“Heroes are powerful. Before you know it, the men and women in the wild-oat patch and their kids and the skills of the makers and the thoughts of the thoughtful and the songs of the singers are all part of it, have all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero. But it isn’t their story. It’s his.”
That quote comes from a 1986 essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which Ursula K. Le Guin tears into our culture’s obsession with the hero’s journey. She argues that while epic tales of heroism are indeed exciting, they’ve evolved from a narrow, patriarchal understanding of what it means to be human. Early humans were mostly gatherers, so the first tools were most likely containers, or “carrier bags,” yet culture has taught us that the first human tools were weapons. People (men) who took big hunting risks didn’t do so out of necessity; there was plenty of food. While everyone else was busy cooking and raising children and straight vibing, these men went looking for a fight and in the resulting tales fashioned themselves the main characters. Nobody was telling stories about gathering, so the hunters’ stuck. When we understand culture “as originating from the use of long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing,” it makes sense that our approach to storytelling would prioritize conflict, too. Carrier-bag stories, by contrast, buck rugged individualism altogether. Sure, conflict remains, but it’s a means to a more truthful, universal end. “Instead of heroes,” she writes, “they have people in them.”
Y: The Last Man showrunner Eliza Clark has read this essay. I know this because she posted a photo of it to her Instagram stories recently. But even if she hadn’t, it would have been obvious during Marrisville’s going-away party for our gang, when Sonia delivers a monologue that finally persuades Yorick to let go of his loyalty to Beth and sleep with her.
“You think of all the moments in your life as dots on a line,” she says. “When you’ve done bad things, you hope that that’s not really how it is at all. Because if it is, it’s just the moments before, and the moments after the worst thing I ever did. Which is that I killed someone … If time was more like an ocean, then you can’t just pick one moment out. It’s all mixed together, the good and the bad.”
“Essentially, it’s my sneaky little ‘not all stories have to be masculine spear stories,’” Clark, who also wrote the finale teleplay, told me. (Of course I replied to the IG story.) “Maybe some stories can be carrier-bag stories — or ocean, in our case.”
As its first season concludes, with the question of whether and where the show might return still up in the air, one thing is certain about this series: It has fully carrier-bagged its source material. Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s 2002 comic, beloved as it may be, was a spear story. The reader may have spent time with other characters, but there was never much doubt that Yorick Brown was always the titular, proverbial Hero (pun not intended). In the comic’s gender-essentialist world, he was the undisputed Key To Putting the World Back Together Again, to quote Kimberly. As a result, the rest of the world was forced to live in his story.
In the TV series, however, Yorick has become one part of a whole: he matters, but he isn’t the only one who matters. “It’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this [carrier] bag,” Le Guin wrote of moving away from hero stories. “He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag, and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.” (Speaking of rabbits: RIP, all of rabbitkind.) The show has thrown Yorick into the carrier bag, so to speak. As the comic’s protagonist, he was set apart. The world, its billions of survivors, were happening to him. He starts the show in that mindset, a passive, happy-go-lucky softboy living on his mother’s dime and assuming his mediocre magic act will eventually bear fruit.
That attitude doesn’t win him the spotlight this time; it turns him into a walking MacGuffin. He’s tried to coast the way he always has — “moving through rooms unseen until he wants to be acknowledged,” as Angelica Jade Bastién put it in her review — but in the version of this story where everyone participates, a privileged attitude is akin to objectifying yourself. His passivity has itself become violent: In the first season’s final minutes, he learns of his mother’s (assumed) death; beholds his sister’s new cult identity; and watches Sonia’s savage, sudden murder play out in front of him, all in a matter of seconds. People are dying simply because he exists. To counter that, he has to do something about it and give up the spear. “I don’t want to be a liability anymore. Or a pawn, or a Y-chromosome with legs,” he sobs to 355. “If we do this, I can’t be helpless.”
That she agrees to train him isn’t even close to the most surprising thing 355 does in this finale. She’s finally allowed someone inside her forcefield and is already reaping the benefits of vulnerability. Sure, it takes waking up in the middle of Main Street one morning, then admitting that the only thing that’s ever helped her sleepwalking was a sandbag, but when 355 lets Allison curl up against her shoulder that night (!) and she wakes up exactly where she fell asleep, wrapped Allison’s limbs (!!), she’s forced to concede that human contact might be worth the trouble.
Maybe it’s that thawing that inspires her to offer not only to quit the mission, given that the president is (reportedly) dead, but also the uninterrupted story of how she herself was orphaned. It weaves together the lounge singer and small-handed survivor she becomes in her dreams; her grandmother, a singer, brought her to a club when she was 12, stoking her parents’ fury. The whole family died on the way home when a drunk driver sent their minivan swerving into a tree. Maybe it took a full night’s sleep, or a crumb of physical affection, but she’s finally in a place where she can make meaning from her history: “I should’ve died, but I didn’t,” she tells Yorick. “I survived. You will too.” She doesn’t even seem all that worried about being followed and called in by what’s left of the Culper Ring.
