Eliza Clark Sees a Future for Y: The Last Man

It is always disappointing when a television show doesn’t have the chance to end on its own terms, but FX’s decision to cancel Y: The Last Man after its first season is particularly sad. Following a fraught and lengthy adaptation journey, including a movie that was never made and a failed TV project with a different creative team, showrunner Eliza Clark plotted multiple seasons of storytelling that embraced the original comics while also reconsidering and reckoning with their essentialized and reductive approach to gender.

It’s additionally frustrating because the first season of Y grows stronger as it goes on. As the primary adventure engine gets under way — featuring the titular “last man,” Yorick (Ben Schnetzer); bioengineer Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang); and their bodyguard–mission specialist Agent 355 (Ashley Romans) — characters whom Clark adapts or created for the TV series also come into their own. The American government collapses; Nora (Marin Ireland) takes over the radical Daughters of the Amazon cult; Kimberly (Amber Tamblyn) and Christine (Jess Salgueiro) are catapulted out into the world in search of Yorick and his potential to safeguard the future of humanity.

Although FX has decided not to continue producing the series, Clark still hopes there might be a future for Y: The Last Man at another company. I spoke with her about the details of the final episode but also about her surprise at FX’s decision. It’s challenging to know how people watch television now, Clark tells me, and it’s surprising to see the reaction of a small subset of the comics fandom that has bristled at the show’s approach to adapting the original work. That response is also galvanizing, though; Clark has a clear vision for taking the series in an “expansive and queer and exciting” direction, and she is committed to finding a place to tell that story.

Near the end of this season, we discover that Nora, a character the show has been following from the beginning, was actually born with the name Victoria. Comic-book readers will know this is a major reveal: The leader of this cult is named Victoria in the series, and without realizing it, she’s been here as Nora the whole time. 
We planned from the beginning that Nora was Victoria, and Marin had signed on to play Victoria. In many ways, I think the first season of the show is an origin story for a bunch of villains. It’s about the coalescing of this trio, but in these side plots are these origin stories. What’s interesting about Nora is that in the very first episode, you can feel her discomfort. There’s something missing from her life, and she can’t quite put her finger on it. She walks in at the end of a long workday where she’s been pushed aside by the president. He uses her when he needs her, and when he doesn’t, he dismisses her. She comes home, and her house is a mess. Her husband is a pretty nice guy, and he clearly loves her, but there’s something missing for her.

That character, for me, is about rage. In some ways, it’s about tapping into the particular feeling of rage that I had in the wake of Trump’s election. I don’t think of myself as an angry person, and I think most women don’t. But there’s a well of white-hot blinding rage that exists in many of us. For Nora, she has no relief valve for it. She has no female friends. She’s not a feminist. Roxanne and Nora are these mirrors of one another — they come from totally different worlds. Roxanne has a blunt instrument of her rage, but they’re both very lonely characters. Rage without the release of talking about it is a very dangerous thing.

So Nora was a retroactive construction of how you would become a person like Victoria is in the comics? 
Yeah. I really love the comic book, and there are things you can do in a comic book that you just can’t do in a realistic story. Daughters of the Amazon is an example of that. They totally work for me in the comic book: Victoria is a chess champion who never got her due, and she’s a second-wave, early-aughts feminist, sort of a college person.

Like an angry Queen’s Gambit.
Exactly, she’s Queen’s Gambit with one boob. But I wanted to have a character who you think is Victoria, which was Roxanne. For her, I was interested in a person who feels like they’ve lost nothing and instead has gained something — gained the opportunity to completely start over. Their life sucked before, and something breaks. With Nora, I was interested in a person who was in the position many women find themselves in: being the woman behind the man. We see that in other stories in the series — Kimberly, another villain, is that as well.

There’s an interesting trope in apocalyptic stories about people who have soft skills. Part of what’s fun about Nora is that in the pre-apocalypse world, she has a job that seems really important. As soon as this event happens, it’s like — nobody needs someone who works in the communications department of the White House. She’s not famous enough; she’s not the person who goes onscreen and talks to people, which might actually be useful because it’s a familiar face. So she’s doing a lot of work, but nothing that seems to have any real skill set in this postapocalyptic world. And then she finds a way to use that skill.

