A world in crisis. Sounds familiar, right? There’s the absolutely grueling hellscape—biological, environmental, economical, political—in which we have all lived the past 18 months or so. And there’s also how often this concept has come up in recent TV: The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead keep plodding along; Snowpiercer is entering its third season on TNT; the American remake of Utopia aired on Prime Video; Stephen King deigned to write an all-new ending for CBS All Access/Paramount+’s adaptation of his long-admired novel The Stand. I could make a joke here about how no one really thought Y: The Last Man would ever make it to air because the series has been in production for so long and has gone through myriad casting changes, but at this point, betting against a dystopian sci-fi series seems foolish.
And admittedly, Y: The Last Man starts not entirely dissimilarly from other entries in this genre. “The Day Before” writer Eliza Clark (also the showrunner and an executive producer) and director Louise Friedberg use a few approaches that are fairly established when kicking off a series like this: a jarring opening scene that communicates the gravity of this reality, a split timeline, rotating introductions. The source material here is a 60-issue DC Comics’ series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra that ran from 2002 to 2008, so there’s a density and sprawl to this text that Clark and Friedberg have to initially streamline and navigate. And despite the familiarity of their methodology, Clark and Friedberg draw us in with their world building, and the ensemble does too with how quickly they establish their characters and their motivations. Did this work for me because I personally sympathize with the “Men stay trash” theme of this premiere episode? That’s… not not the case, you know?
“The Day Before” begins with an establishing scene that emphasizes the strangeness, isolation, and desperation of the Y: The Last Man world. People and animals are both dead: bodies in the streets and office buildings, crashed planes and cars, men’s ties and shoes laid out as memorials and tributes. “Three weeks after,” we learn, shock has given away to decay. New York City streets are clogged with traffic, flies, and dead bodies. Amid all this, a gas mask-wearing man and a mischievous capuchin monkey walk. Who is Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), and why didn’t he die along with the world’s nearly 4 billion other men? And why didn’t Ampersand die, either? They both have Y chromosomes, and the “Event” wiped out every human and animal for whom that applied—except for Yorick and Amp, whose loneliness must be incomparable. When Yorick sprinted across the sidewalk to save Amp from that falling helicopter, Schnetzer sold their bond and their despair. If either of them were to die, how would the other live on?
We then move fully backward to “the day before,” and Y: The Last Man connects Yorick to an array of female characters who will form the rest of our ensemble. From New York City to Washington, D.C., to Skiatook, Oklahoma, we watch as the “Event” spreads. A dead buck. A dead dog. A dead mouse. Either of those things could be dismissed as individual sickness, but combined, they are a harbinger of impending doom. No one knows that yet, though, and so everyone goes about their daily lives. In NYC, Yorick, behind on his rent and fired by a 10-year-old child to whom he was teaching magic, tries to borrow money from his sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby). Yorick might be 27 years old, but he’s perpetually broke, and perpetually working on his magic show. The only thing to which he really seems committed is his relationship with his girlfriend Beth (Juliana Canfield), and after some years together, he’s planning to propose.
Whatever stability Yorick is yearning for in his life, Hero seems to be rejecting in her own. She’s in mandatory group sessions for a DUI she received. Her best friend Sam (Elliot Fletcher) is worried about her, but she blows off his concerns. She’s having an affair with her EMT coworker Mike (Daniel di Tomasso), who is married with a baby. And she seems estranged from her and Yorick’s mother, Congresswoman Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane). Jennifer has been a politician for 20 years, and she knows how to play the game. She wears a pink suit, and has a power color (icy blue), and is kind when telling her assistant Christine (Jess Salgueiro) that her chipped nails are embarrassing, and direct when telling the President (Paul Gross) that his Republican beliefs and “conservative values” are bad for the country.
