There were many ways a screen adaptation of Y: The Last Man could have gone very, very wrong. In theory (or at least in studio-pitch-meeting format), the premise of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s celebrated comic sounds perfect for the Golden Age of television: What would happen if every man on earth suddenly dropped dead, except for one guy? I mean, look at The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s such a popular adaptation that the studio greenlit an additional three seasons of plot beyond the events of the book! Even a former president is recommending Naomi Alderman’s feminist dystopia, The Power!
But the source text itself? As any fan who has recently gone back for a reread knows too well, the content of the 2002–2008 comic … uh, shall we say, hits different in 2021. It turns out that when a man explores the “What if men disappeared?” concept, the results tend to look more like “What if a bumbling 20-something white guy suddenly became the most important person on the planet?” (Worth mentioning here that multiple women did it first.)
In a nutshell, the comic interprets a world after Y chromosomes from a man’s perspective, and I don’t mean the protagonist’s. It’s chock-full of just about every offensive term or joke or characterization you can imagine for the marginalized. Gay people, trans people, Black people, Indigenous people, disabled people, Muslims, Palestinians, sex workers — no one is left unexploited, except, ironically, the one group the premise suggests is worth critiquing: cishet men. It’s deeply gender essentialist, of course. It makes queer female desire titillating, it fridges women left and right, and it suggests that the world would be just as bad, if not worse, if men weren’t around. The IDF is weirdly prominent. But worst of all, despite the main plot engine being the survivors’ ability to cope amid unimaginable, apocalyptic trauma, it doesn’t actually give a lot of thought to the interiority of its female characters beyond their relationship with men. In practice, the comic is a post-9/11, Male Feminist™ edgelord fantasy that reads more like a horny white dude’s action-packed thought experiment than a true engagement with its own radical ideas.
So it’s a little bit of a miracle (especially considering its checkered development history) that what we actually have here is a show that does backflips around its fraught source material. With a woman at the helm (Eliza Clark) and a writers’ room and director slate completely devoid of men (for the six episodes sent to critics, at least), Y: The Last Man is a thoughtful, gender-expansive revamp in which people still feel and function in the absence of Y chromosomes.
In this version, we get to know everyone a few days before the Event. Once a witty, square-jawed ne’er-do-well, the titular last man, 20-something Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), is now an all-too-recognizable, bad-Tinder-date sad boy whose rich parents still pay his Brooklyn rent. He’s an “escape artist” who just lost his only student to a magic camp and has a pet capuchin named Ampersand (in the comics, he’s supposed to be training Amp as a service animal), which he keeps in a tiny cat carrier. And like so many scruffy trustafarians before him, Yorick is under the impression everything will work out for him in the end.
This is evidenced by a conversation with his sister, Hero (Olivia Thirlby), in which we learn Yorick has blown his entire budget on an expensive engagement ring for a girlfriend who clearly has one foot out the door. He can’t imagine why said girlfriend, a grad student named Beth, wouldn’t want him to tag along to Australia, where she’s headed on an academic program, much less sacrifice professional opportunities to make their relationship his sole life goal. (“You’re all I’ve ever wanted” is definitely a thing every upwardly mobile woman with an unemployed boyfriend wants to hear, right?) “You’ll be bored, and you’ll blame me,” she says, only to be proven right 15 seconds later when he calls her an asshole for not appreciating the sacrifices he makes for her. When Beth walks out, she doesn’t come back. And when every other man drops dead the next morning, Yorick is free to interpret her absence as a star-crossed mistake and spend the rest of the series obsessively tracking down a woman who might not want to be found by him.
Not that his sister isn’t just as much of a mess. An alcoholic EMT going to court-mandated AA meetings and sleeping with her boss in the back of their ambulance, Hero Brown is equally good at life choices. She takes her blessings for granted, too, namely her uneven friendship with Sam (Elliot Fletcher), who accompanies her to meetings in thankless solidarity. (As a trans man, Sam is about to get plunged into a whole different flavor of hell with the sudden extinction of the Y chromosome.) But freakish luck seems to run in the family, because while Yorick appears to be the only man spared in this extinction-level event, it also spares his sister from a manslaughter charge when she accidentally kills said boss, a married new father, in a heated argument about his failure to come clean to his wife — mere hours before he would have bled out anyway. (I don’t know if the AA handbook covers how to cope with getting away with murder.)
Yorick’s and Hero’s issues make a lot more sense when you realize that their mother is a congresswoman. Representative Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane) rounds out the trifecta of Brown family lottery winners (or losers, depending on how you look at it). Where the liberal congresswoman was more Barbara Boxer in the comics, Lane’s Jennifer is half Pelosi, half “the Squad,” wielding pink Women’s March-y power suits and press savvy to undermine the smarmy, old-school-conservative President Campbell on subjects like internet hate speech in the press.