“I don’t think of myself as an angry person, and I think most women don’t. But there’s a well of white-hot blinding rage that exists in many of us. For Nora, she has no relief valve for it.”
Photo: Rafy/FX

It was fascinating to look back at Nora as constructed, once you know this reveal. It becomes so telling that she is a radical even though she starts with a much more nuanced understanding of the world. 
It makes her so much more dangerous, I think. You’ve watched a villain be formed in the first season in Roxanne, who you think could pose a real threat to Yorick and Sam. And then at the end, you’re like, Oh wait, there was somebody even scarier than that standing right behind her. She’s unlocked now because she’s smarter than Roxanne. She’s more calculating. Roxanne just wanted to be part of something. That moment in episode eight where she’s hugging this tree and looking at the women, all of that came out of a desire to have friends, to have people in her life, to be part of something that looked cozy. She didn’t believe there was a world where she could get into that as herself. Nora is more strategic, more manipulative.

She’s also a mother, which Iv think is so interesting. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen a villain who’s a mother whose villainy isn’t about her motherhood. You see the evil stepmother or the bad mom. I think Nora has actually proven herself to be a good mom. Her villainy is not related to her daughter.

Nora’s daughter, Mackenzie, gets her period before that huge battle. Why was that a scene you wanted to include here? 
It’s an interesting take on the scene you’ve seen before with a 13-year-old girl. I love that she says “It’s exciting,” and Mac says “Why?,” and Nora says “I have no idea.” In this world, at this moment, I don’t think Nora imagines that there’s a way that anyone ever has a kid again. The purpose of menstruating is gone. So what does it mean? Does it mean anything? I also love the way Quincy Kirkwood, who plays Mackenzie, plays that moment. I had envisioned that kid as a little more edgy, and the way Quincy plays her has such warmth.

For Nora, the only thing Roxanne has ever said that has been interesting to her is “It’s at least got to be interesting to raise your kid right now. You don’t have to raise her to be somebody’s mother.” I think Nora hadn’t totally thought of it that way, and there is something freeing about that: All of the ways I feel like I’m a bad mother — those are based on old standards.

The reveal that Nora has been Victoria this whole time is obviously exciting for comic-book readers. How much were you thinking about readers versus people who are new to the story in that moment? 
I’m definitely hoping that’s a scene that works regardless but that it’s an exciting thing for readers of the comics. In episode ten, the first line of dialogue is “Did you know that Elvis had a twin brother?,” which is the first line of the book. We found a meta way to talk about it. One of the things I like about the comic book is that it’s in conversation with pop culture and understands its references. I think the show does too, and one of the references for the show is the book, so this was a way that Yorick’s talking about that — but it’s about his show that he’s putting on.

The Victoria reveal, that won’t be that exciting to a regular viewer. But the fact that she’s a person who is stepping into her power and is now going to leave the old world behind, that’s what the whole first season is about: clinging to the past, clinging to this image of what the old world used to look like, and then realizing that world’s gone and we’re all evolving.

One of the other big moments in the finale is when Hero and Yorick finally reunite. 
I think in my original pitch for the season, I pitched, “By the end of the season, Hero’s willing to kill her brother,” like in the book. In the writing of the season, that just didn’t feel like the Hero we had built. She has this moment in the field where she sees him, and suddenly it’s like she’s that old person again. She’s not going to kill him, but she’s not going to go with him. Roxanne was offering the ability to be a new person, but Nora is offering the ability to accept who you are, and that speaks to Hero. I think where her story goes from here has a few more bumps in the road before she can get to anything that feels like redemption.

The thing about any apocalypse show where people are spread across the map is that somehow the characters need to find one another again. But also, it’s always a little implausible when it happens! 
Listen, I think that is just true. In the book, it’s a far-flung story across the world, and people still find each other. For me, as a viewer, I don’t care to see all the steps that go into it. I believe that if the characters are strong enough and the storytelling is generally strong enough, you can suspend your disbelief. It’s crazy that they find one another! In episode nine, you see the cop from episode four who saw Yorick at the marketplace. She’s been following him, but we didn’t have to see that, because who cares? Who wants to see the “I’ve found his boot print” or whatever?

To me, it’s also the promise of a season two. The most satisfying version of an ensemble show is not one where none of the characters meet. Now, in a season two, Kimberly knows Yorick is alive. Christine knows Yorick is alive. Beth knows Yorick is alive. Nora and Hero know Yorick is alive. We have a world at large that doesn’t know about him, but a bunch of characters who do, and who all have different reasons for wanting to find him. I think it sets up a very exciting future for the show that may or may not exist!

