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Yellowjackets’ first season is a collective fever dream

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A show about teen survival, the ’90s, and the way we talk about them

yellowjackets Image: Showtime

At the very start of Yellowjackets, we meet Allie, a freshman who was meant to be on the plane when it crashed. “I’ll never forget the day I heard their plane had gone missing. I mean, that could have been me,” she says dramatically in a thick Jersey accent, cigarette and wine in hand. And yet, it wasn’t. This one throwaway line has stuck with me since the beginning of the show; the larger Yellowjackets discussion isn’t just about the parasocial adoption of others’ trauma, but the way we talk about the girls and the show and regress into a deliriously unhinged version of the ’90s that I didn’t even know I wanted, and it rules.

This essay contains spoilers for the first season of Yellowjackets.

When it comes to Yellowjackets theories, there isn’t much to add that hasn’t already been said; I was, in the beginning, an Adam-is-Javi believer and was, until the finale, convinced that Jackie somehow made it out on her own. But, on the heels of last Sunday’s season finale, what I keep coming back to is how we talk about Yellowjackets and the way we project ourselves onto the imperiled teens: quietly resilient Shauna, impulsive Nat, needy Jackie, ambitious Taissa, and everyone’s favorite sociopath Misty.

Unfettered nostalgia for the ’90s — especially among elder millennials and Gen-X folks — has been a part of our cultural consciousness for decades, and the Yellowjackets team knows it. On the surface, the ’90s setting is its most effective weapon. It was a “simpler time” full of iconic albums and movies and catchphrases and band T-shirts that remain living parts of our memories. But it was also a time when being openly queer / gay wasn’t accepted, when cloying stereotypes had a much stronger hand in shaping teen social dynamics, when things were awkward and grungy.

All of this ‘90s catnip is a rose-colored yearning for how we communicated before smartphones and TikTok, and for high school girls, a huge part of this is a violent opera of hormones and a lot of spontaneous psychic damage to the people around them. The show’s creators, Amy Lyle and Bart Nickerson, are really, really good at wielding this brand of emotional nostalgia, and as a result, the way we talk about Yellowjackets is ultimately, for me, a delightful regression back to my high-school self. It really is like riding a fucked-up bike.

A few critics have pointed out, rightly so, that all the speculating and all the theories ultimately don’t mean anything. The real beating heart of Yellowjackets isn’t really about picking apart Jackie’s temporally questionable diary entries or the casual Hole song designed to send me straight back to puberty. That’s all set dressing and theatre. And as fun as it is pointing out when Shauna rocks a Yo La Tengo shirt, my takeaway from this whole experience is far more masochistic.

After the finale, while waiting for a friend to respond to my wall of “lottie wtf” texts, I almost fell over shambling from the bathroom with my pants around my ankles to snatch my phone. Sure, we can blame a bit of that on pandemic life, but the mad hormonal urgency with which we need to discuss and dissect each episode every Sunday night is a time machine straight back to the delirium of high school phone sessions.

Yellowjackets is a collective fever dream, a streamed microdose to bring out the best and worst of our past selves. It’s a meticulously-designed mirror that reproduces the neuroses of high-school teenhood: the small, fierce insecurities; the volcanic outbursts; the shifting alliances. When we see Jackie staring daggers at Shauna getting close to other girls, I can remember just how that white-hot paranoia and jealousy feels in my bones. Shauna and Jackie’s big finale showdown is built on the social rituals and power dynamics of every archetypal popular-girl story ever told — the kind of stuff that fueled the all-girls boarding school I went to and the kind of stuff you outgrow (hopefully) and shed like a skin. In harnessing this power, Yellowjackets does something sacred and brings back all of that angst and energy to channel into its viewers.

It’s not just a show about the visceral pains of teenhood (nor the limbo of adulthood) but the paper-thin membranes between trauma and PTSD and hysteria and reality. On a very basic level, the show is an exploration of figurative and literal interiors and exteriors, peppered with the sort of dark humor that shares a satirical heritage with Heathers. It’s a simple formula: mix one part horror / suspense with gnarly gore, a sprinkling of dark jokes, and one part drama with a particularly alluring flavor of retrospection that sucks the viewer in like a force of nature. At the same time, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is its saving grace. It’s messy and melodramatic as hell, and if you think you were any better than this in high school, you’re a liar.

In the finale, we come back to Allie at the Yellowjackets’ 25th high school reunion, still trying to insert herself into the narrative, riding high on her position as class chair. It’s full circle — the Yellowjackets’ story as a form of parasocial community lore, the surviving group objectified as a kind of aspirational trauma porn. It comes back to the way people talk about it all, which we replicate beautifully, almost gleefully as spectators. From a theatrical standpoint, it’s one of the most effective pseudo-participatory shows I’ve committed to in a long time, and it’s wild to think it was made in part as proof that girls can be as brutal as boys a la Lord of the Flies — gender essentialism aside, high school girls are powerful cacodemons, and you can bet in 2022, they absolutely know it.

This wouldn’t be a real Yellowjackets post if I didn’t cave and name a theory to end this all on and that it’s that our human sacrifice victim was possibly Lottie (tall-ish, long dark hair, last bearer of Jackie’s necklace). We’re supposed to think Lottie is still alive at the end of the season, thanks to her name being dropped in the last 30 seconds of the finale — but Yellowjackets clearly still has surprises up its sleeve. The fact that it was initially sold as a five-season show is a little concerning; this isn’t the sort of story that benefits from being drawn out too long. Still, when it comes to the way it speaks to its audience and prompts us to dissect its bones among ourselves, Yellowjackets is doing something really special right now that I haven’t seen or felt in years.