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‘Yellowjackets’ EP Karyn Kusama On Directing That Show-Altering Season 2 Finale

Karyn Kusama is part of the DNA of Showtime’s Yellowjackets. She serves as an executive producer on the series, peeking scripts and first cuts of episodes before most. She directed the show’s pilot — a wild, genre-bending, timeline-hopping introduction that cemented the show as one to watch amidst a crowded TV landscape. And now she’s back, helming the show’s shocking season two ender – one that’s divided fans and critics but left everyone reeling all the same.

In the episode, aptly titled “Storytelling,” the show takes a sledgehammer to our expectations, killing off Juliette Lewis’ tortured Natalie after a staged hunt gone horribly wrong. Nat’s death isn’t the only narrative twist that warps the world we’ve come to know on Yellowjackets. Another murder and a hastily assembled frame job happen at the commune in the present while Coach Ben sets the girls’ cabin on fire in the past. The “wilderness” pops up again in the adults’ timeline as key team members seem to go missing after the blaze. And Sophie Thatcher’s Natalie is crowned as the new Antler Queen. It’s a lot to make sense of so we turned to Kusama for answers to some of our lingering questions.

Below, the Yellowjackets EP explains the decision to say goodbye to Natalie in the present, reveals more about Van’s cancer diagnosis, teases missing teammates in the past, and hints at the darkness still to come.

Natalie’s death was so shocking, partly because Juliette Lewis has been with the show since the beginning. Was she ready to move on? Was this purely a storytelling decision? Or was it a combination of both?

It was a combination. It’s hard to play Natalie, for anyone. Juliette is playing this character as an adult who is still such a thorny, complicated woman that suffers a lot from the burden of the past. We all knew that was going to inform Juliette’s approach to the character. I think what the finale did in such a lovely way was really remind us of the depth of that guilt and shame by revealing not just that she played a part in all the agonizing things that happened in the wilderness, but that she in fact became such a key player in it by the end, which obviously, is almost more like opening a door narratively.

We understand now that she has been anointed some kind of queen in this social hierarchy. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, what that means for her. But what we do know is it’s likely that there are a lot of transgressions to come in season three for young Natalie. I think there was a sense of narrative inevitability for the adult character that she’d sort of run out of second chances.

The plan to get Lottie psychiatric help fell apart fairly quickly once the ritual for the hunt began. What caused that shift?

The shift is specific to each character. I definitely think that was the challenge in that sequence — pulling off the idea of the collective shift. I certainly recognize that it’s hard to achieve. All I can do is cross my fingers that it worked. I would say that the act of pulling the cards, the idea of this sort of collective Russian roulette that they’re all playing, and that had been so… As set up in the second season, had become the terrible, brutal survival logic of the team and of those girls.

What I always looked at was this idea that these incredibly traumatic events almost became embedded in their genetic material, so that as soon as they go through even the act of drawing the cards, it kicks in something unconscious or subconscious that’s not really in the realm of logic or rational thinking or going to that original plan. And that Shauna is somebody who, despite the terrible thing she’s gone through, has this uncanny ability to divorce herself from that nightmarish irrationality. I’m hoping that the sequence evokes the sense that not everybody can split themselves as efficiently as Shauna can. Suddenly we’re seeing friends become antagonists before our very eyes, and that was what we were going for.

As the 1996 timeline digs into the darker aspects of how the girl survived, has it gotten more difficult to bridge the past and the present?

I think you’ve hit upon the central challenge and tension of the show, because as we unearth more about the past, there’s a larger responsibility for all of us as storytellers, to speak back to that moment in the past with our depiction of the characters in the present. For me, I keep feeling like it’s my job to find that thread between teen versions of characters and their adult counterparts because I think a big part of the show is about the way we bury emotional anguish and compartmentalize it. Each character does that in a different way. My hope is that I’m working individually with the actors to find the expression of that compartmentalization or that division in their psyches.

In the ’96 timeline, do all of the girls make it out of the burning cabin alive? Some were missing in that final shot.

I can’t actually speak to that, not knowing exactly how the body count of the first episode of season three is going to reveal itself. But I do think it’s going to be an ongoing question about how to deal with the results of that catastrophic fire.

So, for now, what you see is what you get?

What you see is what you get. Exactly. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises.

Will Coach Ben continue to be an antagonist for the group in the coming seasons?

It would certainly seem like he has pushed all his chips forward to the antagonist part of the table. I had moments when I was shooting that episode where I was just like, ‘Oh, Ben, poor Ben. You’re fucked, Ben.’ But yeah, it seems like he’s going to have a significant story arc of his own. He’s got some pain in his future.

Lottie alludes to the wilderness being pleased with their sacrifice in the present timeline before giving Van a loaded look. Can we take that to mean that Van’s cancer diagnosis might change in the future?

That’s a question we’d like to leave open for the audience, although I think the episode has fairly explicitly offered the idea that whatever magic or dark power these women feel they are experiencing in their life, there’s also a high probability that it’s just self-generated. The degree of hope that Van might bring to Lottie’s specific statement that seems directed at her, I’m guessing that we’ll be exploring the hope with which she takes that statement as much as the potential reality or foolishness of taking that on as fact.

There’s also a look from Shauna directed to her daughter Callie, once the hunt is over. Is the “wilderness” in Callie now as well?

Yeah, I think that the concept has always been that beyond the idea of the wilderness, there is a wilderness in all of us. There’s a component of Callie that is attention seeking, danger adjacent, always. That has overlap emotionally and psychologically with Shauna. There could be elements of Callie’s arc that will be just as messy and thorny and problematic as Shauna’s has been.

Writing for the next season is currently stalled due to the writer’s strike. The Director’s Guild is also negotiating at the moment, and SAG is next. Do you have a sense of where things might be heading?

I’m actually on the DGA negotiating committee. I’m very much in the midst of that negotiation. The longer that I’ve done this, and in the now more than couple decades I’ve been telling stories, I have to say that what we do as writers, as directors, and as actors is quite specific, unique, and not for everybody. I think there are companies and corporations and schools of thought that would like to see our work be interchangeable, one size fits all. In fact, it’s the antithesis of what we do. We make specific unique stories with specific, unique voices, and we do something that all those people in suits who are making our lives miserable right now don’t know how to do. I just think in the same way that I don’t tell a person who builds cars how to build a car. I don’t think these companies and studios can be designing what we do because they simply don’t know what we do. That’s a big thing that just I keep coming back to for better or for worse.