How Y: The Last Man’s creative team has subverted familiar trans stories


One of the biggest questions circling around FX’s TV adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man was how it would update a 20-year-old story about gender for a less gender-essentialist era. The first issue of the comic introduces a cataclysm that abruptly kills off all men and male animals on Earth, except two: New York escape artist Yorick and his Capuchin monkey Ampersand. The story never much addresses how the event affects people outside the simplest gender binary — for instance, the comic mentions transsexuality only in passing, and in regressive, derogatory terms.

For showrunner Eliza Clark, addressing the comic’s simplistic view of gender was a major goal for the TV version. “I wanted to make it clear early and often that Yorick is not the last man on earth, and that what sets him apart is his Y chromosome, not his maleness,” she tells Polygon.

With that in mind, the series’ first season introduces other trans men, mostly minor characters Yorick meets on the road. Where Yorick has to remain masked or hidden in the comic, because the slightest glimpse of him pushes women into rage, lust, or a desire to exploit him, people on the show generally just shrug and assume he’s trans.

“I think it’s a fascinating reversal of the types of stories we usually see,” Clark says, “with Yorick being questioned about his identity in ways he never has before.”

That conscious subversion of familiar, rote media stories about trans characters shows up in other ways as well. Y: The Last Man centers a trans character as one of its protagonists: Sam, a 20-something New York City performance artist who starts the story as the roommate and support system of Yorick’s sister Hero. As the first season has unfolded, Sam has become one of the show’s most complicated characters, a conflicted, sensitive guy pulled between loyalty to Hero and his own survival.

Sam’s story arc this season involves a series of challenges that are frustratingly standard in LGBTQ-focused stories, like identity questions, bigotry, and romantic conflict. But all these story elements break the usual mold, because his transness is never the primary issue in any of them. Apart from a brief nod to the difficulty of getting testosterone and maintaining transition treatments in the middle of an apocalypse, Y: The Last Man largely gives Sam individualistic, personal problems to navigate, rather than positioning him as a generic representation of trans men, or assuming being trans is his entire personality, rather than a comparatively small part of the picture.

Identity

Elliot Fletcher as Sam and Olivia Thirlby as Hero, sitting on a couch together in Y: The Last Man Photo: Rafy Winterfeld/FX

Where so many trans stories focus on self-discovery and the process of coming out, Sam’s storyline is much more concerned with his identity as an artist in a survival-focused world. That element of his character came out of collaboration between the show’s development team and actor Elliot Fletcher (Shameless and Faking It veteran), who plays Sam.

“Because Sam is not in the graphic novel, we had a lot of creative freedom to develop him,” says Fletcher. “There were a lot of conversations about Sam as an artist, and about his relationship with Hero, how they became friends, and what their dynamic really is. Those conversations are always amazing, and continue to be amazing and very collaborative.”

“He’s maybe about to figure out his voice as an artist, and then this event happens,” Clark says. “Suddenly, he’s forced to struggle just for survival, and he’s asking himself, ‘Is there art in this new world? Who am I if I’m not making art, if I’m not an artist?’ All of that is really interesting to me as a writer.”

Fletcher says he and the series’ creators particularly worked to define Sam’s performance art process, which draws him away from other artists, because he doesn’t trust them to help shape his work. At the same time, his creative side strengthens his relationship with Hero. “I think she’s one of the only people he really feels comfortable asking for advice, because she’s very blunt, and won’t sugarcoat anything,” Fletcher says. “She also has a different perspective than him.”

Fletcher says Sam’s sense of alienation as an artist is one of the keys to his character. “His inner monologue is just, “‘God, I’m so alone,’” Fletcher says. “He does isolate so quickly when it comes to art, but with no space for his art anymore in the world, now the isolation is unwanted.”

Bigotry

Elliot Fletcher as Sam and Olivia Thirlby as Hero cling to baseball bats while preparing for a possible attack inside a big-box store in Y: The Last Man Photo: Rafy Winterfeld/FX

Many trans stories in film and TV focus either on coming-out stories and self-discovery, or on facing bigotry and abuse. But when Sam deals with prejudice, it isn’t because he’s trans — it’s because he’s a man. In the mid-season run of season 1, Sam and Hero wind up in a big-box store converted into a fortress by the residents of a local women’s shelter, who eye Sam with suspicion and hostility. In episode 6, when one of their group tries to spend time alone with Sam, the others beat her.

