Showtime’s Yellowjackets is a piece of slow-burn splatter art that hits the canvas in intense, albeit imperfect form. It’s a glorious mess that includes the somehow-never-before-attempted chemistry combination of Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci. Filling out the lead (adult) quartet would be Tawney Cypress and Melanie Lynskey, the latter of whom managed to score the juiciest role out of a show filled with juicy parts. These four ladies portray the f*cked up adult versions of 1990s teen female athletes whose plane crashed in the Canadian wilderness. Mind you, there were many more survivors of the initial crash in this group, and some of them didn’t stay alive long enough to be rescued, 19 months later. Those who did survive were (surprise, surprise) more than a little bit traumatized by their experiences.
Whatever happened in those woods did not stay behind in those woods, and the show spends a great deal of time bouncing back and forth between 1996 and the present day, a quarter-century later. Mind you, this is a show (and I’ve viewed six out of the ten episodes that shall fill this season) that is chock full of characters and developments, and it’s worth pointing out that the two casts (the young and older versions of the main characters, plus all the outliers) flow almost too well together. The show also manages to feel entirely fresh and original despite bearing very obvious resemblance to some infamous influences (Lord of the Flies, Lost) and a subtler resemblance to recent entries in the teen-drama realm (The Wilds, Cruel Summer, even a little bit of Outer Banks). Let’s talk about the reasons why this series (which hails from creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, producers of Narcos and Dispatches from Elsewhere) is worth watching:
(1) The very name of the series, Yellowjackets, refers to the girls’ soccer team but means to recall Lord of the Flies, and we’re finally getting the riot grrrl version that the template deserves. Yes, it’s different for girls; and they’re plenty tough, but there’s something different about how the way they maneuver, and how they work together, and how they might turn against each other, and how a plot point makes it necessary to mention that they’ve synched up periods. Mind you, they’re not merely operating on the social hierarchy, as has been the case for social satires or like Mean Girls or Heathers. Rather, this show stresses how survival does not end with a rescue. There’s also the lasting trauma that one must endure, along with the societal expectations for how survivors should behave. They must also deal with unwanted notoriety, along with reintegrating into a society that sure would like to know what these girls did in the woods. Inevitably, the four leads find themselves propelled toward each other in adulthood, even though at least three of them would rather not relive the past.
That’s the case even though they’re already reliving the past every day, as we see with what Melanie Lynskey’s Shauna does while cooking dinner one night. Lynskey crushes this role, which is filled to the brim with nuance. One would think that Shauna’s got the most “mainstream” life (as a housewife) that allows for enough distraction to wipe away any living nightmares, but nope. The way that she deftly navigates every obstacle that she encounters is fascinating. She acquired enough skills in the wilderness to work through any difficult “human” issue by pinpointing her opponents’ weaknesses, and it gives her an edge when confronted with any threat to the equilibrium that she’s constructed. She’s the character who I’d most like to see in a spinoff, hands down.
(2) What a slow burn of a story. That’s the best way to describe what happens here, but it’s also more like this: an adrenaline-pumping scene, then the slow teasing of anticipation until you can’t bear it, then boom, it’s time to be rewarded for the wait, and repeat. For the most part, the show does not disappoint with that type of pacing (this drives home the girls’ slow realization that they won’t be rescued within days, and maybe a lecture about not eating all the Corn Nuts on the first day will turn out to be a sad waste of energy). The show inevitably churns out more disturbing developments (including cannibalism) as these characters cannot shake their collective ordeal for decades to come. The show’s at once a survival tale, a psychological thriller, and an incredibly disturbing coming-of-age story, along with an examination of how humans turn out to be bigger monsters than the ones that might be hiding in the woods.
(3) Speaking of monsters, there’s one part of Yellowjackets that doesn’t flow too well for me — the suggestions of supernatural stuff. Granted, that’s tied to the story of how the four lead survivor characters come back together in adulthood, but the execution of exactly what the supernatural aspects mean, well, that’s not clicking yet. It’s the weakest link in the entire show, and I’m not convinced that it couldn’t have been left out altogether with some rewrites pulling the past and present together in a more effective way. Like I said, it’s possible enough for humans to do terrible things without otherworldly influence, and for hallucinations to be explained through drug use, PTSD, and so on. This isn’t enough to derail Yellowjackets, and maybe things come together more in the final portion of the season. I’d enjoy being proven wrong on this note.
(4) The casting directors did the thing. It’s truly worth noting that this show goes an extra 100 miles when it comes to matching up actresses to play the younger and older versions of these survivors. That’s particularly the case when it comes to casting the younger version of Juliette Lewis’ stoner character, Natalie, who’s also portrayed by Sophie Thatcher as a punky blonde whose coping skills were already honed during a horrible home life; and the Christina Ricci’s straight-up warped Misty, who’s forged out of eager resourcefulness gone terribly wrong by Samantha Hanratty. If not for the younger actresses’ performances, we’d never be able to believe how the adult versions came to be, especially when it comes to Misty. Trust me, you don’t want to see this nurse coming your way, ever.
And she’s only one of the reasons why Yellowjackets will stick with you, although the ’90s soundtrack (including Hole, Salt-N-Pepa, Liz Phair, the and PJ Harvey’s “Down By The Water”) is quite a contender, too. The show’s a nightmare, alright, but it’s one you’ll likely be eager to keep watching.
Showtime’s ‘Yellowjackets’ debuts on Sunday, November 14.