One of the biggest questions about FX’s TV adaptation by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra Y: The last man was how it would update a 20 year old story about gender for a less gender essentialist era. The first edition of the comic introduces a catastrophe that abruptly kills all humans and males on earth, with the exception of two: the New York escape artist Yorick and his capuchin monkey Ampersand. The story is never very concerned with how the event affected people outside of the simplest binary gender role – for example, the comic only mentions transsexuality casually and in regressive, derogatory terms.
For showrunner Eliza Clark, a key goal of the TV version was to address the comics’ simplistic view of gender. “I wanted to make it clear early on and often that Yorick is not the last man on earth and that what sets him apart is his Y chromosome, not his masculinity,” she tells Polygon.
With this in mind, the first season of the series introduces other trans men, mostly minor characters, whom Yorick meets on the street. Where Yorick has to stay masked or hidden in the comic because the slightest look at him drives women into anger, lust, or the desire to exploit him, people on the show generally just shrug their shoulders and assume he’s trans .
“I think it’s a fascinating reversal of the types of stories we normally see,” says Clark, “where Yorick is being asked about his identity in a way he has never done before.”
This deliberate subversion of familiar, memorized media stories about trans characters shows up in other ways as well. Y: The last man centers a trans figure as one of its protagonists: Sam, a New York performance artist around 20 who begins the story as a roommate and support system for Yorick’s sister Hero. Over the course of the first season, Sam has become one of the most complicated characters in the series, a contradicting, sensitive guy between loyalty to Hero and his own survival.
Sam’s story arc this season features a number of challenges that are frustratingly standard in LGBTQ-focused stories, such as identity issues, bigotry, and romantic conflicts. But all of these story elements break the usual pattern, because none of them focus on his transness. Aside from a brief nod to the difficulty of getting testosterone and maintaining transitional treatments in the middle of an apocalypse, Y: The last man gives Sam largely individualistic, personal problems to navigate rather than positioning him as a generic portrayal of trans men or assuming that the transgender is his entire personality and not a comparatively small part of the picture.
While so many trans stories focus on self-discovery and the process of coming out, Sam’s story is much more concerned with his identity as an artist in a survival-oriented world. This element of his character was born from the collaboration between the show’s development team and actor Elliot Fletcher (Shameless and Fake it Veteran) who plays Sam.
“Since Sam is not in the graphic novel, we had a lot of creative freedom to develop it,” says Fletcher. “There was a lot of talk about Sam as an artist and his relationship with Hero, how they became friends and what their dynamic really is. These conversations are always great, and they continue to be great and very collaborative. “
“He may be in the process of figuring out his voice as an artist, and then this event happens,” says Clark. “Suddenly he is forced to just struggle to survive and asks himself, ‘Is there any art in this new world? Who am I if I don’t make art, if I’m not an artist? ‘ All of this is very interesting for me as an author. “
Fletcher says he and the show’s creators worked particularly hard to define Sam’s performance art process that sets him apart from other artists because he doesn’t trust them to shape his work. At the same time, his creative side strengthens his relationship with Hero. “I think she’s one of the few people he’s really comfortable with asking for advice because she’s very blunt and won’t gloss over anything,” says Fletcher. “She also has a different perspective than him.”
Fletcher says Sam’s feeling of alienation as an artist is one of the keys to his character. “His inner monologue is just, ‘God, I’m so alone,’” says Fletcher. “He isolates himself so quickly when it comes to art, but since he has no more space for his art in the world, isolation is now undesirable.”
Many trans stories in film and television focus either on coming-out stories and self-discovery or on bigotry and abuse. But if Sam is prejudiced, it’s not because he’s trans, but because he’s a man. In the off-season of the first season, Sam and Hero end up in a large shop that has been converted into a fortress by the residents of a local women’s shelter and eyes Sam with suspicion and hostility. In episode 6, when one of her group tries to spend time alone with Sam, the others beat her.
“He’s already feeling a lot of guilt: ‘How do I deserve to be alive in this moment if the people I loved before the event weren’t?'” Says Fletcher. “So it piles up like, ‘I live but my life hurts others.’ To be with all these women at PriceMax is just a constant reminder to him of how guilty he feels, how undesirable he is. “
“I think it’s really interesting how Sam and Yorick’s stories mirror each other,” says Clark. “In a world where the majority of women are women, being a visible man is scary and potentially fetishizing. It could be dangerous or it could be great! It depends on where you are and who you are with. “
The director of Episode 6, Destiny Ekaragha, has used her own experience in creating Sam’s scenes in this plot. “Being with a bunch of people who hate you for who you are – as a marginalized person, I know what that is,” she tells Polygon. “That is why it was very important to emphasize that he is a person who treats other people who do not act with the greatest grace.”
“It was just very important to me that we didn’t lose sight of his vulnerability,” she says. “As a man, he is not wanted here. As Hero starts warming up for this group of people, you want the audience to think, “But what about Sam? He can’t stay here. ‘”
At the same time, Clark says, don’t play Sam’s trans identity at all into the dynamic with the group. She wanted to make it clear that the women in the group don’t see him in any way different from the men who traumatized and abused them.
“I didn’t want to humanize a group of people who didn’t see him as a man,” she says. “I’m just not interested in these people, not interested in helping people understand their origins, because I don’t.”
Also in the middle of the season, Sam and Hero have a moment when they lie in bed together in an emergency shelter and kiss passionately – but Sam withdraws without a word and turns away, looking abandoned and resigned. The characters are not discussing the incident at this point, which raises a lot of questions about what is on their mind. Fletcher says the scene has nothing to do with Sam as a trans man either – the reason he pulls out is because he fears that he and Hero (played by Olivia Thirlby) don’t want the same relationship.
“Olivia and I spent a lot of time figuring out who Sam and Hero were together,” says Fletcher. “Before this scene, Sam and Hero made out several times – they’re the kind of friends who do something for shit and giggles. You’re both very impulsive and just here for fun before the event. […] Because of the post-event world, they have to face feelings that they could previously ignore when nothing meant anything. While now everything you do has a whole butterfly effect. “
He feels that Sam and Hero love each other too much to risk their relationship if it turns out they don’t take their desires for one another equally seriously. “Until the moment he pulls back, it’s kind of out of body,” he says. “He comes back and realizes where you are, what the situation is, and that this isn’t just one of their casual smooches when they’re drunk. This is a very serious moment and it means a lot more than it used to be. For him this kiss has a lot of weight and at this moment he is not sure if she feels the same way. “
Fletcher admits that even if these elements of character have new flavors Y: The last man, the focus on isolation and misery can be exhausting for people who are used to seeing LGBTQ characters only in terms of their pain and trauma. “But specific to this show, I think anyone suffers, ”he says.
“As much as I agree that the primary queer content we receive is about suffering, or discovery, or just plain discomfort, on this show anyone is alone anyone is damn scared, ”he says. “And there will be moments of light for everyone involved. Definitely there for Sam this season. I hope I can continue this later. We’ll see more of him later in the season and I think that brings him back some light or happiness, brings joy or inspiration. “
Clark also says that Sam’s story is closely related to what other characters on the series experience. He is in pain and feels alone, but everything he goes through is reflected in other characters, in a way that gives season one its basic structure. “I think so many people on this show have to do with being the only ones in a room,” says Clark. “’Am I the last of my kind? Am I the only scientist who can fix this? Am I the only member of my espionage organization left? Am I the only person with a Y chromosome? ‘ Much of Sam’s story in season one is about being the only man in the room and what that feels like. ”
New episodes of Y: The last man aired Mondays on FX on Hulu.