“Y: The Last Man’s” title really should have been retooled. I haven’t read the DC Comics series it’s based on, but the TV adaptation is about a lot more than the last cis man on earth — though the show is about that, too. Arriving shortly after the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and in the midst of a devastating, 18-months-and-counting pandemic, a political landscape that becomes more divided every day, the ceaseless culture wars, and a looming climate crisis, “Y: The Last Man” is an apocalyptic tale exploring grief, gender, power, and hope. It’s a show that’s most interesting for the questions it asks, rather than the answers it proposes.
If every mammal with a Y chromosome suddenly, inexplicably died — as is the case in “Y: The Last Man” — what would happen? Besides the collapse of biodiversity and the abrupt impossibility of reproduction, what exactly would go down? Would there be chaos or would the people left behind (mostly cis women) figure out a way to move forward? What would that even look like? Would gender roles matter at all anymore? Feminism? The women who previously defined themselves solely in relation to men and “traditional” values, what would they do? What about the women who were repeatedly denied opportunity and respect in the old world?
“Y: The Last Man” delves into all this and more via a sprawling cast of characters, including Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), a congresswoman who becomes president after what I’m calling The Event (the line of succession was basically wiped out because the previous administration — and the government as a whole, honestly — was dominated by men); Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), a mysterious covert ops agent who takes zero shit; Hero (Olivia Thirlby), Jennifer’s troubled daughter; Sam, Hero’s best friend, a trans man who encounters a spike in transphobic hostility after the cis men perish; Kimberly Campbell-Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn), a Meghan McCain stand-in and a thorn in Jennifer’s side; Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), an aide to the former president who is struggling to maintain her sense of self; and Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), Jennifer’s son, Hero’s brother, and the only cis man who, for reasons unknown, has managed to survive. His male pet monkey also made it, much to the interest of geneticist Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang) — although she’s not as impressed by Yorick’s presence.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the characters try to adjust to their new reality, cope with the unimaginable loss, and begin building anew. As for Yorick, the few people who know about him are wondering if there’s something specific about his biology that helped him survive — and if it could be replicated and used to save the human race.
I respect “Y: The Last Man” for reminding us that — despite all the shit men have done to women throughout history — women are not necessarily better. We’ve just been denied to the opportunities, access, and privileges cis men take for granted. To paraphrase one of the many protestors who inhabit the show’s world, The Event didn’t kill sexism along with all the men. It didn’t eradicate racism, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-choice rhetoric, or any of the other evils that plague modern life, either. The women of this show — like all women — are complicated, flawed, and make mistakes. Jennifer, her allies, and her enemies devolve into petty power struggles when they should be focused on making sure the people they represent have access to power and clean water. Kimberly and her cohort are still throwing out terms like “RINO” even when the world is ending, and political labels are increasingly meaningless. A group of domestic abuse survivors are so relieved to be free of the men who terrorized them that they cross over into TERF territory — and view Sam as something of a gender traitor. (This goes without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: he’s not. Duh.)
So, no, a world made up predominately of cis women would not automatically be a utopia. And a show with a premise as politically and socially loaded as this was never going to be perfect — and “Y: The Last Man” definitely isn’t. From the character of Sam, to the behind-the-scenes hiring of trans writer Charlie Jane Anders, to Dr. Mann matter-of-factly explaining that chromosomes do not dictate gender, the series tries to rectify its source material’s gender essentialism and trans, nonbinary, and intersex erasure. However, its treatment of trans women leaves a lot to be desired, at least in the episodes I’ve seen. It’s hinted, but never fully clarified, that trans women died alongside cis men during The Event. But they are not mourned the way the men are; the narrative does not really reckon with their absence.
Again, I believe “Y: The Last Man” is a series best enjoyed for the conversations it will start and for the thought experiments it will inspire. Not for nothing, it’s also a series that’s as committed to women’s voices off-screen as it is on-screen. Eliza Clark, who developed the project for TV, serves as showrunner and the entire first season is directed by women, including Cheryl Dunye and Louise Friedberg. Melina Matsoukas is among the exec producers and the comics’ co-writer Pia Guerra produces. Even with all its darkness, it’s nice that “Y: The Last Man” lets us spend time in a woman’s world.
The first three episodes of “Y: The Last Man” are now streaming on FX on Hulu. New episodes drop Mondays.