So this was the first episode of Y: The Last Man where I immediately wanted to click to the next screener the moment it was over! This bodes well for future episodes, in that the series seems to be hitting a good pace now that the main characters are making moves—even if those moves are recklessly exposing oneself at a market and joining up with a man-hating cult! As evidenced by the title, some people are hiding their true selves in “Karen and Benji,” but that will only make it worse when the truth comes out.
Despite the Regina Oliver drama happening at the Pentagon, this episode is split entirely between two duos trying to get away from Washington, DC: 355 and Yorick proceeding by foot after the other helicopter they’re flying with goes down in (sabotaged?) flames; and Hero and Sam, ostensibly making their way to President Brown for asylum but hamstrung by Hero’s resistance to seeing her estranged mom.
Yorick has enough wherewithal to be suspicious of how conveniently the two conspiracy-theory-believing pilots were disposed of, but rather than discuss that with 355 he snipes at her about setting up camp and her suggestions that they both strip down to wash their clothes in the river. Not that she’s being very forthcoming, either: Her frustration with babysitting the last cis man has her returning to old memories, of her as a lounge singer (on assignment, or perhaps a hallucination) and her stumbling through the woods looking like she’s escaped some sort of captivity. She clutches her necklace but remains enigmatic about whatever past life she’s revisiting.
They have a close call when two strangers (one of whom looted an Army jacket from one of the pilots’ corpses nearby) try to beg for some food and Yorick chases them off while risking that they might glimpse who he is. A jaunt to a local market—based on the barter system, overseen by some JDs’ wives with guns—to trade their helicopter parts for a motorcycle turns into a shootout when gas-mask-clad Yorick thinks he sees Beth. Chasing after her, he instead winds up facing this self-appointed law enforcement, who see him without his mask; despite his claims that he’s just looking for testosterone, they seem ready to shoot him until 355 intervenes. Escaping the JDs’ wives, the two fight about how he started out as the most entitled class (as a straight, cis white man) and now truly is someone who must be protected at all costs, and how that forces her to cut people down in their way in order to protect him.
Having gotten their issues out, they hit an uneasy détente with card tricks and 355 promising to help Yorick find Beth after they track down Dr. Mann and figure out what kept him immune from the Event.
Meanwhile, Hero and Sam have been trekking for so long that when they find a pleasant-looking house she begs to stop first for a quick rest and then overnight. The place doesn’t seem to have been looted, nor is there the smell of decomposing bodies, which raises some red flags (rightfully so) for Sam, but Hero wheedles him into stopping, especially when they find a functioning car in the garage. But while Sam sleeps, a grave-looking Hero sneaks into the garage and tampers with the car so that, whoops, they can’t drive to DC after all.
Scrounging for supplies at a cleaned-out supermarket the next day, they encounter a wounded and feverish Mackenzie and a nearly feral, axe-wielding Nora. Sam easily disarms her while Hero further deescalates the situation by offering to help clean Mack’s wound and inviting them back to the house with them. It turns out their hideout is a former women’s shelter for victims of domestic violence, though it’s unclear how recently the shelter was housing people and, if so, where they went. The four make uneasy conversation, with Hero offering up fake names for her and Sam (the “Karen and Benji” of the episode title) while Nora and Mack say theirs without subterfuge.
Later that night, Hero doesn’t quite apologize for sabotaging the car, but appeals to Sam’s understanding of her shaky sobriety for why she can’t bring them to her mother. Cuddling in bed turns into the two making out, though Sam stops before things progress too far and Hero apologizes for coming on to him. Outside, a smoking and crying Nora is ambushed by a group of strangers on horseback: the current inhabitants of the shelter, who are already high-strung over their friend getting shot, ready to shoot the four for trespassing and for Sam being a trans man. He bargains Hero’s status as a doctor (she does not correct him) to save their lives, and she follows up by saying it’s all-or-nothing. The women are desperate enough to take all four to another location, where their friend Kate is bleeding out from a gunshot wound. Hero does her best, but it becomes clear that their resources are too limited. Mackenzie needs antibiotics, and Kate needs far more.
