Apocalyptic events are all the rage on television, whether it’s zombies, a deadly virus, or in the case of Y: The Last Man, an unknown event that causes (almost) every mammal with a Y chromosome to begin spewing blood from every orifice shortly before dying a gruesome death. And yet, no matter how it happens on a particular show, the end of the world as we know it is often the first chapter in the story to come.
Expanding on that tradition somewhat, FX Network’s adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s comic book series tells a twofold story. Along with investigating the mysterious event that kills every male on Earth except for one slacker and his pet monkey, the series also tells a story that both explores and challenges how we understand gender and biology, as well as what form a world excised of men might take.
It’s a lot of narrative weight for a series to lift, and although it stumbles a bit early on, FX’s adaptation of Y: The Last Man manages to balance its many complicated thematic elements while taking some fresh approaches to the postapocalyptic adventure saga.
From page to screen
First published in 2002, the comic book series Y: The Last Man chronicles the adventures of Yorick Brown, an aspiring escape artist and the last man on Earth after every mammal dies except for himself and Ampersand, his capuchin monkey. The adaptation of the series casts The Book Thief actor Ben Schnetzer as Yorick, who — like his comics counterpart — is forced to confront his lifelong aversion to responsibility when he becomes humanity’s best hope for continuation as a species.
Joining Schnetzer in the cast is Shameless and NOS4A2 actress Ashley Romans as Agent 355, a government operative with a shadowy background who’s tasked with keeping Yorick safe, and Oscar nominee Diane Lane (Unfaithful, Lonesome Dove) as Yorick’s mother, Sen. Jennifer Brown, who is elevated to the U.s. presidency after all of the men ahead of her in the line of succession die. They’re joined by Olivia Thirlby (Juno) as Hero, Yorick’s paramedic sister, and Amber Tamblyn as Kimberly Cunningham, the daughter of the former U.S. President.
While the adaptation translates various plot points and thematic elements of its source material, it also diverges from Vaughan and Guerra’s comic in significant ways — particularly when it comes to the story’s handling of transgender identity and present-day political themes — and it’s a fascinating path to explore in the context of the show’s universe.
As Yorick, Schnetzer delivers a performance that serves as both the audience’s surrogate in the show’s chaotic postapocalyptic setting and the saga’s central narrative device, as he bumbles from one location (and entirely avoidable predicament) to the next in a world where he has suddenly become everything from a priceless commodity to a harbinger of doom, depending on who’s asked.
Over the season’s first five episodes, Schnetzer does a nice job of conveying just how unfortunate it is that, of all the men in the world, Yorick is humanity’s last best hope for survival. A hopelessly immature chatterbox prone to reckless decisions, Schnetzer’s Yorick is every trust fund kid who grew up without a sense of responsibility or consequences, and the actor strikes the right balance between naivety and idealistic impulsiveness in his portrayal of the saga’s titular last man.
In a role dramatically expanded from that of the comics, Lane gives an impressively nuanced performance as Senator-turned-President Brown, who finds herself leading the nation during the greatest disaster in human history while dealing with the uncertainty of her children’s whereabouts in a dangerous world. On the flip side, Tamblyn delivers a similarly layered performance as the scheming, right-wing rival to Brown’s presidency, whose tragic loss of her own children — all boys — manifests in a political power play to preserve her family’s legacy.
The series’ early standout, however, is Romans’ 355, a chameleonic agent with a lethal skillset and a low tolerance for Yorick’s recklessness. Romans effortlessly shifts between the different personas 355 is forced to take on over the course of the season’s early arc, from an undercover mole to a buttoned-down bodyguard within the capitol, to a remorseless killer willing to dispatch anyone who threatens the safety of her charge.
As comfortable with the series’ action sequences as she is with its more subtle, dramatic moments, Romans quickly establishes 355 as one of the series’ most fascinating characters, and it will be interesting to see what else the story throws at her in future arcs.
Sometimes too real
Over the course of the season’s first six episodes, Y: The Last Man is at its best when it’s out there exploring its own strange, new world, and not the machinations of governing it.
The show’s first season devotes nearly a third of its narrative to the power struggle that emerges within the U.S. government between President Brown — a Democrat — and the former Republican president’s remaining supporters. The series extrapolates from the country’s current, all-too-real political divide to depict a scenario in which the surviving liberal and moderate factions within the government become reluctant allies against the xenophobic, antiscience, Biblical extremism of the modern Republican Party a sit attempts to seize power from Brown and her supporters.
It’s an uncomfortably plausible element of the story — particularly when it comes to Tamblyn’s character, a thinly disguised stand-in for Meghan McCain — and occasionally distracts from the arguably more interesting exploration of what would really happen if all the world’s men (and male mammals, for that matter) suddenly dropped dead. The effects of the event on agriculture, industry, and the military offer plenty of unique and intriguing plot points to explore, along with Yorick and 355’s cross-country journey, but the story occasionally feels bogged down in a far-too-familiar political and ideological left-wing, right-wing battle.
The world without men is a fascinating place in Y: The Last Man, so it’s a shame the series spends so much time on a philosophical conflict we already know all too well.
With excellent performances all around from its talented cast and a story that manages to feel fresh and interesting to both the comic’s fans and newcomers, Y: The Last Man is at its best when it’s exploring the myriad effects of this apocalyptic event on the world we know.
If the series lives up to the high bar set by its comics source material, there’s plenty of potential for it to have the kind of long-running appeal of The Walking Dead or other series that spun out of a terrifying, apocalyptic moment and flourished in their exploration of what happens after the dust settles. After all, the premise of Y: The Last Man offers plenty of unique storytelling opportunities as a society rooted in patriarchal systems suddenly has its foundation swept out from under it. How will it stand? What will be the foundation for what’s to come? Could it indeed be remade in a better, more balanced way, or will race, wealth, education, and other factors simply replace gender as the great divider?
The early episodes of Y: The Last Man take some big steps in exploring the answers to those questions in a way that feels new and both frightening and fascinating in equal measures, and if the series can pull itself out of the political mud with more conviction, it promises to be one of television’s most fascinating new arrivals.
FX Networks’ Y: The Last Man series debuts September 13 on Hulu streaming service via FX on Hulu.
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