Yeah, let’s talk about that. How surprised were you to learn that FX would not be picking up a second season? 
I was surprised and sad. The stuff that’s been reported is true. I really love FX; they’ve been good creative partners. I think John Landgraf is one of the smartest people making television. He has a lot of respect for creators. I think this show has been through so much, with timing and COVID, that had nothing to do with any of us. And it’s not an inexpensive show. I very purposefully don’t want to work in numbers or like a corporation, but I think they would have wanted more time to make that decision. Unfortunately, because of COVID, a decision had to be made. Half of our actors signed on to a pilot I wasn’t even part of. It’s been years for people.

So the reporting is that FX would’ve needed to pay $3 million to extend people’s contracts long enough to give the company more time. Do you feel like part of what that would’ve given FX is a sense of how many people were planning to binge the full season after it finished running weekly?
Yes, and I think that’s why you have to ask them. They have all of these factors that have nothing to do with our show, like their own bottom lines. I don’t blame them. There’s no bad guy. The bad guy is COVID.

I was very excited about the idea of three episodes coming out and then one a week after that. I thought that was an awesome idea. In retrospect, I wonder if maybe this show is better as a bingeable show. I think the fact that it has a very big cast, you’re excited about a story and then you don’t see it for a week — that might be easier if you’re watching three at a time. Listen, that part isn’t the part that I’m good at. I also like a show that has that kind of storytelling! I like longform storytelling. For me, I would not be bothered by episode seven leaving us on a cliffhanger about the Pentagon and then not seeing it the next week. But I don’t know how people watch television now.

This is also what’s so difficult to get at: There are so many different ways that people watch TV now, but that also means it’s so hard to know why any show does or does not get canceled. 
Because it was streaming, I didn’t have any real sense. That’s part of why it was surprising. There’s no article that comes out that says, “Uh-oh, Y isn’t doing well!” I don’t have any indication, and that’s really hard. In some ways, it’s also good because it’s like, Why do I need to know that? That’s not my job.

I guess I didn’t see a world where I wasn’t going to be making a second season. And I still think there’s a lot of hope that we will. What I will say is that I pitched FX a second season that they loved. They said to me that their decision was not based on concern about the show.

Clark, left, with the director of episodes one and two, Louise Friedberg, and stunt coordinator Shelley Cook.
Photo: Courtesy of FX

One of the frustrating things about the news of the cancellation was seeing a very small subset of the comics fandom tweeting things like “If you’re woke, you’re broke.” 
[Laughs.] It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life. Most of the people I’m interacting with on Twitter are like, Oh, no! Either they love the show or — and I think this one’s also important — they were planning to binge it. There are lots of people who were saving them up. I heard from a lot of people who felt like the beginning was intense and were going to let it build a little before returning to it. Anecdotally, I feel like there’s an audience out there that just hasn’t had the time yet.

But I did hear from a lot of men that if you “go woke,” you “stay broke.” One person said to me, “I don’t want to see a cast with that many women unless it’s on Pornhub.”

I am continually surprised — but also not — about the misogyny in the world. I wrote in my statement about the cancellation about “a gender-diverse crew that was led by women in almost every corner of the production,” and people were like, “That’s not diverse if it’s all women!” And I was like, “Do you honestly believe you can make a television show without men?” This business is a boys’ club, and it’s always been that way. We had an incredible group of men on this show, and nonbinary people, and women. One of the great things about this show was watching these incredible men being led by all these women. It was awesome! I love the photographs I have of our DPs with our two male camera operators. We had an awesome group of people and it’s like, I’m sorry I was proud of my show and our crew!

Part of what was so disappointing to me — but also interesting, frankly — was the way people claim to love the books but are so resistant to that. The entire premise is that the world has very few men in it now! 
People kept saying, “You don’t fucking know what the comic book was!” And Pia Guerra, who is one of the creators of the book, would chime in, like, “Yes, she does!” I’ve said in other interviews, and I’ve said on Twitter, that the show is about identity. People would say, “No, it’s not — it’s about how women can be just as bad as men!” And I was like, “That’s so simplistic! You read that for 60 issues? That’s crazy!” That is not what it’s about. That is one part of the book. I think it’s cool the book has this perspective that just having women in charge doesn’t necessarily take away the problems of power and what that does to people. That whole meme about red flags, my version of that is “I’m not a misogynist. I think women are better than men!” Red flag, red flag, red flag! I’ve heard so many men say that women are better. That comes from the same kind of essentializing that’s happening with trans rights — the idea that women are inherently childbearing. It was so upsetting to me to see that article Margaret Atwood retweeted. I really respect her, and I love her writing, but I think it’s crazy how many women who call themselves feminists — and who are also, by the way, postmenopausal — are equating womanhood with motherhood.