Sonia’s ocean of time might have resonated with Hero, too, had she not gotten the woman killed. She’s murdered several people now and hasn’t done a lot to redeem herself. If this show had been a spear, it would have relegated her actions to Yorick’s character development. Instead, this episode’s flashbacks offer some context for how she got here, and her spiral starts to make a lot more sense. Watch your brother’s flimsy magic act celebrated while you get scolded for becoming an EMT instead of getting a Bachelor’s degree; watch your father blatantly cheat on your mother without comment, while your own unsavory romantic choices are torn apart at the dinner table; get “grilled for like, nine hours” because your mom is being vetted for vice president, while your brother breezes through his interview in 30 minutes — you might develop a drinking problem, too. “We both spent our whole lives trying to be perfect,” Nora remarks, comforting Hero as she reels from the (false) news of Jennifer’s death. “You just cracked sooner.”
Whether Hero actually ever tried to be perfect, beyond a few horseback riding medals, is beside the point. That’s just the winning tactic that Nora — or should we say Victoria? — deploys ever so delicately to win her loyalty. Having lived her entire life in the shadow of people who made themselves the main character, Victoria instinctively knows that the spear story is not long for this new world. She knows, as Le Guin put it, “that the story is approaching its end … The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.”
Roxanne’s is the Amazons’ killer story. She’s manipulated vulnerable women, dragging them into her hero’s journey as minor supporting characters. She’s not concerned with strategy or observation; she’s here to bully and seek vengeance. With every word in this episode, she betrays her self-image as a lone ranger on the warpath to redemption. She spends so much time self-mythologizing that she doesn’t notice that no one in Marrisville is anything close to a “soccer mom.” At least half the Amazons die in the outmatched gunfight that ensues, a horror she frames afterward as a worthy, heroic sacrifice.
It would have been all of them, too, if Victoria hadn’t tallied the score quickly and made her big move at the exact right moment. Come to think of it, Victoria has always subscribed to Le Guin’s idea of conflict: it’s “just one of those damned things you have to do in order to be able to go on gathering wild oats and telling stories.” She proposes strategies that minimize violence and account for unknowns. She knows how to parry Roxanne’s insults to her advantage. She recognizes the snipers on the roof a split second before they open fire. She adapted to Mack’s new maturity in the middle of the shootout. And she surrenders on their behalf, a split second before 355 would have gunned Roxanne down for trying and failing to rush her. By the time Roxanne throws her tantrum back at the community pool they’ve designated as their base, Victoria has already won.
“I’ve known a million men like [Roxanne]. She wants to change you,” she tells the mourning survivors, interrupting Roxanne’s tirade berating them for their cowardice. “She wants to brand you, chip away until you’re exactly what she wants you to be. Any of that sound familiar?” She levels a gun at the demagogue’s face. Roxanne tries to mock her, but she doesn’t even get to finish her sentence before the bullet is in her gut and her body is in the water.
“We don’t have to reinvent ourselves,” Victoria says to the shocked but not outraged survivors. Hero, fresh off confessing to her new mother/leader her latest most precious secret — that Yorick is still alive — stands with her, cementing their new leader’s supremacy.
A carrier bag story works just fine for Victoria. Worse comes to worst — that is, if she gets her time to shine, come on, networks — she can always beat someone to death with it later.
• In addition to stalking 355, the Culper Ring has also tracked down and apprehended Jennifer and Beth at the Brown home, where they had taken refuge after escaping the Pentagon during the mêlée Some freak serendipity has Sam arriving at the house at the exact wrong moment, so the three of them are being held in a nondescript facility, presumably, the same one where that beacon is leading 355, Allison, Yorick, and Ampersand.
• We had like five minutes to spare this week for Kim and Christine, now hiding out in a barn. Those five are dedicated to a horrid little sex dream Kim has about Yorick. It’s bookended with imagery of reproduction and control (she spontaneously lactates and then tops him, restraining his wrists). Afterward, she tells Christine that she’s “seen … all of our futures,” so I’m sure everything’s going to be fine with her, and we don’t need to worry about it!
• Yorick comparing 355 to his mom, though…………….? Yikes.
• I love the way cinematographer Catherine Lutes frames half of Yorick and Sonia’s kitchen conversation through the reflection on the microwave — a clever way of making us feel like we’re eavesdropping.
• I swear to god, there’s just something about Ben Schnetzer and Olivia Thirlby’s sibling chemistry (oh, grow up) that is just plain magic. Even that thirty-second reunion was eerily a cut above the rest.
• Hehe, “Johnny Appledick.”