Then in walks Roxanne (Missi Pyle), the stern leader of this group. Without hesitating, she shoots Kate in a mercy killing and disciplines her transphobic follower for putting so much stress on their guests. Not that she’s not suspicious of this group, but she’s gracious about Hero revealing she’s actually just a paramedic, acknowledging that Hero did all she could. Hearing about Mack’s needs for medicine, she invites them to stay in their humble headquarters (in what looks like a well-stocked Costco), but from her harsh leadership it’s clear that they’ve landed in some shit.
As Roxanne leads them toward their questionable new shelter, Nora warns Hero not to tell them who her mother is. “I worked in the White House, Karen,” she says, and the look on Hero’s face is perfect. Of course she would have been too wrapped up in her own shit to notice someone invisible like Nora.
Considering how there was plenty of plot to cover without popping back and forth to the President’s situation room, I’ll be curious as to how future episodes weave in the Washington drama alongside every other character who’s moving away from the capitol.
Interestingly, right off the bat the TV series is rectifying some of the gendered nonsense around Agent 355, who in the comics was initially depicted as a very butch/masculine secret agent with pants and short hair, only for her to “soften” over the five years of the series; her final appearance has her with shoulder-length locs and in a curve-hugging dress. “Karen and Benji” opens with a dream sequence (or perhaps a memory) of 355 in full chanteuse mode, wearing the hell out of a pink dress, crooning Ella Fitzgerald into a microphone, and dancing with a partner (who for a second I thought was going to be Yorick—thank goodness that wasn’t the case). At first it was confusing in being such a stylized sequence, but on second thought I’m into it?
As we already established with her other undercover persona in the pilot, among 355’s talents is the ability to shift identities. This might have been an undercover look, or might be a hint into her subconscious, but either way the show establishes that she can be plenty femme when she wants to be. What’s more of a mystery are her other flashes, to a more stripped-down look, stumbling through the woods. Later, when Yorick cracks a joke about saving Ampersand from scientific experimentation, 355 does the very dramatic/mysterious TV shorthand of clutching her necklace and staring off into space—I wonder if we’re going to find out that the Culper Ring didn’t so much recruit its agents as kidnap and mold people into who they need them to be?
I’m assuming that JD stands for Juris Doctor, a law degree that some police officers or detectives might possess in addition to other training. It would seem that these widows appointing themselves law enforcement for the market is meant to mirror the Republican widows in the Pentagon: wives who previously self-identified as homemakers or who worked outside of the home, who it could be argued picked up enough of a sense of their husbands’ work in order to be able to take on those roles after their deaths. Seeing it again a few episodes in feels a tad repetitive, yet I think that’s part of the point—that the first stage of grief for many of these women is continuing to identify themselves in relation to those they lost, and it maybe by next season those same characters will have had enough distance to expand their worldview into other roles they never considered occupying.
As I keep writing out “widows,” it strikes me that the word has two very distinctive meanings: someone who has undergone the awful misfortune of losing her partner and support system, or a dangerous woman who (whether you can prove it or not) was responsible for disposing of her mate. Think Black Widow, named for the lethal spider. Think Widows, the Gillian Flynn crime drama about a quartet of professional thieves’ wives who inherit their dead husbands’ blueprints—and their debts—after they all get to blown to high heaven on a heist. Though those women cope with their reduced circumstances differently, it’s Viola Davis’ character who is forced to rise to the occasion and prove she’s just as deadly, if not moreso, than her late husband.
What most sticks with me in Yorick’s encounter with the JDs’ wives, however, is his claim that he’s a trans man looking for T. Is this an improvisation brought on by thoughts of Sam, as he’s on his knees with a gun pointed at his head? If he had been planning on using this as an excuse the whole time, he could possibly have foregone the gas mask at the start. Though Yorick mentions in the prior episode “Neil” that he feels as if he’s living on borrowed time, that at any minute he could be the next casualty. (I did not love how the series staggered the deaths of all XY organisms, as if rats had some biological reason to die sooner than humans, but I can sort of understand it if it creates a ticking clock for Yorick.) Considering how the few people who’ve glimpsed him have responded, that only enhances his sense of precarity.
