Viewers may get a small sense of deja vu digging into the first three episodes of Y: The Last Man, which premiered on FX on Hulu on Sept. 13. The show follows the broadest arc of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s 2002 comics series Y: The Last Man, which launches when every mammal with a Y chromosome suddenly drops dead, except for one New Yorker and his pet monkey. But the TV series takes far more time to develop and humanize the female characters than the comic did. Part of that process involves amplifying a political arc that emerges and is dropped early in the comic: the partisan battle for control of the White House. That struggle is a major arc in season 1 of the show, and in spite of the fantasy elements, it seems a lot like stories in the news every day over the past five years.
Diane Lane’s character, Jennifer Brown, is a senator who suddenly becomes president of the United States when all the men in the hierarchy above her die. And she sometimes feels eerily like an echo of current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. One of her rivals, Kimberly Cunningham, is the ambitious, politically involved daughter of the conservative male president who just died. (When the story begins, Kimberly is hitting talk shows with her new book, Cancel Culture and the Death of Conservative Dignity.) Actor Amber Tamblyn has spoken about looking to Ivanka Trump as an inspiration in playing that role. And a third fiercely conservative character, who emerges later in the story, holds up viewpoints reminiscent of Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Showrunner Eliza Clark laughs when asked about the similarities. “Those parallels are obviously there,” she tells Polygon. “I don’t want to play coy and say ‘What are you talking about?’”
Clark says she and the Y: The Last Man writing team did take some inspiration from present politics, but one of their major goals with the show was to make sure that the characters weren’t pastiches or parodies, and that they were more representative of some of the major cultural strains in America today. “The thing is, Marjorie Taylor Greene is bigger than Marjorie Taylor Greene,” she says. “When Marjorie Taylor Greene is no longer in office, there will be another Marjorie Taylor Greene. I don’t really care that much about Marjorie Taylor Greene herself, but I am interested in what creates that kind of conspiratorial thinking, the xenophobic America-first kind of idea. All that is fascinating to me.”
Clark says Tamblyn’s character wasn’t solely inspired by Ivanka Trump, either — “there are many daughters of presidents that you could look to for that character, and she’s also very much her own person.” But drawing on a reality familiar to American viewers does help focus the story and make it more believable, in spite of the big fantastical elements.
“My main goal in this first season was taking this big high-concept, world-building idea and really grounding it in people you recognize, or who you are scared of, but can see yourself in, or see people you know in,” Clark says. “That was about creating three-dimensional characters who have jagged edges, and who have things you love about them, even if you think they’re horrifying.”
One of Clark’s biggest goals with the show was escaping some of the comics’ gender essentialism, with women conceived in broad, simple ways, largely driven by their devotion to old gender roles. She had the same goal with the political plotline, as the writers tried to overcome simple “all liberals are X, all conservatives are Y” thinking.
“Part of what’s fun about the political story in this season is, in terms of escaping binaries, ‘Democrat and Republican’ is a binary that we cling to in our world,” Clark says. “But within those parties, there are vast differences in points of view. I’m really proud of the ways the Republican women are portrayed here. They’re very different from each other. There are truces that have to be formed among them, because they have very different ideas about what should happen.”
The politicians in Y: The Last Man also have very different ideas about what happened to all the males. Initially, they assume America is facing a foreign biological attack that went wrong, and they’re divided about how to respond. Which raises the question that’s going to bother anyone watching this series: Will the TV show follow Vaughan’s comic on the “What killed the men?” question, by withholding any answers until the end of the story, and then offering a choose-your-own-reason variety of possible causes?
“I love the way the book deals with this question,” Clark says. “I think it’s not that interesting, what happened to everyone with a Y chromosome. Because it’s not real. It’s a thought experiment. To me, the far more interesting question is, ‘What are the philosophies that are formed, and the groups that are formed? What are the organized ways of thinking about what happened, and the way we decide to find answers? How does that create a group identity?’
“So I’m interested in paranoia and conspiracy, and I’m interested in the religious groups that form in the wake of this event. I’m less interested in saying, “Oh, this is definitively what happened.” Maybe that speaks to who I am as a writer, and what I’m interested in in stories. For me, when I’m watching science fiction [with a mystery element], I want to be like, ‘All right, move on, because I don’t care.’”
So will the show never really address the “How did the men die?” question? Clark laughs again in response. “Do you really need to know?” she asks. “I do think there are mystery elements that we will solve and answer. It’s not like I’m just going to tease the audience and never give explanations, because I also don’t love that way of storytelling. But I am far more interested in how people organize their thoughts about what happened than I am in what actually happened.”