There’s nothing more terrifying than a teenage girl. Except, perhaps, a group of teenage girls marooned in the woods, driven to madness and cannibalism. Yellowjackets, created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, plays on the unease and unpredictability of adolescence, allowing the most unhinged aspects of feminine youth to flourish onscreen. The series, which debuted on Showtime in November and has slowly built a strong following since, has been praised for telling a story typically only afforded to male characters—rightly so. However, its strengths are more complex than gender parity alone.
In the tension-filled premiere, a high school soccer team—the Yellowjackets—are on their way to nationals. 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) is sleeping with the boyfriend of her best friend and teammate Jackie (Ella Purnell), and Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is so focused on winning that she slams into a teammate during practice, brutally breaking her leg. When the team and its coaches, traveling by rickety private plane, crash land in the wilderness, these cracks begin to splinter.
On the surface, that premise is deeply familiar, recalling 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’s established that something—what?!—transpires in the wilderness that sets some of the girls on a path to ritualistic cannibalism. We’re not sure who is involved, although by the end of the gasp-inducing finale we can make some educated guesses.
The slow unwinding of the team’s mental state in the woods is juxtaposed with present day, as adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress) and Natalie (Juliette Lewis) begin to suspect that someone is digging into their problematic past. There are blackmail notes and another survivor, Travis, is found dead in what looks like a suicide but likely is not.
As the episodes leap between timelines, Yellowjackets feels like a mystery rolled into a psychological thriller rolled into a buddy comedy, particularly as the present day Yellowjackets are forced to team up with Misty (Christina Ricci), a fellow survivor who is hilariously unstable. In both timelines, each time a new piece of information is unveiled the audience falls deeper into the show’s spell. It’s a methodic, careful burn on the part of the writers, leading into the finale, which closes with a few surprising twists—although it doesn’t really get us any closer to knowing the how, why and who of the premiere’s cannibal scene. The series has already been greenlit for a second season, so it behooves the writers not to reveal their full hand yet, since it’s that tense anticipation that makes Yellowjackets work so well.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Yellowjackets is the most compelling new show in years, aided by its anticipatory weekly drop, which opens it up to fan theory after fan theory. Is there something supernatural at play in the woods? Who is the antler queen from the premiere? Are there more Yellowjackets still alive in the present day? The high ratio of questions to answers is reminiscent of Lost’s early seasons. The endless Yellowjackets memes (“What? There’s 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 characters, which are impressively crafted, and on the drops of on-point nostalgia. The music cues are near-perfect, with ‘90s tracks from PJ Harvey, Hole, Portishead and Mazzy Star punctuating the action.
While Yellowjackets plays on fear, it’s not horror outright. The gore is blatant, including when the younger version of Misty (Sammi Hanratty) amputates the shattered leg of the team’s assistant coach with an ax after the crash. The show doesn’t shy away from the reality of a group of girls in the woods, either. In one episode, “Blood Hive,” everyone’s period has synced, resulting in a “blood soup” pot of makeshift tampons, and in another, the penultimate “Doomcoming,” the survivors get high on shrooms and descend into an orgy. It’s not about shock value, though; it’s about possibility. Those who have been a teen girl will remember the volatile mental state of those years and how easy it was to succumb to the crowd. It’s not really a far leap to translate the catty back-stabbing of high school into brutally murdering a disliked peer on a pit of spikes in the forest after months of isolation and forced survival.
While both timelines are compelling, as much as we’re desperate to know who gets eaten first, it’s the adult Yellowjackets who prove more interesting. Shauna, a housewife with a petulant teenage daughter of her own, toys with risky behavior, killing a rabbit in the garden for dinner and engaging in an affair with a man she meets after a car accident. It’s evident that her years in the woods have numbed her to violence and she now seeks out reckless situations. Taissa is campaigning for public office, but can’t escape a darkness that seems to have emerged during her time in the wilderness. And that darkness, as we see in the finale’s final moments, may be more problematic than first revealed.
From that perspective, Yellowjackets is about trauma and the ways in which we process that trauma as an adult. Sure, not all of us had to slaughter animals in the woods for food, but moments of adolescent pain linger for everyone. We can repress those memories all we like, but everything finds a way to surface. The finale, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” titled for the Latin phrase “Thus passes the glory of the world,” reveals that season one has only scratched the surface of the survivors’ trauma. There’s still so much left unseen, so many questions left unanswered. The most important one: When does season two premiere?