It also gives him valuable insight on what it’s like to be trans, both before the Event and unfortunately still the case after, at least for the moment. When Nora first sees Sam and stutters, “How—” he quickly cuts her off with, “You figure it out.” That he has to constantly justify his existence even in small moments like that is exhausting. Then there’s the whole matter of his and Hero’s almost-hookup. She instigates it, I think as a sort of apology for sabotaging the car and putting them in this situation of linking up with Nora and Mack. Especially since after Sam stops things, he asks about the car—I think he senses Hero using sex as distraction or bargaining tool.
Yet the way it happens, it’s equally likely that this was two lonely people looking for connection or something that has happened before, that Hero knew she could tap into. I had assumed that they had more of a sibling relationship, mostly because Sam resembles Yorick a bit, but that could have been my own read and not the intention. It’s an intriguing development, regardless, and will probably come up again with the series addressing how masculinity will become fetishized once humanity moves beyond the loss of every cis man (excepting Yorick, of course).
But right now, in the first few months post-Event, Sam is still in grave danger—with Roxanne’s cult targeting him more than anyone else. One of her followers sneers at Sam for “choosing” to be a man, but you can see there’s a general distrust of masculinity rippling through all of them. It would seem as if this group is the TV series’ nod to the comic’s Daughters of the Amazon: women who cut off one breast in homage to the mythical female fighters, who burn down sperm banks and murder trans men because they regard them as part of the evil patriarchy. These women have less of a unifying brand, coming across more Walking Dead than anything else, but the most vocal transphobic one (who may have been Kate’s girlfriend?) makes it clear what their core values are. There’s also a religious element at least to Kate, if not also the others: Another follower presses what looks like some sort of token or scrap into her hand, saying, “It’s Joshua.” Saint Joshua was the patron of spies, hmm.
Roxanne is simultaneously scary and magnetic at first appearance, and Pyle is nearly unrecognizable—excited to see what she does with this role. We don’t know much about her yet; she wears a hunting vest with ease, she has what sounds like a southern accent. In her brief appearance she would seem to be coded as conservative, or at least the opposite of the “coastal elites”; I understand the shorthand but am also curious to see if all of the series’ antagonists will be on the other side of the political divide.
Even with these adjustments, this arc lines up with the comic, which sees a starving and brainwashed Hero joining up with the Amazons. But seeing as this Hero is in a less vulnerable position, I’m curious what about Roxanne might draw her in.
- Yorick and 355’s card trick interlude was a lovely nod to their final pages together in the comic, Yorick’s memory of a time when they were at ease and even happy. Although in the comic he guesses the queen of hearts (she chose the six of clubs), when in the series he cheats and pockets her ace of hearts.
- “Taking a Chance on Love” is a very pointed musical choice, especially as there is currently no love lost between 355 and her charge. Yet the song is clearly on her mind, considering the lyrics I thought the cards were a frame-up / I never would try / But now I’m taking the game up / And the ace of hearts is high…
- Why do I get the feeling I’m going to be cataloguing 355’s many wonderful expressions each week…
- Our resident escape artist wasn’t the only one prepping a little passion project with his magic show; we get to hear a little about Sam’s performance art that he’d been working on before the Event and also had to leave behind. The press notes describe him as an artist, which makes me think it’ll be more than a passing reference. Maybe he’ll get a variation on the Fish & Bicycle troupe’s plotline (slash Station Eleven inspiration) and start putting up one-man-shows about the Event…
- Hero fronting as a doctor gave me strong “Clarke Griffin in The 100” vibes insofar as she starts out as someone with limited medical knowledge (gleaned from her doctor mom, versus Hero the paramedic) but is the best they’ve got, so she has to keep rising to the occasion with the latest critical injury. I’ll be curious to see if Hero gets called to fill this role over and over as the series goes on.
- Subtle costuming choice: Roxanne is dressed for comfort and utility in her flannel/jeans/vest, whereas her lackeys wear a hodgepodge of skirts/dresses and seemingly whatever jacket they could scrounge.
- “Karen” I assume is Hero being a shit, but not sure where she got “Benji” from.
Were you similarly caught up in this week’s Y? Or are you still easing into the series?