“He has a lot of guilt already, of ‘How do I deserve to be alive in this moment, when people I loved before the event are not?’” Fletcher says. “So it just sort of piles on, like ‘I’m alive, yet my life is hurting others.’ Being in the PriceMax with all of those women, it’s just a constant reminder for him, how guilty he feels, how unwanted he is.”

“I think it’s really interesting how Sam and Yorick’s stories echo each other,” Clark says. “Being a visible man in a world that is majority women is scary, and potentially fetishizing. It could be dangerous, or it could be great! It depends on where you are and who you’re with.”

Episode 6 director Destiny Ekaragha put her own experiences into shaping Sam’s scenes in that storyline as well. “Being with a bunch of people who hate you because of who you are — as a marginalized person, I know what that is,” she tells Polygon. “So it was very important to put that at the forefront, that he’s a human being dealing with other human beings who are not acting with the most grace.”

“For me, it was just really important to make sure that we didn’t lose sight of his vulnerability,” she says. “As a man, he’s not wanted here. So as Hero is starting to warm up to 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, Sam’s trans identity doesn’t play into the dynamic with the group at all. She wanted to be clear that the women in the group don’t see him as different in any way from the men who traumatized and abused them.

“I didn’t want to humanize any group of people who don’t see him as a man,” she says. “I’m just not interested in those people, not interested in helping people understand where they’re coming from, because I don’t.”

Romance

Elliot Fletcher as Sam, sitting alone and looking broody, in Y: The Last Man Photo: Rafy Winterfeld/FX

Also mid-season, Sam and Hero have a moment where they’re lying in bed together in a temporary shelter, and they kiss passionately — but Sam pulls back, without a word, and turns away, looking forlorn and resigned. The characters don’t discuss the incident at the time, which raises a lot of questions about what’s going through their heads. Fletcher says that scene also has nothing to do with Sam as a trans man — the reason he pulls back is because he’s afraid he and Hero (played by Olivia Thirlby) might not want the same relationship.

“Olivia and I spent a lot of time figuring out who Sam and Hero were together,” Fletcher says. “Prior to that scene, Sam and Hero have made out several times — they’re the kinds of friends who do something for shits and giggles. They’re both very impulsive, and before the event, just here for a good time. […] Because of the post-event world, they’re having to face feelings they were able to ignore before, when nothing meant anything. Whereas now, anything you do has a whole butterfly effect.”

He feels Sam and Hero love each other too much to risk their relationship if it turns out they aren’t taking their desire for each other equally seriously. “It’s sort of out-of-body until that moment when he pulls away,” he says. “He comes back in and realizes where they are, what the situation is, and that this isn’t just another one of their random makeout sessions when they’re drunk. This is a very serious moment, and it means much more than it used to. For him, there’s a lot of weight on that kiss, and he’s not sure in that moment that she feels the same.”

The future

Olivia Thirlby as Hero and Elliot Fletcher as Sam enter a ransacked store full of empty shelves in Y: The Last Man Photo: Rafy Winterfeld/FX

Fletcher admits that even if these elements of the character have new flavors on Y: The Last Man, the focus on isolation and misery may be exhausting to people who are used to seeing LGBTQ characters only in terms of their pain and trauma. “Specific to this show, though, I think everyone is suffering,” he says.

“As much as I agree that the primary queer content we get is centered around suffering or discovery, or just unpleasantness — in this show, everyone is alone, everyone is fucking terrified,” he says. “And for everyone involved, there will be moments of light. There are for Sam, definitely, in this season. I hope to continue that later on. We do get to see more of who he is later on in the season, and I think that does bring a bit of light or happiness back to him, bringing in joy or inspiration.”

Clark similarly says that Sam’s story closely parallels what other characters on the series are experiencing. He’s in pain and he feels like he’s alone, but everything he’s going through is echoed in other characters, in ways that give the first season its fundamental structure. “I think so many people in this show are dealing with being the only one in a room,” Clark says. “‘Am I the last of my kind? Am I the only scientist who can fix this? Am I the only member of my spy organization who’s left? Am I the only person with a Y chromosome?’ Much of Sam’s story of the first season is about being the only man in the room, and what that feels like.”

New episodes of Y: The Last Man air on Mondays on FX on Hulu.