But somewhat like Yorick and Hero, Jennifer is messy in her personal relationships. She’s secretly separated from their father, her husband (Sam Prideaux Robards), and is keeping up appearances for the benefit of her position. She doesn’t speak to Yorick or Hero regularly. And yet she seems smooth, collected, admired by her staff, and utterly aware of how hated she is by other women in politics, like the President’s “My father” daughter Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn). A wife, mother of four sons, and “published author” (I’m sorry, everything about Kim makes me want to use aggressively sarcastic quotation marks) who worries “we’re teaching our boys to be afraid to become men,” Kim is clearly going to be an enemy for Brown. And the same goes for Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), right? The President’s press advisor has a perpetual stink face when regarding Jennifer—the same kind of loathing and resentment she shows when at home around her husband, son, and daughter. Whatever Nora’s deal is, she certainly isn’t happy.
To be fair, though, before everything goes to absolute hell in “The Day Before,” no one seems happy. Clark walks a fine balance between writing these arguments and discussions as somewhat mundane, but also loaded with enough weight to make their timing before the “Event” seem particularly poignant. Ted tells Jennifer he wants a divorce, and refuses her attempt at forgiveness. Yikes. Beth, who is going to graduate school in Australia, not only turns down Yorick’s proposal, but basically low-key breaks up with him. When she said he could come and visit? Double yikes. Hero gets in a physically escalating fight with Mike after she learns that he lied about coming clean to his wife about their relationship, and she accidentally kills him by smashing a fire extinguisher into his neck. That temper? Triple yikes. And then the world shifts on its axis.
“The Day Before” builds a good amount of menace and tension throughout as the episode nears its final minutes: that wave of rats running through city streets, how often cinematographer Kira Kelly tracks the men—military, bureaucrats, politicians, assistants, administrators—in the room alongside Jennifer, the collapsed police officer Hero steps over as she leaves the ambulance where Mike’s body is, the fact that “no one’s answering in Israel,” and then the blood that gushes out of the President and every other man. How much blood is in the human body? So damn much, apparently. The President gets covered with it, and every other man gets covered with it, and the whole room gets covered with it—and in the span of a few minutes, the “Event” is over, and a new world has begun. This is a literal and a figurative plague, and who knows what comes next?
Yorick and Hero don’t know; they’re confused and lost in New York. Jennifer doesn’t know; she’s trying to take care of her people and figure out what the order of succession is in terms of American leadership. Perhaps the only person who really has an idea is Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), or Secret Service Agent Sarah Burgin, or whatever her real name is. “She’s a patriot, like you,” Agent 355’s handler had said when giving Agent 355 the “Sarah Burgin” alias, but for what organization do they work? What entity knew that there was a credible threat toward the President, and sent Agent 355 to his side? She’s a bomb-making expert, she’s good with a gun, and she’s capable of manipulation, coercion, and subterfuge. “Who am I?” she had asked. That might not be as grandiose of a mystery as to what caused the “Event,” but Agent 355 raises an array of questions we shouldn’t ignore, either.
- Where’s Beth?
- “Am I supposed to chase after you?” was the perfect line to communicate what a man-child Yorick is, and Schnetzer’s befuddled, apprehensive delivery was great.
- A little on the nose to have those streets of NYC traffic form a “Y” in which Yorick was trapped? Maybe, but a nice visual introduction.
- Yorick and Hero are both Shakespearean names, actually: the former from Hamlet and the latter from Much Ado About Nothing.
- Teaching someone how to get out of NYPD cuffs seems like an important life skill!
- It felt like the show just had Yorick say “Bedouin” over and over again because it is a fun word to say, but in all seriousness, Bedouin jewelry is very beautiful and their work with silver is exquisite.
- When Y: The Last Man was announced as a TV adaptation, members of the trans community wondered if the show would reflect the different conversations we’re having now about gender identity compared with the comics’ fairly strict binary. The casting of Fletcher is one step in addressing those concerns, and you might recognize him from Shameless.
- What is more delusional: Yorick calling himself “an escape artist,” or describing Amp as a “service animal”? Amp seems a little overly curious and high-strung, and not particularly service-oriented.
- Cheddar, Jack, and goat cheeses, plus tomato, does seem very good for a grilled cheese. I would add in some kind of spice, though. Maybe crispy fried habanero slices?
- Re: Yorick’s point about Australia and the Hemsworths, this is my opportunity to yell that Blackhat is actually a good movie, dammit!