Winter was always coming for the Yellowjackets, so it’s no surprise that the new season sees the team barely living off bear remains and root tea amidst vicious blizzards and slow, miserable starvation. Tensions are rising because some girls believe that unmedicated schizophrenic Lottie (Courtney Eaton) has preternatural gifts, nobody knows where Javi (Luciano Leroux) is, Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) is still extremely pregnant, Taissa’s (Jasmin Savoy Brown) nocturnal excursions are getting worse, and Lottie now has an absolutely banging patchwork fur jacket that suggests a definite level up in sewing.
The present, however, is an existential winter of discontent amongst the adult survivors — Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) is dealing very poorly with the aftermath of her affair, Misty (Christina Ricci) sets out to rescue Natalie (Juliette Lewis) from unknown kidnappers, Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is on a downward spiral to her own personal hell, and we get to meet grown-up Lottie (Simone Kessell) and Van (Lauren Ambrose).
For all my love of the show, returning to Yellowjackets has been an exercise in understanding the power of its packaging. I previously wrote about the way it makes a soft weapon of ’90s nostalgia and memories of teenage power dynamics. Season 2 flashbacks, divorced from the familiar milieu of high school bleachers and collaged girly-girl diaries, is a different beast altogether — more subdued and, at times, even tedious, thanks to the morose territory. It sucks to admit that the heady rush is gone. Now we’re going through the motions to unravel the story of the Yellowjackets, simply because it’s how things go with these types of shows.
When you make a show about people getting stranded under extreme conditions, it also means managing stereotypical assumptions about where it’s going to go — cannibalism and mutiny being the most obvious ones, thanks to decades of history and genre fiction and the simple realities of human nature. The trick, then, is in execution and payoff, and the new season doesn’t always stick the landing. In truth, at least in the first six episodes, not much happens in the wilderness except for the continued deterioration of everyone’s health and sanity. There aren’t any big questions and only a few small answers. Adult Shauna’s storyline, in the tradition of all main characters, is arguably the most tedious of the lot, and Misty’s somewhat-lovable borderline psychopathy is dulled down to a blunt edge after she meets fellow “citizen detective” Walter Tattersall (Elijah Wood).
There’s more space in flashbacks for minor Yellowjackets to exist, which makes practical sense, but still feels like an afterthought as Akilah (Keeya King) and Crystal (Nuha Jes Izman) suddenly get minor story arcs that serve the main characters. The treatment of Jackie as a gradually diminishing specter is great — she was, after all, an enormous bag sucking up all the oxygen in the room. There’s still a fantastic sense of chemistry between the young cast as they’ve all realigned themselves toward the goal of survival despite their own personal problems. There’s a much sharper sense of claustrophobia, too, as the girls are mostly confined to the cabin while Natalie and Travis continue their daily treks to find food and make simple maps of the area.
The girls are, understandably, in a very different place than they were in summer and fall, delirious from hunger and willing to do whatever it takes to live. One of the biggest and most explicitly foreshadowed reveals feels like a disconnect from the previous season, which really underlined the unflinching horror and brutality of nature; it’s supposed to be a huge turning point for the characters but feels almost underwhelming inevitability to anyone who’s been paying attention. What the show unfailingly succeeds at is giving high moments of pure, unfiltered black comedy — there’s a perfect bit when Misty is trying to resuscitate a fallen teammate to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” while blood rhythmically spurts out of her mouth. This is what I’m here for.
Then there’s Coach Scott, ensconced in a wholesome nest of daydreams about an unrealized alternative life before the plane crash — one where he decided to quit his job and move in with his boyfriend, fantasizes about playing charades with friends, and takes steps to come out in the same year that Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed for being gay. In reality, he’s still in the cabin clutching a battered copy of John Fowles’ incomprehensibly dense novel The Magus, arguably the worst reading material for someone in his situation; it’s essentially about a naive schoolteacher who moves to a remote Greek island for work and gets caught up in a whirlwind of elaborate psychological “godgames” orchestrated by a rich, sociopathic hermit. Everyone involved seems to be having a bad time, yet everyone still performs their roles, and when I read The Magus as an extremely impatient and single-minded college kid, the ambiguous ending got me so tilted that I hurled the book across the room.
This isn’t to say that Yellowjackets aspires to borrow wholesale from The Magus’ overcooked godgames or similar themes of myth-making. It still walks a pretty straightforward, conventional path when it comes to storytelling, which is a genuine compliment compared to the self-satisfied bloat of Fowles’ supposed magnum opus. If anything, the book’s two-second appearance drives home the dissolving borders between reality and fantasy, which feels like overkill in an age where audiences are trusted less and less to make their own inferences and interpretations. But perhaps, using The Magus to frame what’s going on in the wilderness as things progressively get tenser and weirder, it’s possible to understand where the show wants to go. With Lottie’s formal “wellness center” setting, there’s a possibility that the show will lean into Magus-style mindfucks-as-postmodern therapy, but that would frankly be a huge disappointment.
As I mentioned last year, Yellowjackets was originally sold as a five-season package, and I can’t help but wonder whether Showtime will give the series a dignified death. Even with its killer cast and extreme survival concept, it’s hard to maintain the sort of mystery and tension required of such a premise; this is, after all, a show about self-made mythology as well as the requisite speculation about how a bunch of suburban kids managed to survive for 19 months in the frozen wilderness. With the good part of a year left to go until they’re rescued, we’re still on the way to the cultish spectacle we see in the series opening, but hopefully it won’t feel like an eternity to get there.
Yellowjackets season 2 premieres on Showtime on March 24th.