Film & Television

In ‘Y: The Last Man,’ Women’s Work is Never Done

Seventy-four percent of computer scientists are men, 85 percent of government officials are men, as are 92 percent of Fortune CEOs, 95 percent of airline pilots, 97 percent of engineers. If all those men were to suddenly disappear, what would happen to the world’s infrastructure? 

This is the question immediately posed by the new Hulu series Y: The Last Man. Although Hulu, being a subscription streaming service in 2021, doesn’t rid the world of men as peacefully as the word “disappear” might suggest. The demise of every person with a Y chromosome (as well as every male mammal) is a shockingly gory process. A simple nosebleed is followed almost immediately by bulging eyes and arteries. Then, a voluminous quantity of blood is spewed, and the poor man pretty much drowns in it. For today’s audience, used to the decomposing flesh of The Walking Dead or the graphic torture of 24 and The Handmaid’s Tale, this is par for the sanguinary course.

What’s less graphic and far more interesting is the state of the world going forward after the bloody event. Whether it’s a comment on greater human nature or an accusation about the lack of gender parity in science and leadership, or some combination of both, the world post-men isn’t the idyllic, compassionate, non-violent place we might assume. The Dalai Lama, a person I admire and would never quote lightly, once said, “The world will be saved by the western woman.” Well, the western women of Y: The Last Man are too busy dodging falling airplanes, trying to reboot power plants, scavenging for food and water, and (in an eerily familiar scene) storming the Capitol to save the world.

Kimberly, the daughter of the late (male) president, urges the new (female) president to recover the contents of a cryo-genetic center. “Without men, there is no future,” she reminds her. 

President Brown responds, “We’re just trying to survive the present.”Y: The Last Man is based on a critically acclaimed comic book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. Published from 2002 to 2008, the 60 individual issues, which were also compiled into bound graphic novel collections, offered multiple theories for the extinction of men. These ranged from a chemical weapon gone awry to the advance of cloning, from a cursed amulet to a sexist interpretation of the Rapture. Co-author Vaughn teased:

“I feel that there is a definitive explanation, but I like that people don’t necessarily know what it is. In interviews we always said that we would tell people exactly what caused the plague. The thing was, we never said when we were going to tell. We weren’t going to tell you when we were telling you, I should say. We might have told you in issue #3. There might have been something in the background that only a couple people caught . . . The real answer is somewhere in those 60 issues, but I prefer to let the reader decide which one they like rather than pushing it on them.”

Originally planned as a feature film, Y: The Last Man has been in and out of production for more than a decade. The current series, which runs through November 1, was created and written by Eliza Clark with additional writers Katie Edgerton and Donnetta Lavinia Grays. All of the first season’s directors are women as well: Destiny Ekaragha, Louise Friedberg, Daisy von Scherler Mayer, Mairzee Almas, Cheryl Dunye, Karena Evans, and Lauren Wolkstein. And, despite the show’s title, the emphasis of the first few episodes has focused on the female survivors.

These include Congresswoman Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane, wonderful, as always), who assumes the presidency when multiple men in line for it before her die; her daughter Hero (Olivia Thirlby), an alcoholic NYC EMT; Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), the prior administration’s press secretary; Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn), the late president’s daughter, a conservative and manicured mom evocative of Ivanka Trump; Marla (Paris Jefferson), the former first lady, suffering from PTSD; Dr. Mann (Diana Bang), a geneticist, willing to work outside or against the system; and Agent 355 (the magnetic Ashley Romans), a multitalented, sometimes ruthless, special agent who reports only to the president whoever he — or she — may be.

Then, as the title certainly implies, there’s the “last man” (Ben Schnetzer). He is a self-absorbed, out-of-work magician, and the only known cisgender man left on Earth (accompanied by the only known cisgender male animal, a CGI monkey named Ampersand). He happens to be President Brown’s son, which leads naturally to suspicion and conspiracy theories, so he must stay hidden and protected. And, his name is Yorick.

“A fellow of most infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. My father taught Shakespeare.” he tells Agent 355.

“They named you after a dead clown,” she responds.

A lot has happened since the Y: The Last Man series was published, and showrunner Clark has updated the material accordingly. There’s a sharp and hostile divide between the U.S.’s Republicans (the pre-plague administration) and Democrats (led by President Brown). A political opponent of Brown’s is described as “the anti-immigrant, anti-government, anti-vaxxer with a Twitter following. Didn’t she, like, try to bring a gun to a spin class?” And there’s growing awareness and acceptance of the fluidity of gender. In the original comics, men died and women lived. In the television series, things aren’t quite so binary. When Yorick questions the fact that he’s the only man left, his mother shrugs, “We’ve found plenty of men. None with a Y chromosome.”

Clark describes President Brown as “a person who has had ambition in the back of her head her entire adult life. She has been very careful and played the game and has been the only woman in the room for probably much of her career. Finally, she gets what she wants, but it’s in the context of the worst disaster the world’s ever seen. She’s got every finger in the dam, but the dam’s still going to burst. She is totally compromised, making morally gray decisions about how she’s going to deal with [her son]. He may be the answer to how humanity survives, and she keeps the secret. But does she keep the secret because it’s the right thing to do or because she’s his mother?”

To date, Y: The Last Man raises many more questions than it answers. But it’s smart, timely, compelling, and extraordinarily well-acted television. In fact, Lane’s performance alone is worth 60 minutes of your time each week. 

Hillary Clinton once said, “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of power in the world.” Lane’s President Brown may have inherited a morally ambiguous ticking time bomb, but she has my vote.

Y: The Last Man is available on the subscription service Hulu. You can enjoy a one-month trial offer here.


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