‘Yellowjackets’ are art for the age of conspiracy

This article contains spoilers through the ninth episode of Yellowjackets Season 1.

The Ouija board marks itself as a “mystifying oracle”, an ornate silkscreen channel for the past and the future. I know it most from childhood sleep. Gathered around the board, aware of the low probability that an object retrieved from an impulse passage would serve as a portal to another realm, my friends and I would nonetheless place our fingers lightly on the plastic disc of the board and surrender to the soft one. voltage of maybe. Someone would ask a question. And then… slid the clock face – sometimes hesitantly, from letter to letter, sometimes it shot directly to YES or the NONE. For children who had not yet learned about unconscious minds and suggestive bodies, the device really seemed to move the fingers instead of the other way around.

They stranded football players off Yellowjackets, the notable series that is about to end its first season on Showtime, improvises their own version of an Ouija session. In the cabin they snuggle in after their little plane crashes into the desert, the teens – who want insight into their relationship or at least distraction from it – turn on lights. They tie a knife to a rope. Shauna, the outwardly modest senior, holds the improvised pendulum: a “mystifying oracle,” incarnated. They sit in a circle. They ask questions that start out as stupid (about school gossip, falling in love) until Javi, the coach’s son, asks the only one who matters: “Are we all going to die out here?” The pendulum twists to an 8 – or maybe an infinite symbol. A gust of wind that appears to carry the show’s camera whizzes towards the interior of the cabin. And then: Lottie, who is prone to visions, starts speaking fluent French, her eyes expressionless, her mouth chattering about “it” wants “blood”. She bangs her forehead robotically against a window. The viewer may at this point be asking the same question that survivors of Flight 2525 so often ask themselves when contemplating the world they have plunged into: What happens?

Yellowjackets is a potent fusion of a show, Lost meetings Alive meetings Lyng meetings Lord of the Flies meet many, many others. The series, which alternates between 1996, the year of the crash, and 2021, is also a fusion of genres: A little bit of psychodrama, a little bit of satire, a little bit of horror, its wonderfully hectic plots featuring murder, kidnapping, extortion, betrayal. But above all, they offer mysteries. Some have been explained as the season draws to a close. But the program’s most basic question remains unanswered: Do humans move the dial? Or is something moving people? Yellowjackets, in that sense, is a show about extreme circumstances that channels urgent prosaic concerns. In a moment where many people are reconsidering basic questions of trust – to the government, to other people, in their own perceptions – the show establishes a world where faith in itself is a matter of life and death.

A character in "Yellowjackets" stands in front of a house with a lantern
(Michael Courtney / Showtime)

Among the mysteries at play in Yellowjackets (and I want to warn here again that there are plenty of spoilers below): Who is blackmailing Shauna, Taissa and Natalie today? Who killed Travis, the coach’s second son – Travis himself or someone else? Who or what is the “man without eyes” Taissa sees? Who is Taissa’s son, Sammy, talking about when he talks about “the bad guy”? Who is Adam, the artist-mechanic who keeps popping up in Shauna’s life? (Is he an adult Javi?) Which member of the Wiskayok High School Yellowjackets was murdered by his teammates and then, presumably, eaten by them? Who can be alive, still, but not yet recognized by the show’s selective gaze?

And by and by and by. Yellowjackets embraces the generalized suspicions of the classic mystery story and the true-crime documentary: Everyone is a suspect. Everything could be responsible for what happens in the show’s hectic timelines. But the series also opens up the possibility that some of its events – the seemingly spontaneous burning of Laura Lee’s teddy bear, e.g. or the compass that spins out of control when it’s next to a river flowing red – can not and will not, fully explained. Yellowjackets entertains the prospect of magic.

The unstable conditions in the series’ cosmology nicely serve one of its operational interests: Why do people believe what they believe? How do these beliefs impose themselves on other people’s lives? Survival is not a unique event, but an ongoing act of perseverance. And for characters struggling to live, separated from home and in some sense abandoned by it, the boundaries between the “normal” and the paranormal become understandably porous. It makes sense that reality might begin to feel, for them, as an option among many.

Yellowjackets is full of coincidences, big and small. These convergences are crucial elements of the show, precisely because they can be read as both meaningful and meaningless. Shauna encounters an old classmate at the motel where Natalie lives. She encounters her daughter, Callie, at a party in New York City for Halloween. She runs into Adam’s car with her minivan. “Why are you here?” Shauna asks Adam a second time when she encounters him at the hotel, where she is monitoring her husband, Jeff. “I just got a drink,” he replies. “But I do not know now. I’m starting to think that maybe there is something out there that has other ideas.”

Is Adam misled? Is he lying? Is he adapted to the possibilities of life in a way that Shauna is not? We do not know for sure yet, but Yellowjackets allows for many different ways to understand the world and its function. When one arrives at a culture shaped by delusions and marked by mistrust, the show complicates the question of who and what to believe. It channels the imperative that was made popular in the program that some of the girls were fans of back in 1996, about “not trusting anyone.” The show also destabilizes audience confidence. Yellowjackets sets Taissa up as a declared empiricist, a stark contrast to Laura Lee and her faith and to Lottie and her visions. But soon the show suggests that Taissa, perhaps more than any other survivor, is now struggling with reality-distorting delusions. Lottie, on the other hand, embodies a certain mystery; we also see her, early in the show, take a version of loxapine – a drug typically used to treat schizophrenia.

These complexities might be understood as part of the show’s satire: a persistent mockery of mysteries that come with neat solutions. Yellowjackets turns his gimlet gaze towards the true-crime industrial complex, at the narrative comforts of the trauma plot, at a culture that looks down on women who have the maturity to age out of girlhood. It makes weekly offers for Reddit threads, though it does make fun of Misty and her other “citizen detectives”. Yellowjackets comes a year after The Wilds, The 2020 series about a group of teenage girls struggling for survival in the desert. The previous series is neither as subtle nor as brash as Yellowjackets; its explanation of “what’s happening” often sounds more like a gimmick than an insight. But it shares Yellowjackets a keen interest in what happens when the violence of adolescence struggles with another form of Darwinism. The story of lost nature consists in literature and pop culture because it has such sharp stakes: survival, yes, but also the blunt revelations of what people become outside the infrastructures and influences of civilization.

The horror story lives on for similar reasons. Fear removes everything else. And fear, like any other emotion that lives in the electrical impulses of the human mind, can shape the world, even if it responds to it. Yellowjackets and their insect relatives are gradually becoming a clichĂ© of high school girlhood: queens, wannabes. But the creatures also make appropriate metaphors for a world of influencers and propaganda and conspiracy – a world where gossip, if repeated enough, is perceived as truth, and where popularity equals power. Hive mind can shape any environment. Hallucinations, which are shared on a large scale, may soon take hold of reality. Does it matter in the end whether the forest inhabited by the Yellowjackets is haunted? Or does it just mean that some members of the team are going to think they are? This is another element of Yellowjackets‘timely horror: When survival itself is teamwork, the delusion of one can mean danger to all others.

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