Stories, no matter the format, need to end. The final page is turned. The series finale airs. The film cuts to black. Classic comedies end because the protagonists are in love and tragedies because they are dead. But now, particularly in horror, the endings of our stories are becoming all the messier as we fixate on trauma, in reboots and sequels we return to the people that survived, the people who got their happy endings and find them broken and traumatized beyond repair.
Yellowjackets, the impressively nasty new survival drama from Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, cuts between the traumatic event where a high school soccer team spent 19 months trapped in the wilderness after surviving a plane crash, and the aftermath 25 years later. In the present day, the survivors are haunted by what they did to survive, unable to connect to those around them or wash their hands clean of blood.
We start, as so much prestige television does, with a murder. A girl is running through the wilderness in a thin white nightgown, she screams as she runs through the snow, crude dolls and symbols befitting the Blair Witch hang from the tree branches. The girl falls into a trap and is impaled on wooden spikes up and down her body. A figure hovers over the edge of the trap in a thick fur mask and seems satisfied by the scene, the girl’s body still shuddering against the spikes as she bleeds to death.
Flash forward 25 years to the present day, where a journalist is interviewing people tangentially connected to what happened. That the soccer team’s plane crashed on their way to nationals, as local heroes, makes the story endure all the more: “Those girls were special, they were champions.” An undefeated team full of promising young women.
Shauna (played in the present by Melanie Lynskey), one of those former champions, lies half-heartedly masturbating on her teenage daughter’s bed, staring at photographs of her daughter’s boyfriend before resuming scrubbing skid marks from her husband’s laundry. The journalist, Jessica Cruz (Briana Venskus), approaches with a proposition—a seven-figure deal to write a book together—but Shauna, despite her modest trappings, isn’t interested. “The plane crashed, a bunch of my friends died and the rest of us starved and scavenged for 19 months until they found us. And that’s the end of the story.”
Jessica almost winks at the audience, replying “I think we both know there’s a little more to it than that.” She leaves, having overplayed her hand by saying the other survivors have agreed to talk to her—something that, Shauna, despite having not spoken to them for many years, is certain is not true. Lynskey keeps cracks of simmering rage peeking out from her Stepford wife veneer. She has no purpose, no warmth; she’s incapable of bonding with her bitchy but endearing daughter in any meaningful sense. There is a lid being kept tightly shut, lest something truly terrible get out.
Fellow survivor Nat (played in the present by Juliette Lewis) is introduced as an ethereal entity, sitting perfectly framed in the golden light in spiritual contemplation. Nat is about to leave rehab, having learned to keep “the tiger in the cage” and “find purpose.” Casting Lewis as a traumatized, volatile addict isn’t revolutionary but even within well-worn parameters, she’s a transfixing presence. Also in the present day there is Taissa (Tawny Cypress), the “queer Kamala” running for state senator, who has a loving partner and photogenic son, but whose Blackness and queerness is only breezily engaged with. Finally there’s Misty (Christina Ricci), an outwardly peppy nurse at an assisted living facility, who punishes the patients in her care by denying them pain meds when they act out. Ricci uses her ageless doll-like features with unsettling effect.
Back in 1996, they were all part of an undefeated soccer team, led by the warm and effervescent Jackie (Ella Purnell), who is surrounded by all the trappings of mid-’90s teenage life: stacks of Sassy magazine, plaid shirts, and fake orgasms with sexually incompetent teenage boys. Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) is her best friend, albeit one who Jackie treats more as a beloved pet. Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) is the grungy one, complete with peroxide hair and artful smudges of eyeliner. Misty (Sammi Hanratty) is the enthusiastic equipment girl, an eerie presence behind a wide grin.
Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is ruthlessly ambitious, determined to sacrifice anyone needed to secure victory at the nationals. There’s also Laura (Jane Widdop), whose defining feature seems to be “prays a lot”; Lottie (Courtney Eaton), the mysteriously medicated and neglected daughter of fantastically wealthy parents; and Van (Liv Hewson) the goalkeeper, who has to slap her passed-out mother awake to get a ride to school.
When Taissa determines that freshman player Allie (Pearl Amanda Dicksinon) isn’t worthy of competing with the team, the dark underbelly of their dynamics begin to show and director Karyn Kusama’s knack for cruelty shines. Taissa foreshadows future misdeeds by hiding behind the veneer of the greater good, claiming first to want to ice Allie out for the sake of the team, then playing aggressively to bring the best out in her. When that actually works, her true viciousness is revealed, and Allie lies on the pitch with a jagged shard of bloody sinew and bone poking out of her shin—a welcome reassurance Yellowjackets isn’t going to rely on the power of suggestion.
Jackie’s first attempts to lead the group in the wake of the “accident” fall flat, but later that evening, she forces them together to give each other heartfelt compliments and they reach an uneasy détente. It is only Nat that seems to see the truth; high on LSD, she sees the figures from the wilderness, the bonfire seems to be roasting Allie’s broken leg, Misty is staring at her in unblinking hunger. Even the seemingly loving friendship between Shauna and Jackie proves grotesque: Shauna is having sex with Jackie’s boyfriend, but seems to be doing so as a surrogate for Jackie herself, asking Jeff to repeat that he loves her just as Jackie did at the party.
The players get on the plane that is bound to crash. Jackie and Shauna take valium and are only awoken by screams as the plane approaches the treetops., crashing into the place where these girls are destined to become predator and prey.
The girl in the nightgown is dragged out of the trap to be hanged upside down and her throat is slit. The girl in the fur mask sits by the side of one whose face is concealed by mesh dangling from two animal horns nods. A fire burns in the middle and the other’s hands outstretch to eat what appears to be the girl in the trap. The fur mask is lifted to reveal Misty, whose face hardens with a glazed smile. Back in the present, Nat follows Misty across a parking lot with a rifle. No one needs to speak a word to let us know. She hasn’t recovered, this isn’t over, and maybe, just maybe she’s found her purpose.
It’s an impressively exciting and unflinching start to what is already a pitch-black subject matter—to focus not only on the brutality of surviving and succumbing to a collective madness, but also the lingering inescapable trauma. Each character’s life, for now, remains disparate, but they all inhabit the same cursed landscape. Yellowjackets strips away any triumphant happy ending and traps those who escape in a different ring of hell.
- The casting of the older and younger versions is pretty great. Even where the physical attributes don’t particularly match up, as in the case of Nat and Misty, the performances are so in sync it doesn’t matter.
- I winced when Lottie took her mysterious pill with breakfast. Hope this isn’t going lead to a M. Night Shyamalan-style villainous mental illness.
- The show is shaping up to be much more than just a gender-flipped Lord Of The Flies, but I think it’s interesting that this version is much more brutal with a mostly female cast. William Golding thought girls were too “superior” for such darkness.
- Lord Of The Flies never specified how long they are trapped on the Island, but Yellowjackets lets you know its going to be a long 19 months for those girls. By my calculations, it’s late spring when the crash happens, so they are about to have to endure two Canadian winters in the wilderness.
- Karyn Kusama, one of my favorite horror directors, directs the pilot and is signed on as an executive producer. But the show creators are Bart Nickerson and Ashley Lyle, best known for Narcos and Narcos: Mexico.
- I let out a tiny scream when Shauna killed the bunny.
- Bets start now on who is behind the horns and veil. My money is on Jackie.
- Showtime released the pilot episode early on YouTube: