Y: The Last Man Review: Shining a Light on Underexplored Corners of the Gendered Apocalypse
After more than a decade of attempts to bring Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man comic book series to life, a TV series inspired by the 60-issue storyline finally lands on FX next week. A lot has changed since the comic concluded in 2008, not only from a media perspective but also from a cultural standpoint, in regards to both the storytelling witnessed in comic book adaptations and the gender dynamics throughout the world. The wait for this adaptation has largely paid off, with the FX series managing to faithfully bring expected moments to life, while also incorporating more perspectives on the catastrophe that expands upon the gendered apocalypse.
For seemingly no rhyme or reason, the world as we know it is entirely upended when a global catastrophe takes place in which every mammal with a Y chromosome dies a gruesome and bloody death, with the exception of Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and the capuchin monkey Ampersand he was training to be a helper animal. Every society on the planet is understandably shattered as they not only attempt to move forward without any men, while also hoping to figure out how such a plague occurred, as Yorick wonders why he was spared from the seismic disaster.
At the height of its popularity, the Y comic series earned excitement about a possible adaptation, with those initial plans being for a film, as was the case with most adaptations in the 2000s. While fans were surely disappointed that they had to wait this long to see this story brought to life, the first episode alone makes it clear that this concept never could have succeeded with a two-hour run time.
With the premiere episode, audiences are given a much better grasp of the state of society with more context than what readers were given in the debut issue of the comic. Viewers meet Yorick, though they also meet his sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby), an EMT and recovering addict, and his mother Jennifer (Diane Lane), a politician who is dealing with the sexism of American politics in addition to a separation from her husband. Fans will recognize a number of other key figures from the comic series, while also introducing Amber Tamblyn's Kimberly Cunningham, the daughter of the sitting president. This first episode also tips you off to the biggest difference between the book and this TV series, which is that, while assuredly an integral component of the overall narrative, Yorick is merely one part of a larger experience that the entire planet is suffers from.
One of the biggest ways in which pivoting away from Yorick impacts the series is that the levity and aloofness he was frequently contributing to the plague-riddled world isn't nearly as prominent, resulting in a more grim and dramatic exploration of the aftermath of the scenario. Yorick isn't making quips about being an escape artist or struggling through his own stunted maturity on every page, allowing the audience earn a better grasp on just how disturbing the scenario is. While this is sure to provide some narrative tweaks further down the line, it's this slight deviation in tone that is far more apparent over the course of the series' first six episodes than its impact on story.
Lane and Thirlby wholly embrace the source material to honor the complex, competent, yet struggling figures fans met years ago in the pages of the book. Jennifer and Hero are no longer relegated to being defined by their connection to Yorick and are allowed to flourish in their triumphs and challenges by earning more screen time, whether we're witnessing Hero's battles with addiction and remorse over her trysts with a married man or seeing Jennifer have to accept the responsibility of becoming the leader of the free world, attempting to restore basic functions to society while desperate to find out how her kids are doing. Tamblyn's Kimberly, however, quickly becomes the standout, having to deal with the deaths of her father, husband, and sons as she has to sit on the sidelines as a conservative who sees a liberal politician seemingly ruin her family's legacy. Given the real-world political turmoil in recent years, fans will connect all too strongly with Kimberly, recognizing her as one of the many talking heads we'd see on social media, though Tamblyn conveys her with a nuance that doesn't quite inspire abject animosity.
Speaking to the eerie familiarity Kimberly will evoke in viewers, the contention among the world as it copes with this extinction event feels all the more disturbing, as well as believable, in 2021 than it ever would have prior to the coronavirus pandemic. While showrunner Eliza Clark might not have intentionally embraced modern-day sensibilities for the narrative, seeing opposing political groups grasping for power while populations struggle to even function hit that much harder as we attempt to recover from a pandemic that has largely seemed to avoid the top 1% of society. Of course, "anti-vaxxers" isn't a new term by any stretch of the imagination, but hearing it used in the series makes it hard to forget it was written and filmed before vaccinations were even being distributed around the world for COVID-19, which speaks not only to Clark's outlook for the series, but also the strength of the ideas originally explored by Vaughan and Guerra.
Another element of the series that can be handled with more sophistication now than a decade ago is the overall concept of gender. The original comic could have been reduced more to "all the men die," yet this series has a much better grasp on the fluidity of gender and the notion that there's a lot more to identity than biology. In addition to casting trans actor Elliot Fletcher as Sam, who struggles not only with the impact of the plague but also how the resources of testosterone will be running out imminently, the series also reminds audiences just how many seemingly cisgender women were oblivious to possessing a Y chromosome, as they also perish in the disaster. While these first six episodes don't fully explore the nature of how your identity isn't determined by your DNA, it at least hints that things aren't nearly as binary as the original comic detailed, though this is more reflective of how society has evolved as opposed to the original narrative being reductive or dismissive of such notions.
Despite how gender and identity have evolved over nearly two decades, Y: The Last Man also reminds us of the imbalances in various corners of society that are just as prevalent. The Walking Dead has given us a world in which the dead come back to life and Avengers: Endgame explored the impact of half of the human population of the planet vanishing, but Y's apocalypse doesn't quite fall into either category. Tragically, it wasn't a fair or impartial eradication of humanity, as those with a Y chromosome still dominate the fields that make society largely functional, a stark reminder of the lack of progress in so many arenas. Viewers will become less interested in seeing Yorick evade detection from women who will clearly be shocked to see that he survived and more invested in seeing Jennifer and her colleagues aid the pockets of the population who are most in need of rescue when power grids are no longer being monitored and basic utilities have almost no one capable of carrying out operations.
The wait for Y: The Last Man to be seen in live-action has been worth it, as shows like Legion, Preacher, and Watchmen have offered much more mature and complex interpretations of its source materials when previous years likely would have seen Y be a much more literal translation. By expanding the scope of the world, we're given a much more harrowing experience with fewer lighthearted moments than fans might have been expecting, with the source material serving as the overall blueprint that is still being followed, but with flashlights being shone in the overlooked corners of the concept that had previously gone unexplored. While there's still a lot of room for the series to flourish or fall short, these first six episodes show a promising and sophisticated start for one of the most beloved comic book series of the past 20 years.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Y: The Last Man premieres on FX on Hulu on Monday, September 13th.0comments