There is nothing more frightening than a teenage girl. Except, perhaps, a group of teenage girls stranded in the woods, driven to madness and cannibalism. Yellowjackets, created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, plays on the discomfort and unpredictability of youth, allowing the most independent aspects of feminine youth to flourish on screen. The series, which debuted on Showtime in November and has slowly built up a strong following since, has been praised for telling a story that can typically only afford male characters – rightly so. However, its strengths are more complex than equality alone.
In the exciting premiere, a high school football team – Yellowjackets – is on its way to the national team. It’s 1996 (a spot-on setting to play on the nostalgia of millennial viewers), and the team is already cracking at the seams. Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) sleeps with the boyfriend of her best friend and teammate Jackie (Ella Purnell), and Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is so focused on winning that she hits a teammate during training and breaks her leg brutally. When the team and its coaches traveling in rickety private jets crash into the desert, cracks begin to shatter.
On the surface, that premise is deeply familiar, recalled Alive, Lord of the Flies and Lost. But Yellowjackets is not exactly something we’ve seen before. From the first few minutes of the premiere, it has been established that something – what ?! Happens in the desert that puts some of the girls on the path to ritual cannibalism. We are not sure who is involved, although at the end of the gasp-inducing finale we may come up with some qualified guesses.
The slow settlement of the team’s mental state in the woods is put together with the present, as adults Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress) and Natalie (Juliette Lewis) begin to suspect that someone is digging into their problematic past. There are extortion notes, and another survivor, Travis, is found dead in something resembling a suicide, but it probably is not.
While the episodes jump between timelines, Yellowjackets feels like a mystery rolled into a psychological thriller rolled into a comedy comedy, especially since the Yellowjackets today are forced to team up with Misty (Christina Ricci), another survivor who is howling funny unstable . In both timelines, each time new information is revealed, the audience falls deeper into the show’s spell form. It’s a methodical, careful burning on the part of the authors that leads into the finale, which ends with a few surprising twists – although it does not really get us any closer to knowing how, why and which of the premiere’s cannibal scene. The series has already been given the green light for the second season, so it is the writers’ responsibility not to reveal their full hand yet, as it is the excited expectation that makes Yellowjackets work so well.
That is not an exaggeration to say Yellowjackets is the most compelling new show in years, aided by its expectant weekly decline, which opens it up for fantasy after fantasy. Is there anything supernatural at stake in the forest? Who is the antler queen from the premiere? Are there more Yellowjackets still alive today? The high ratio of questions to answers is reminiscent Losts early seasons. The infinite Yellowjackets memes (“What? There is no book club?”) reflect a growing collective cultural obsession, which expands as more and more viewers discover the show. That obsession is built both on the plot and the characters, which are impressively crafted, and on the drops of on-point nostalgia. The music is almost perfect, with 90s tracks from PJ Harvey, Hole, Portishead and Mazzy Star characterizing the action.
While Yellowjackets playing on fear, it is not direct horror. The deletion is obvious, even when the younger version of Misty (Sammi Hanratty) amputates the broken leg of the team’s assistant coach with an ax after the crash. The show also does not shy away from the reality of a group of girls in the woods. In one episode, “Blood Hive”, everyone’s menstruation is synchronized, resulting in a “blood soup” pot of temporary tampons, and in another, the penultimate “Doomcoming”, the survivors get high from fungi and fall into an orgy . However, it is not about shock value; it’s about opportunity. Those who have been a teenage girl will remember the unstable mental state in those years and how easy it was to succumb to the crowd. It’s not really a long leap to turn the high school’s boring backstabbing into brutally murdering a disgruntled peer on a well of spikes in the woods after months of isolation and forced survival.
While both timelines are compelling, as much as we are desperate to know who is being eaten first, it is the adult Yellowjackets that are proving more interesting. Shauna, a housewife with a reluctant teenage daughter, plays with risky behavior, kills a rabbit in the garden for dinner and initiates an affair with a man she meets after a car accident. It is clear that her years in the woods have stunned her to violence, and she now seeks out ruthless situations. Taissa is campaigning for public office, but can not escape a darkness that seems to have emerged during her time in the desert. And the darkness that we see in the final moments of the finale can be more problematic than first revealed.
From the perspective of Yellowjackets is about trauma and the ways we process that trauma as adults. Sure, we should not all slaughter animals in the woods to get food, but moments of youthful pain are connected for everyone. We can suppress these memories everything we like, but everything finds a way to get to the surface. The finale, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”, with the title of the Latin phrase “Thus the glory of the world goes,” reveals that season 1 has only scratched the surface of the trauma of the survivors. There is still so much unseen, so many questions that remain unanswered. The most important: When will season two premiere?
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