On the eve of the Event, Jennifer Brown’s reputation is on the rocks after Campbell half-heartedly considered her for his cabinet. (Despite alluding to Gamergate and white supremacy, the show’s biggest weakness thus far is that its Washington feels bizarrely moderate, almost in denial of the ravages of the Trump era.) Her marriage has all but crumbled (context clues suggest that she worked too much, he cheated, they separated). Her son is helpless, and her alcoholic daughter isn’t speaking to her, the latter a fact passive-aggressively emphasized by Campbell’s own daughter, Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn), when they run into each other at the First Lady’s birthday party at the White House.
But the next day, when a meeting with the president and the joint chiefs suddenly turns bloody as every man in the room simultaneously erupts and drops dead, she suddenly finds herself on top. As the highest-ranking woman in the room, and with any more senior women in the administration having gone MIA, it looks like Representative Brown is now … President Brown.
Others, naturally, don’t fare as well: Tamblyn’s Kimberly, a pitch-perfect Meghan McCain type, starts as a Republican First Daughter and mother who writes sanctimonious books about cancel culture and how bodily autonomy is violent oppression of her sons’ right to pull their girl classmates’ hair. The Event takes not only her family but also everything she staked her identity on — namely, the patriarchy. Similarly, one of President Campbell’s aides, Nora, has also lost her place of power, even if her life before the Event was mainly serving an unfulfilling parade of incompetent, condescending men.
But the unluckiest person of all might be the story’s real MVP, the woman known only as Agent 355 (Ashley Romans). As a member of a super-secret, none-more-black-ops ring called the Culper Ring, 355 is a terrifyingly capable ghost assassin whose job is to smother domestic terrorism plots in the cradle. The day after she’s “promoted” to a long-term undercover assignment in the Secret Service regarding a “credible threat” to the president, both her male handler and the only person in government who knows her job exists — POTUS himself — are wiped off the board. Now she’s just a ghost, adrift in the halls of the Pentagon as “Agent Sarah Burgin,” an operative without an operation.
These individual backstories allow this show to do something the comic never really seriously attempted: They help drive home the uniquely fucked-up devastation of watching people drop dead around you en masse. People including your own family. People including your tormentors. (Even people who aren’t men.) The comic tries to force-feed us this trauma from the jump, opening with a nameless female cop shooting herself with her sidearm, unable to imagine a world without men.
But the nightmare is slower onscreen, more affecting, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such a change comes from a team of creators who all have skin in the game. The show takes its time easing into the ice-cold ocean of horror that this story demands. Jennifer and 355 witness the seat of power collapse, but Nora discovers her own husband and son dead in their bed. Already in a state of shock from her crime of passion, Hero stumbles through the body-filled streets as mothers scream for help, little girls stare dead-eyed from crashed cars, airplanes literally fall from the sky. It’s chaos, but not the slick, macho, action-movie sort. This time, finally, you can feel it.
• Proposal: In addition to a rating, every episode of television should be required to warn audiences if a dog is going to die onscreen. Just one woman’s take!
• The Yorick/Hero sibling dynamic is perfect. (Source: experience.) Schnetzer and Thirlby even look like they could be Diane Lane’s kids. Here’s hoping their limited relationship in the comics gets an expansion in the adaptation.
• Still not over how well the dinner argument positions the presumed hero as a walking red flag. When Beth tells Yorrick that she didn’t ask him to get her dry cleaning or pack her stuff, his “I know, I did it because I’m a nice guy and I love you, even though you make me very fucking angry” response made me full-body cringe. Beth, girl, you better run.
• 355’s new introduction is infinitely better than the weird international rescue mission from the comics. Now, by building a bomb for a wannabe-gangster white guy to pass off as his own and then casually detonating it remotely, killing him and the white-supremacist terrorist buyers instantly, she proves how thankless, difficult, demeaning, and uncompromisingly badass her job is. (Cool people don’t look at explosions, and neither does 355.)
• The biomechanics of the Event are muddled thus far. Hopefully we’ll get a scientific explanation (beyond ominous foreshadowing) for why random animals die as early as 24 hours before the rest of the Y-chromosomed world simultaneously bites the dust.
• The TV series might be veering away from its source material plotwise, but cinematographer Kira Kelly is doing work out here, keeping at least the occasional nod to its comics origin. The hard cut from a bloody rat corpse in the Cunninghams’ green room to bloody steak at the First Lady’s birthday party? The shot of the general bleeding out over a U.S. map? That’s pure graphic-novel gold.