Teen trauma, survivor’s guilt, and plenty of gore mix in a genre show worthy of its buzz
Showtime’s Yellowjackets is a risky endeavor. Not because of the female-driven cast, time-jumping story, or salacious content, but because it is a mystery box show. In this genre, the balance between question and answer is precarious, and even the greatest productions tend to spin wildly out of control, leaving dismayed and betrayed audiences in their wake. (It’s true, some of us never recovered from Lost.)
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In 1996, a New Jersey girls’ soccer team wins the state championship, and make their way to nationals on a teammate’s private jet. Something goes awry, and the plane crashes in a remote northern stretch of woods. In 2021, residual trauma, survivor’s guilt, and the encroaching horrors of middle age plague the flight’s survivors.
Under the tantalizing flash of The Shining-inspired horror and Lord of the Flies madness, Yellowjackets is an examination of teen trauma, and how our past experiences shape us through the years. After decades of avoidance, the (only?) four survivors find circumstance forcing them together to protect their shared history and maintain their hard-earned sense of agency over their lives. Who or what those forces are is unknown, and their collective dread of discovery is our delight.
Yellowjackets flips between then and now, rousing a bit here, shaking a few details loose there. It’s a slow build, full of misdirection and foreshadowing, like a faster paced lady Barton Fink with a 90s grunge-hits soundtrack. To reveal too many details would distill the thrill of the puzzle, but from the outset, the stakes are high. We know deaths are imminent, and there’s never a question of the impending cannibalism, but rather, who the cast will eat, and why, and how. Dread and anticipation ensue.
The casting here is better than it has any right to be. As the storyline weaves itself back and forth through time, the younger actors need to stand toe to toe with their elders, and the transitions are tight. In particular, eternal loser Misty, as portrayed by Samantha Hanratty and Christina Ricci, has probably already generated thousands of fan theories and inspired endless cosplays. In an ensemble show full of supernatural and man-made horror, this unsettling character manages to instill the compulsive urge to skitter away every time she smiles. It’s exhilarating.
Though less sweetly malicious, the other actors ground the fantastical story with their lived-in intensity. Jasmine Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress allow us to glimpse the cracks in winner Taissa’s veneer, Sophie Nélisse and Melanie Lynskey emanate Shauna’s uncertainties, and Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis embody Natalie’s ongoing deep dive towards self-destruction. It is entirely believable that these women were always on the trajectory to become what and who they are; the crash simply sped the process, and gave them each a handy excuse for their failures.
This is not a subtle show. It fires genre tropes across the landscape with the abandon of T-shirt cannons at a monster truck rally. There’s rivalry, cheating, blackmail, mental illness, addiction, and religious fervor, but in case that’s not enough, scary wolves, eyeless men, and big-eyed children pop in periodically to ensure things stay off balance. Overall, the question-to-answer ratio is solid, the SFX are enviously gory, and the concept consistently titillates. Yellowjackets is definitely worthy of its buzz.