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‘Y: The Last Man’ EP Eliza Clark says the show deconstructs identity in bold new ways
It’s taken 19 years for Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s hit Vertigo comic book series, Y: The Last Man, to finally get adapted into television show — even though the story has been in development, first for film and most recently for TV, for almost that whole time. Across 60 issues, the comic posited a contemporary story where all living mammals with a Y chromosome suddenly die, and what’s left of the world is left to the women. Just one man is found alive, average white guy Yorick Brown, and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand.
A lot has happened and changed in the two decades since the book was written, but it’s still out of the norm to have a female-centric comic adaptation be on television that is all about telling its story from a female point of view, with an almost entirely female cast and a female showrunner. FX’s adaptation of Y: The Last Man, which debuts Sept. 13 on FX on Hulu, checks all of those boxes, and showrunner Eliza Clark is beyond proud to take a book that she loved and make it even more diverse and challenging for today’s audiences.
SYFY WIRE recently got on the phone with Clark to talk about telling a diversity of women’s stories, the good and the bad, against a post-apocalyptic backdrop.
First off, the series was shot during — and premieres in — a pandemic. Considering it’s taken so long to get a Y adaptation greenlit, are you worried audiences won’t want to watch a show like this right now?
It was interesting, and in some ways, COVID made me feel grateful that while our show is yes, apocalyptic and, yes, a lot of people die, it is not an ongoing pandemic story. It's an event. A bunch of people die and it's tragic and horrific. But then it's about what comes next. Because I'm not sure I want to really watch a show with an ongoing pandemic. [Laughs.] And I think the show gets funnier and funnier as the world becomes what it's gonna become.
Women survive this event but that doesn’t mean the world is suddenly all roses. Talk about how you portray that.
One of the things I love so much about the book is that it doesn't let people off the hook because of their gender. It so much defines us beyond gender. You know, I think a lot about that photograph in The New York Times of women at the Women's March. It's a bunch of white women, and then a black woman in front of them [has a sign that says], “White women voted for Trump.” [Our writers] think a lot about that. Women uphold patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, cis, hetero-normativity. All of these systems that we think of as kind of outside of us. But I think they get inside of us in ways we don't even recognize. An event like this creates an opportunity for people to start to deconstruct which parts of their identities are imposed, and which parts are innate.
Yorick is the title character of the comic and this series, but who would you deem the protagonist of your adaptation?
It’s Agent 355 (Ashley Romans).
She’s an enigmatic woman who clearly has an extremely skilled background and isn’t afraid to make dark choices. What is at the core of her journey?
I think all of these characters are dealing with a sense that they are the last of their kind. In our version of the show, and this is sort of true also in the comic book, 355 doesn't know. She had a handler. Her handler was a cisgender man and he's dead. And so, she's not sure if the organization she works for even still exists, which I think is crazy. Each of these characters has their own sense of why they're alone.
One of the most interesting characters from the start is Nora (Marin Ireland). Can you talk about portraying a woman in her situation?
What's interesting about Nora is that she is this person who had all of the trappings of a successful life. She had the husband and the job and the kids. And you can tell this in the pilot, that she wasn't satisfied. Suddenly, she finds herself alone. She doesn't fit in with the suburban stay-at-home moms from her neighborhood. But, also her big, important job at the press office of the president is no longer valuable in this world. She's stripped of the things that she thought her life was made of, and what her identity was made of. I think she feels oddly strange about being alone with her daughter. I don't think that was ever in her plan. You see in the pilot that the kid is wakes up from a nightmare and is calling for her dad. That scene and Nora's discomfort with motherhood continues in a way that I think is really exciting, and you don't see a lot of that on television.
You also have a trans man character, Sam (Elliot Fletcher), who really expands the gender conversation far beyond what the comic did.
Yes, Sam finds himself as the last man in a group of women who have been harmed by men at a certain point in the story. I think he feels conflicted because it's isolating and lonely. But on the other hand, I think he also understands why these women are wary of men. And the harm that's been done to them, so he's navigating that and navigating his relationship to his best friend.
On the flipside, Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn) feels like a character we see a lot of, especially conservative TV news.
Kimberly is a really interesting character. She's created her entire identity around being a mother, and being a mother in a particularly gendered way. She's the author of a book called Boy Mom. She's built a career and a brand around motherhood and then she suddenly finds herself childless in a world where it's possible another child may never be born again. She feels lost. And she is clinging to the patriarchy. She's desperate to hang on to a gender binary because it helps her make sense of the world.
One of the interesting threads the show portrays is that politics are not rendered moot even in a global crisis. That is true in the real world but how do you portray that throughline in the series?
Early in the comic book, the wives of Republicans storm the White House with guns. They're like, "We should have our husband’s seats in Congress and the Senate!" Kimberly is not a character in the comics. But, fans of the comic book will recognize where the seeds of stories come from. What I was really excited by, is we have a lot of different types of both Democrats and Republicans. We thought a lot about how this show is about escaping binaries, and that doesn't just have to do with gender. It has to do with how people see the world and the way that human beings are meaning makers. For example, Jennifer (Diane Lane) has her coterie of advisers, which includes a Republican, Lisa Murray (Laura de Carteret). They've been in Congress together for a long time. Even in the pilot, you see that this Republican president is actually a friend of Jennifer's. They've worked together. And there are some of the women in the Pentagon who feel that Jennifer is more moderate than they would like. Some of the progressive women, feel like she doesn't go hard enough. Or you have Kimberly, who is critical of the Republican woman. These things aren't a monolith. Being a Republican woman doesn't mean one thing. And being a Democratic woman doesn't mean one thing. We're really trying to use this story and these characters, who are I think are really three-dimensional, to explore the ways that the binaries start to break down. You look at them more closely.
Bringing it back to Yorick (Ben Schnetzer), in the book he’s not especially proactive. He just wants his girlfriend, Beth, back. Will his wants expand in the series?
Yorick is definitely a beloved character. He is also a character that I love. But, Ben brings a very specific thing to him. Also, the depths of the relationships that we've created with this family heavily rely on the book, but I think we take it in new directions. In the first season, as in the book, Yorick is motivated by looking for Beth (Juliana Canfield) and trying to win back, or find the love of his life. I think that he is also having to be confronted with his own ideas of what masculinity is and who is he? In terms of how we thought about identity, Yorick is a person who at the beginning of the show really identifies himself as Beth's boyfriend. He attaches his identity to hers. She is ambitious, and she is talented, and she is going places. And I think he is content to hitch his wagon a little bit. He has his own ambitions and his own fears and all those things, but he's a little scared of the expectations that have been put on him by his famous mother and his successful father and his sister, who we find out has flamed out a little bit but who is incredibly smart and has been a perfectionist her entire life up until recently. In the way that Kimberly's identity is motherhood and then suddenly her children are gone. I think for Yorick, his identity is bound up in Beth and suddenly he's without her. And he's not sure who he is in this new world.
What episode in Season 1 are you most excited for audiences to see?
I really get excited at the end of Episode 4. I'm excited about that world. And then later episodes, the world starts to really change and I think that's really exciting. I think the groundwork and the character work and watching what these characters go through in the first half of the season, really earns us the fun and excitement and weird, strange stuff is that is coming in the second half of the season.
Y: The Last Man premieres on Sept. 13 on FX on Hulu.