one of Yorick’s misplaced jokes, a marked tension in her clenched jaw.

This is as much a testament to Romans’s skills as it is a mark against the show’s inertly beautiful visual efforts by cinematographers Kira Kelly, Claudine Sauvé, and Catherine Lutes. Sure, the series is handsome the way most television is right now: Characters careen down narrow, amber-lit hallways, trees pop with color against the graying world they’re rooted in. There are some intriguing editing choices here and there; a few images tickle the imagination but don’t quite stick to it. Despite the argument that television has become broadly cinematic, most TV still moves and feels like television visually — more intent on getting across information in the simplest way possible than putting care into every shot, every piece of production design, each garment of costuming in a way that feels revelatory or brims with intrigue. The show also moves at a clip, bouncing between various story lines and places in order to find rich veins of thought and narrative experimentation. But I sometimes wished it would slow down a beat, circling around the wounds these characters carry instead of trying to make sense of why this happened.

Y: The Last Man has already started to gain praise for its all-women slate of directors and cinematographers, as well as its majority female writing staff. Such a thing shouldn’t be presented as novel, nor is it — Ava DuVernay’s series Queen Sugar has been doing something similar for six seasons. What will be more instructive to the overall mission of Y: The Last Man is whether its artisans can thread the needle of critiquing whiteness, transphobia, and narrow gender ideals in a way that is potent and revealing. The show has so far proven to be a complex, engaging, and even thrilling work of adaptation. But if the writers and artists bringing it to life can’t properly grapple with the questions they seek to illuminate or push its visual dimensions further, the series won’t touch the hem of greatness within its reach.

The Handsome Tragedies of Y: The Last Man