Y: The Last Man

5 out of 5

Created by: Eliza Clarke

covers season 1

Specific timings on this will be a little fuzzy, but Y the Last Man was one of the first books to convince me to become a weekly comic reader. In my not-unusual path to becoming an avid buyer and collector, my grandfather used to buy me a semi-random spattering of books when I was a single-digit youth (mostly TMNT and Spider-Man and then I’d read my brother’s Archies), but when he became too old to make the trips to the mall bookstore where he bought those, I had no reliable avenue for continuing the hobby, or the cash flow for it. I don’t know if I really understood how / when books were released back then anyway, just that I would hope I’d be getting whatever issue would follow up on a To Be Continued storyline, which wasn’t always the case.

Maybe a decade or so later, I worked at a store that had comics, and it had been that long since I’d read a new one, so I didn’t pay them much mind, majorly out of ignorance: I understood there were new comics coming out, but since they didn’t factor into my world at that point, I still didn’t really “get” that there was a cadence to such things. A mix of direct “you aren’t reading this?” encouragements and indirect osmosis – seeing friends at work return from the comic shop with weekly hauls – shushed me to the darkside, and between reading the first Y the Last Man trade, and then borrowing the monthly floppies and catching up to the current point in the story – this is where the timing is fuzzy; I think the run was in its teens then – had me asking when comics came out, and where I could buy them, because I needed to be on top of this story. I vaguely recall my first, purchased-upon-release issue as being #20.

I was onboard with Y until the end, for sure, and it also made me a strong fan of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s work, which lasted up until I kinda fell out with Saga. And I’m frontloading this TV adaptation of Y review with this info to give some color to how I feel about the show: because even way back when, the indulgences that eventually turned me off of Saga were apparent in Y, and there were sections of the story and characters that just didn’t click. The core cast – 355, Yorrick, Dr. Mann – were absolutely enthralling, though, even when I was hating one or the other, and Vaughan had undeniably landed on a (no pun intended) killer story hook and rollout of reveals that made you want to stick it out to the end. Later on, when I’d reread the series, it would hold up not especially well – the writing was weaker and more manipulative than I remembered, setting aside the evolutions in conversations on gender and sexuality that’d happened in the meantime (and hopefully my awareness regarding those same concepts). The point being that I have no outright love for the series, and was actually kind of expecting the worst, given that a TV version had been stalling for years, and then it felt like it dropped without due ceremony for such a regularly cited all-time-great comic series.

A comparison point here is Preacher: a series I used to love, then reread and didn’t love as much, but was interested to know what a TV show would be like – this is rather exactly the same as Y. However, with Preacher, I could shrug it off as not for me after two episodes. But right away, with Y, I felt that it was for me, and knew that I would not be shrugging it off – that it would take quite a bit to tarnish all of the right, smart moves the creatives had taken with the original material in bringing it up to 2021 standards, apparent right from the get-go and maintained throughout.

The concept is immediately graspable: an event happens – a plague of some type, perhaps – and every animal with a Y chromosome immediately dies, save… Yorrick. And while your rolling around the Shakespearian implications of that name, it’s also time to bear in mind that Yorrick also has a pet monkey named Ampersand, also male. A man and his monkey survived a gender apocalypse; and the man isn’t all that great. Yorrick is a bit of a louse, actually, a typical “nice guy” who’s been able to lead a privileged, white life – and while smart enough to acknowledge that, maybe not smart enough to explore it too much – thanks, at least in part, to his mother being a high-ranking government official. As portrayed by Ben Schnetzer, Yorrick isn’t even particularly likable, though he is very recognizable as the generic dude who’s able to half-ass his way through things.

While Yorrick navigates the days post this happening, which is graphically, frighteningly displayed by the series as sudden phalanxes of both animals and men collapsing, spewing blood, the vehicles they were driving or flying crashing or going into free-fall, his mother – Diane Lane – finds herself succeeding up the line to president, and must now lead the all-female cabinet through trying to equally soothe the public as much as possible, coordinate aid where possible, and also maybe figure out just what the heck happened. Lane brings the insanity of this juggling act to life, as does the script, skillfully maneuvering all of the politics that would still be present in such a scenario and mingling it with the need to maintain structure.

…We’re also introduced to the mysterious “Agent 355” of “The Culper Ring,” an unknown-motivated league of presumable assassins who would seem to serve the US government, with 355 assigned to presidential protection duty the day of the event, and also present when Yorrick finds his way back to his mother – a short-lived reunion until 355 convinces the president that the next thing to do is get Yorrick (and Ampersand!) to the type of geneticist – one Dr. Mann – who might be able to actually figure out why he survived, and apply that. Ashley Romans’ 355 is vicious, convincing as all get out and unpredictable and focused. While there’s some shipping vibes to her pairing with Yorrick, the show does not play into it, and allows Romans to keep her edge and veracity throughout. Diana Bang’s Mann is maybe a little too quirky at first, but Bang finds the needed rhythm to balance out this trio very quickly, and we are engaged in all of their pushes and pulls in the dynamic, as the 10-episode season finds them traveling by whatever available means – and in secret, of course – to get to a properly supplied lab, beset by variously combative interruptions along the way.

These are the main beats. On the side is Yorrick’s sister (Olivia Thirlby), a recovering drug addict, and Marin Ireland’s involvement with a group of increasingly violent women who start to model themselves after Amazons.

A lot of reviews of the show have taken it to task for some of its messaging, as its gone out of its to be much more inclusive of how transgender people and our updated understandings of gender would flow into this drastically shifted society. There’s also been upset over its political focus, as you have some clear Republican / Democratic extremist vibes in the White House, and, of course, some of the changes its made to the source material. And while I would agree that maybe some beats were more effective in the book, and that it’s bitten off a large conceptual story, and perhaps triggeringly deals with isolation and a disease at a time when COVID is still very much alive, the key to me that’s made this a vital show throughout every episode is that I never have gotten the sense that creator Eliza Clarke and her writers are trying to “solve” anything, or even wax poetic about it. It’s a rather brilliant combination in that regard, because we have the already established template to give the plot a clear drive, which opens up the show to be able to pose questions without answers; to put things out there for us – for its characters – to think about, and then iterate on that. To that extent, some of the changes its made to Yorrick, and Beth, his sister, are quite brilliant, and a better fit for the material. For example, Yorrick’s arc in the book starts out a bit more chummy and likable before he’s taken down several pegs; he’s also, clearly, the main star. Schnetzer’s willingness to ride with the show’s presentation of Yorrick as more of an immediate prat is great, and since his character isn’t necessarily the lead anymore – with lots of screentime given to all of the characters mentioned above, and their storylines – it’s not as much of a gamble as it may seem. And whether intentional or not, it also helps to curb the inevitable male POV that informed the original telling – simply by dint of the writer being male – and further backed up by the plenty of female writers and directors on board…

Pacing and production are also to be praised, and the smart use of effects – that monkey never looked fake to me. As to that first bit, Clarke had stated she had a clear several-season plan in mind, and none of this felt stretched out or compressed to hit that mark – the story rolls out at just the right pace, ante-ing up at good marks, and building and building on its bits and pieces to put us in an exciting place by season’s end.

What’s not to be praised is that the show was canceled after one season.

However, Clarke has been pretty open about hoping that someone out there picks it up for another channel, and if we can maintain the same crew behind the scenes pulling the strings, I pray for the same – Y the Last Man, despite not being a favorite comic of mine, was weekly viewing that I dropped everything to hit play on as soon as an episode dropped.