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‘Y: The Last Man’ Still Had a World Left to Explore

Canceled during the run of what could have been its initial season, "Y: The Last Man" had pieces in place to improve on an already solid start.

Y: The Last Man -- "Mann Hunt” -- Season 1, Episode 5 (Airs September 27) -- Pictured: (l-r) Ashley Romans as Agent 355, Ben Schnetzer as Yorick Brown. CR: Rafy/FX

“Y: The Last Man”

Rafy/FX "

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Y: The Last Man: Hulu (as part of the short-lived “FX on Hulu” brand, which is now back to simply being “FX” again)

Sometimes, the world ends on TV at a gradual pace. Things start to turn bad bit by bit until very little seems recognizable. But “Y: The Last Man” didn’t so much boil slowly the proverbial frog as much as it flash seared it in a giant pool of lava.

2021 was a pandemic year on screen, too, as evidenced by the ever-growing roster of shows charting the arrival and aftermath of a mysterious virus. The end of the “Y: The Last Man” premiere has maybe the most brutal depiction of one of those biological forces ripping through society. There’s barely a chance for overseas rumblings to make it back to the Presidential stronghold before people in the room start dropping to swift, bloody deaths.

The show’s mostly linear approach to following Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) and the scattered survivors isn’t necessarily better or worse than that of other shows with a more elastic relationship to time. “Y: The Last Man” says goodbye to the old world in a definitive way. The rest is consumed by discovering what’s left in its wake.

Knowing as much makes “Y: The Last Man’s” cancellation earlier this fall even more of a bummer. This wasn’t a series that artificially put off answers as a means of keeping viewers invested. The efficient groundwork at the outset meant that the show had a number of different threads it could follow at any given moment. As IndieWire’s Kristen Lopez pointed out in her review of Season 1, those initial choices do make for a dense story to follow, with some difficult, sometimes inelegant juggling early on.

But much as its characters start to get a better grasp on the logistical and emotional realities of their new world, the show does, too. It’s easy to draw stability from two characters at the center as dynamic and compelling as 355 (Ashley Romans) and President Brown (Diane Lane). Theirs isn’t a complete, resolute steadiness — each performance benefits from moments where those around them get a peek behind their confident exteriors — but each provide the assurance you need that “Y: The Last Man” is in safe hands.

The show doesn’t focus all its energy on chaos and carnage (though the bodies dangling out of car windows and lying underneath tarps are certainly an ever-present reminder). Instead, the best parts of “Y: The Last Man” focus on a world that’s empty more than it’s broken. The response to that void is a strange mix of grief, anger, confusion, despair, and (for some) relief. In showing the different forces that fill the hierarchical void left behind by a total wipeout of those with Y chromosomes, “Y: The Last Man” finds a middle road between a fight of moral absolutes and an easy “we’re all the same” approach. There are groups who look to control and some who look to unite. A world without the majority of men isn’t one without protests or uses of excessive force or political infighting.

There’s also another stark distinction made between what these characters want for themselves and what they want for the world. That sense of balance and sacrifice comes through in Nora (Marin Ireland), a former DC aide just trying to keep a glimmer of hope alive for her daughter. Even with the plot-based table-setting and heady discussions of what each survivor owes to the world that remains, “Y: The Last Man” still has the room to let these characters process each new location and set of circumstances. This cast, filled with standouts, manages to communicate so much in those moments. Ireland stares down a vulture, Lane conveys the stress of prepping for a big motivational speech, and Romans somehow conjures the emotional weight of a flashback without the show ever having to cut away from 355 sleepwalking. (Also doing incredible work here: composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir, who delivered one of the year’s best TV scores.)

There are stretches of “Y: The Last Man” that are essentially a roadtrip drama, with travelers forced to assess new surroundings on a near-constant basis. That can make a story feel a little unwieldy, having to readjust to a new set of rules, a new power structure, a new way of eventually getting out alive. If anything, “Y: The Last Man” welcomed the messiness that comes with not staying in one place. It’s easy for a pandemic series to feel like an endurance test. “Y: The Last Man” had all the pieces in place to keep exploring instead.

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