In ‘Yellowjackets’, the girls are hungry to live

Photo: Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

In LA this weekend? Come and get a special early showing of Yellowjackets at the Vulture Festival on Saturday, November 13, followed by a conversation with actors Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress, Ella Purnell, Samantha Hanratty, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher and Sophie Néliss. Get your tickets here.

“I knew how this would be decided in the animal world,” Lindsay Lohans Cady says to herself in a famous scene from bad girls, before jumping over a cafeteria table and walking full jungle cat on Queen Bee Regina George. It’s a short, funny reminder that just below the surface lurks potential savagery in any teenage girl, an idea Yellowjackets takes and runs through the wild forest with. The new Showtime series, which premieres on Sunday, feels like a hybrid of other shows that nonetheless form its own compelling teen / adult psychological studio, with some hints of horror and cannibalism added to the mix.

At first glance, the narrative template Yellowjackets mirrors closest are Lost. Like the mystery-box saga, this series alternates between flashbacks and the present and involves a plane crash that leaves a group of people in an isolated place, forced to figure out how to cope on their own. The difference is that this crash happened in the past, specifically 1996, when a private jet that took a New Jersey girls high school football team (mascot name: Yellowjackets) to the national championships suddenly disappeared in the remote wilderness. There are a few male survivors – at least one coach and the teen and preteen sons of the head coach – but virtually everyone who comes out of the wreck is a young woman. To make another appropriate comparison, for what certainly will not be the first or last time, you can also see this as gendered Lord of the Flies.

Television has certainly shown us resilient women in survival stories before – watch, yes, Lost, The Walking Dead, every season of Survivor, it recently canceled Y: The last manetc. Amazons The Wilds even depicted teenage girls trying to be rescued after a plane crash. But there is something refreshingly rich in watching these young women immediately become resourceful leaders in a situation of life or death, while at the same time seeing how that experience has affected them in recent years. The fact that their life-defining moment happens in 1996 – like a New York Times piece released at the time referred to as “the year of the teenage girl” – reflects the post-feminist promise of that era, and given what comes of these women later in life, it strikes a tone of tragedy.

When we get acquainted with some of the adult Yellowjackets, it is clear that the resilience they may have learned during their time in the woods has been overshadowed by guilt, PTSD, and inertia. Shauna, played as an adult by Melanie Lynskey, becomes a disgruntled wife and mother who is apparently still fixated on living the carefree young adult life that escaped her. Natalie (Juliette Lewis) struggles with addiction. Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is running for public office in New Jersey, while also trying to run away from her attachment to the crash, as well as the eerie bad behavior of the son she shares with his wife Simone (Rukiya Bernard). And then there’s Misty, the most confusing, surprising character in the series. As a teenager, when portrayed by Samantha Hanratty, she is extremely skilled but so obviously thirsty for friendship that people avoid her as if she is an infectious. As an adult, in the hands of Christina Ricci, the same qualities remain, but her self-confidence is more pronounced, and so is her manipulative ability. It’s never quite clear what motivates Misty, and that’s just one of the mysteries in Yellowjackets being teased over its 10 episodes. (Critics were offered six in advance.)

Co-showrunners Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson and Jonathan Lisco take time to peel layers away in the characters’ background stories and in the events that happened after the crash, keeping the audience in, if not the darkness, then certainly very dim light around exactly how corrupt things were after the crash. (An initial opening scene where a young woman falls into a trap and soon becomes a party for her former teammates suggests that the answer is: pretty depraved!) As the episodes progress, elements of the supernatural head pull up, suggesting that more than one character, in both eras, may be touched or haunted in some way. An alleged reporter (Rekha Sharma) is also starting to sneak around the current timeline, suggesting that the truth about what happened out there in the woods could emerge and damage the reputation of everyone involved.

The plot is pretty meaty (sorry), though Yellowjackets is adept at juggling it all, jumping between narratives and tones in a way that is not recorded as jarring jumps, but moves in a purposefully choreographed dance. In a recent New York Times Karyn Kusama, who directed the pilot, says that when they cast actors to play young and older versions of the same characters, they were not looking for physical doubles, but “a soul match.” It comes through in Shauna’s shyness and unforgivable nature, qualities that are effectively evoked by both Lynskey and Sophie Nélisse, the young Shauna. Lewis and Sophie Thatcher, like Natalie, have such similar punk rock, go-to-and-dare-me attitudes that they seem like sisters, while Cypress and Jasmin Savoy Brown from The remains make it clear that Taissa’s stubbornness has been a part of her DNA all her life. Ricci and Hanratty, on the other hand, play Misty as two sides of the same coin. As a teenager Misty, Hanratty is vulnerable but strange and impulsive; 25 years later, Ricci pushes these qualities further toward mental instability. Seeing the fullness of these personalities emerge based on two separate eras is fascinating and serves as ample justification for the series’ timeline-jumping approach.

The series also gets the mid-90s just right, based on its choice of props – of course there is Naughty magazines scattered around the bedroom belonging to Shauna’s best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell) – for its soundtrack selection. The Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Salt-N-Pepa, Jane’s Addiction, Montell Jordan: Every needle drop is a time machine that captures an era that the living Yellowjackets would like to forget, but sometimes also long to revisit. When Shauna’s daughter taunts her mother for handing out candy for Halloween in a 90s costume that no one recognizes, Lynskey answers sincerely, as if she’s thought a lot about it: “The people who matter recognize Daria.”

People watching Yellowjackets can also recognize some of their teenage selves in it, both in those moments of solidarity – there is a real sense of sisterhood when the girls win a game or break out in a spontaneous wilderness dance party – and in its moments where conflicts rattle from intense to potentially dangerous. Yellowjackets understand that even in a non-crisis situation, the teenage world can very quickly become an animal world, and the scars from these original experiences do not disappear.

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