Some of the most appealing aspects of Yellowjackets as it races toward a first-season finale can be connected to the 2000s phenomenon Lost: It’s premised on a plane crash, a mysterious location, and the survivors’ possibly hopeless attempts to escape that location, and derives extra narrative tension from cutting between that survival story and another period of time.
One difference (apart from the grim specter of cannibalism hanging over the whole thing) is that Yellowjackets’ plane-crash material takes place in the past rather than the present, following younger versions of characters who are, in the show’s version of 2021, played by more recognizable actors.
In other words, it’s Lost meets Now And Then. Yellowjackets even shares a star with that coming-of-age dramedy: Christina Ricci appeared in the movie’s 1970 section, set 25 years before its 1995 release. On Yellowjackets, she gets to be the present-day adult, and the show flashes back to her own quarter-century-ago mini-me—whose story takes place right around the time Now And Then was becoming a sleepover staple.
This is likely a head-spinning coincidence. It also happens to be illustrative of perhaps the most daunting and fascinating structural challenge Yellowjackets struggles to face—noticeably, if productively.
As terrific as the show is, and as skillful as it is in navigating a heightened, horror-tinged atmosphere, the match-up between its older and younger stars is sometimes its least immediately convincing element. (Also unconvincing: Jackie’s mysterious list of favorite movies, almost all of which were released in 1996—and some presumably after the crash.). That’s not a criticism of any of the actors. If anything, it’s an acknowledgment that charismatic performers can’t always be expected to conform to each other’s tones, mannerisms, and personas.
It should be said that some of the show’s pairings are quite striking. Though Ricci and Sammi Hanratty get a lot of assistance from an idiosyncratic, unchanging fashion sense, they’re are a good match as the wide-eyed Misty, creating continuity between an overeager girl who seems to banish her insecurities by sheer force of will as an adult. Melanie Lynskey and Sophie Nélisse look enough alike a two versions of Shauna, with Lynskey teasing out the bitter disappointment that in Nélisse looks more like wariness and youthful confusion.
The other half of the 2021 quartet, though, is not quite as spot-on. Tawny Cypress has a more imperious bearing as Taissa, with elements of her physicality—perpetually downturned mouth, lower-register voice—that don’t really pop through Jasmin Savoy Brown’s younger version of the character. Most jarring are Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher as Nat, the group’s resident burnout/hellraiser. Like Taissa, Nat’s vocal intonations and cadences have seemingly changed over the years; Thatcher and Lewis have little in common by way of line delivery.
Moreover, Nat’s whole presence has been overhauled. The intelligence and wounded sensitivity Thatcher conveys in her eyes don’t sync up with Lewis’ more hardened stare, and Adult Nat’s stretchy, restless movements often look a little mannered, maybe as an overcorrection for the fact that Lewis is ever so slightly older than her character is supposed to be. (Think back to 1995: The real-life Lewis was already playing adults.) Lewis is a fine actor, but here she often feels like she’s calling back to her other ’90s characters, rather than Thatcher’s version of that archetype. The designated burnout seems genuinely burned out.
Some of this can be attributed to the changes these characters are supposed to have gone through during the offscreen passage of time; obviously Misty has maintained a certain stubborn consistency that makes her especially frightened, while the others have been haunted or disturbed by what they experienced in the woods—the full details of which have not yet been fully revealed, and probably will not be for quite some time. Nat in particular has battled addiction. Having two different actors play the same character isn’t just a practical necessity; it can also serve as symbolic shorthand for who these characters are different points in their lives.
Yet sometimes that shorthand can overpower the material. The casting of the main adults on Yellowjackets often feels metatexually loaded: Ricci, Lynskey, and Lewis were all acting in movies in the mid-’90s, playing teenagers with varying degrees of waywardness. (The exception is Cypress, who got her start just as the ‘90s ended, and has worked primarily on television.) It’s probably no accident that these aren’t refugees from bright, poppy teen movies of the late-‘90s boom, but grittier, more violent fare like Heavenly Creatures or Natural Born Killers. Even Ricci, who had more time as a genuine child star in the ’90s, is best known as Wednesday Addams, so indelible that she has radiated goth vibes for the rest of her career.
Yet Yellowjackets doesn’t seem to be after a straight up ’90s pastiche, and while there are cartoony aspects to its group dynamics (and genre-y touches galore), it’s not always helpful to be thinking of other movies when trying to key into a character’s emotional state. It can give the present-day scenes the bizarre effect of feeling broader and weirder than the horror-tinged woodland scenes that are presumably leading up to some of the girls eating each other.
Maybe that’s because many viewers will be able to watch the younger characters with something approaching a blank slate—though that won’t be the case for long, and could continue to complicate the younger/older dynamic. (As could the potential for additional survivors; surely Misty, Shauna, Taissa, and Nat aren’t the only ladies who made it back alive.) Earlier this week, Sophie Thatcher made an impression as the leader of a Tatooine biker gang on The Book Of Boba Fett; the weekend of the Yellowjackets finale also finds Brown playing a looser, goofier, more playful character in the new Scream movie.
Even if Brown and Thatcher become best-known for Yellowjackets and not these franchise appearances, they still raise the possibility that eventually, there will be two sets of on-screens personas that the show will be trying to square with each other. But it’ll be worlds away from the Now And Then nadir of adult-teen mismatches, where the adult stuff is distracting, even limiting, in its insistence that the characters stay broadly, fundamentally the same while carelessly losing their specific modes of expression.
Despite its fun period touches, Yellowjackets isn’t an especially nostalgic show, and at its best the dual casting speaks to the way our younger selves can look, at times, like a person distinct from who we’ve grown (or failed to grow) into. The natural progression for this dual-track narrative would be convergence: eventually showing the audience where the younger characters turn into the older ones. But there may be something poignant about watching two groups of actors diverge instead.