I’m sure there are a lot of viewers who would love to know how these kinds of ideas would show up in a season two. 
I had a writers’ room going for a little bit. We came up with a pitch for season two, and we’re very excited about it. One of the things that feels really important for me to tackle is how to include trans women in this world, not just as people who died but in a present way. I think there are ways to do that through some of the stories that exist in the comic book, but telling them through our own lens. The “get woke, go broke” thing, or whatever the fucking slogan is, that doesn’t bother me. It fuels me, and I feel like I’m on the right track.

I do interact, usually offline, with trans people who contact me about their concerns about the show. Because I share them. It’s a show, on the one hand, about deconstructing the gender binary, but on the other hand, it’s a show about the breadth of womanhood, which includes trans women, who are women. It’s a conversation we have all the time in the writers’ room, and that was a concern I had about the material in general, because I didn’t want to make something that was essentialist, and I respect the opinion that maybe it can’t be done. But ultimately, I thought that taking a premise that starts from this idea of “one man in a world of women,” and then deconstructs that from within but still maintains the adventures and joys and relationships and worlds of the comic book, could be a really exciting way to get at the heart of that conversation.

And just to tease season two, Kimberly believes God has given her a sign. She’s had a sex dream that I think is the first time she’s ever had a sex dream like that: She’s on top, and she’s got her hands gripping his wrists — she is in control, and I think it’s scary a little bit. She wakes up from that, like, Holy shit, and has to find a way to make sense of it. The sense that she makes is that Yorick is destined to give her a child. She’s also with Christine, who’s pregnant. There’s an exciting birth of a new kind of religion: the Gospel of Yorick. If Christine’s baby is a girl and that baby is Eve, then Eve needs an Adam.

The Amazons under Nora’s leadership have a different ethos. There’s something exciting to Nora about a radical present and embracing a sense that they don’t need the world to exist 80 years from now. There’s something exciting about the now, and the problem Yorick might create for that idea.

And you see the burgeoning seeds of a romance between 355 and Dr. Allison Mann. They’re on their way to the Culper Ring, 355’s family … or maybe not? She’s started to question whether this thing she’s dedicated her life to is a force for good in the world. And if they get there, will Yorick see Beth?

We’ve talked in the writers’ room about how the first stage of the apocalypse is grief and scrambling. The second stage is sex. I think there’s a way in which the second season would be expansive and queer and exciting. Now we’ve shed our old identities and are starting to actually make our lives in the present instead of being so attached to the past. And what will happen to Yorick when he finds out Allison and 355 have a thing going?

I think he’s going to cope really, really well. 
Yeah, he seems really mature. [Laughs.]

Finally, please tell me about the decision to use “No Scrubs” for that great dance scene in episode nine. 
First of all, Yorick is such a scrub. Especially in an episode that has so much terror and is so tense and scary and there are echoes of what’s been happening in our government — to begin with this moment of joy for these characters and to really contrast the way that the government is going to be taken down to the studs; like, the American government doesn’t exist after this — then here’s an example of what comes next. And what comes next is “No Scrubs,” by TLC.

In the comic book, Yorick encounters a fully formed and violent cult named the Daughters of the Amazon, which has brainwashed his sister, Hero, into believing that humanity should come to an end and any remaining members of the species with a Y chromosome need to be eliminated. It is led by a violent radical named Victoria, who dies in the battle depicted in the TV show’s season finale. (In Clark’s adaptation, Victoria survives that battle.)

In Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s comic series, this is the first line Yorick speaks, 29 minutes before an event that wipes out half of humanity. (Yorick is hanging upside down in a straitjacket while on a phone call with his girlfriend, Beth, working out his escape-artist act.) In the TV series, Yorick says this at a dinner with his family; the line is transformed from an idle observation about fate into the theme of Yorick’s performance.

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