With the end of Yellowjackets’ second season, even as a self-confessed indulger of period dramas and teen angst, I don’t know how they’re going to stretch it across three more seasons. (It was initially sold as a five-season show, and co-creator Ashley Lyle says they’re still on track for that.) I say this with both love and optimism because it has, across the board, a brilliant ensemble cast with stellar chemistry; there’s a little bit of meta irony in that, among the adult Yellowjackets, Juliette Lewis (Natalie), Christina Ricci (Misty), and Melanie Lynskey (Shauna) have the shared experience of beginning their acting careers as teens and making it big in the ’90s in a past iteration of Hollywood that thrived on the trauma of young women.
Perhaps disappointment is inevitable in a show about unreliable storytelling rituals (“Storytelling” is literally the name of this season’s finale) and the projection of fantasy onto trauma. In the wilderness, the team struggles through their first winter while, in the present, the survivors struggle through what is essentially the aftermath of Shauna fucking around and finding out. That she’s become a perpetually moving train wreck isn’t particularly surprising or noteworthy, but Lynskey inhabits this role so well that it’s often easy to forgive adult Shauna for being her own worst enemy.
In some ways, the show has played me like a fiddle
In some ways, the show has played me like a fiddle. The first season was an invitation to regress to a high school headspace where popularity mattered, and many of the characters were concerned — even in the face of death and dismemberment — about being liked. Yellowjackets’ strongest win this season has been slowly and somewhat unevenly turning that likability on its head (no, I don’t mean the cannibalism) and deconstructing what passes for logic behind coming-of-age priorities.
There’s real weight to the way Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) and Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) — the worn-down holdouts among ardent believers — slowly and inevitably succumb to madness clothed in self-righteous preternatural vibes. When young Lottie (Courtney Eaton) decides to pass on the mantle of leadership, it’s not so much a blessing as a curse — a curse that becomes the foundation of the girls’ survival myth. “Lottie is like this because of us,” says Van (Liv Hewson), speaking to a multitude moving further away from the autonomy of their individual selves.
There is some profound moment-to-moment writing here that really gets at the heart of the show: the arbitrary nature of the wilderness; the need to mythologize things we can’t understand; and the lengths we’ll go to in the name of closure. It’s a quiet, shameful delight to admit that the brutal beatdown between Shauna and Lottie brought out the sadist in me. Yes, it’s a face-value inversion of the naive idea that only boys use violence to solve problems and girls adhere to an inscrutably cruel social code more often than their fists. But it was a long time coming, and there’s palpable relief in Shauna’s bloody catharsis. It also prompts a wave of acceptance about the group’s nascent understanding of violence and its ability to manage the otherwise unmanageable.
The real senseless violence was watching clumsy stylistic elements severely undercut the momentum and energy of the performances on-screen. When episode seven opened with Kurt Cobain solemnly intoning “Something in the Way,” I didn’t realize the most jarring obstacle this season would turn out to be music direction. It seems that Yellowjackets’ period quirks finally managed to hit my admittedly generous limits for easy sentimentality. More often than not, this season trotted out grunge / alt-rock singles like a preprogrammed MTV hour, to mixed effect.
When The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” kicked in at the beginning of the girls’ first hunt, it might have delivered a killer gut punch 20 years ago but has, in the context of weaponizing iconic riffs, since diminished into the realm of background fodder. These musical flaws were (almost) balanced out by a wonderfully campy fantasy sequence in which Misty (Samantha Hanratty), ensconced in the hallucinatory confines of a flotation tank, finally gets some much-needed clarity — with a special guest appearance from Walter (Elijah Wood).
Where Yellowjackets consistently does well, even in this much patchier season, is in its dark humor. There’s a universal resonance to the way we turn to pithy comebacks and bleak goofs under the worst possible conditions, bolstered by the purposefully unsubtle themes of “teamwork” and harmony as the girls, clad in their uniform letterman jackets, prepare for their second feast. There’s some real levity in adult Natalie’s cult-endorsing turnaround: having the closest thing to effective therapy she’s had in years at Lottie’s retreat, even when the “truest most authentic selves” messaging gets a little heavy-handed. There’s also comfort in Jeff’s (Warren Kole) minor redemption arc from pathetic blackmailer to supportive family man, which started to grow on me in the face of Shauna’s descent into “self-care.”
And if coach Scott (Steven Krueger), the poor soul who simply can’t get away, ends up having to share his new refuge with the girls for the rest of the winter, that right there is some great tragicomedy.
Yellowjackets is not a subtle piece of storytelling, nor is it meant to be. It’s a show about craving and compulsion and the need for closure. It’s also a show about eating your friends because, if not, you’re gonna die. When young Van gives Travis (Kevin Alves) a firm but encouraging talk in the wake of the hunt, I want to believe the whole group, as one multiheaded organism, is finally entering full goblin (I really mean gobblin’) mode. Please let this be the point of no return. But there are Three! More! Seasons! Frankly, I don’t need more emo ruminations on what it means to be a good person in the face of dire odds; we’re already watching the grown survivors try and fail to reconcile their survival sins with the present.
Yellowjackets is not a subtle piece of storytelling
The cast is the real linchpin of this show, and it’s frustrating to muddy the strength and presence of their characters with a distinctly “Yellowjackets is testing well across this demographic so we must throw more ’90s into this already saturated pastiche” creative strategy. It’s like people who loudly use 10 cloves of garlic in a three-clove recipe because they unabashedly love garlic and either don’t realize or care that their overindulgence will derail the flavor of the whole dish.
I don’t know what to expect from the next few seasons — but I can only hope they’ll cut back on overcooking and overseasoning a perfectly good cut of meat.
Yellowjackets season 2 is out now on Showtime.