In the back half of the second season of Yellowjackets, in a quiet moment amid a primal scream of a day, the survivors sit around the fireplace, and Van tells a story. Quelling eager cries for retellings of The Princess Bride and While You Were Sleeping, Van instead decides to tell a new story, one they have all watched but never told themselves before: the story of the wilderness.
“Once upon a time, there was a place called the wilderness,” Van begins. “It was beautiful, and full of life, but it was also lonely and violent and misunderstood. So one day, the wilderness built a house. It waited.”
A master class in both subverting its own ethos and cultivating the seeds of a new season, Yellowjackets’ season-two finale takes the limited reveals the season has built towards and recontextualizes them once again, reminding the survivors (and in turn, the audience) that the truth of their experience—what was real and what wasn’t out there, and what’s remained real over time—is as malleable as their own moral compasses. What has always been more important, whether in protecting themselves from the police as adults or justifying their own actions as children, is the story they choose to tell, a story of the wilderness they etched out in blood, sweat, tears, and shit.
Saving the best needle drop for last, the episode opens with “Zombies” by The Cranberries, a perfect professional for Nat returning to the cabin, safe from the hunt but not safe from the shame of revealing to Travis that they’re going to eat his brother. Before she can utter more than a tortured “Javi…” however, the rest of the survivors handle the reveal for her, carrying Javi back strung up on a long branch.
Immediately, it’s clear this death is nothing like Jackie’s. There will be no eulogy, or funeral pyre; nobody but Natalie and Javi even seem tortured that he’s gone. Later, when Travis tells a newly-peaceful Van she should be ashamed of herself for what she’s done, she doesn’t falter in shutting him down: “I’m glad I’m alive. Just like you are. And I don’t think that any of us that are still here should feel ashamed of that, ever.” Despite her lack of sympathy for his plight, Travis ultimately resigns to surviving off his brother too: In fact, he’s the first to eat, biting into Javi’s raw heart after placing the wolf Javi carefully carved on the fireplace, their makeshift altar.
But however stalwart Van’s point, Shauna’s decision to cover her eyes, hands trembling, with a scarf when she butchers Javi indicates that not feeling ashamed ever isn’t exactly something these girls should count on. That kind of life—living just to stay alive, in the most gruesome sense of the phrase—isn’t for everybody, and it’s absolutely not for Coach Ben, who finally makes his exodus to Javi’s secret spot to wait out the winter, taking matches and an axe with him after Natalie refuses to join. After Ben opines that she’s not like these other girls, she hits him with, “Actually, I’m worse.” She let Javi die in her place, and now she’s going to eat him too. She’s not proud, exactly; but much like Van, she still feels lucky living, and breathing. In the girls’ resigned sense of pride is perhaps the only inherent truth about their time in the wilderness, one Lottie’s hallucinated antler queen told her a few episodes back: Being alone together out there, for all the violence and the horror it produced, allowed these women a fleeting taste of true freedom.
Fast forward in time, and it’s apparent that the cost of that freedom remains high. In fact, shame might have been one of the only things preventing full on bedlam among the survivors, Lottie specifically. Convinced that the wilderness is once again ready to “choose,” Lottie is gung-ho about her phenobarbital solution (as Nat refers to it, “poison fucking oolong”) and offering up a sacrifice to their cruel god. It’s Shauna who suggests that if they do provide an offering, they do it how they used to: drawing cards, heading out on a hunt, and letting the wilderness select who pays the price. Tai, Van, Misty, and Natalie are all shocked that Shauna is entertaining Lottie, until she explains it only serves to buy them some time: If they schedule a hunt later in the day, they can call a crisis psych team to come and scoop her up before any real frontier “justice” gets underway.
In a darkly ironic twist, it’s actually Lottie who is the most unsettled by Javi’s death, and the new sacrificial tradition that led to it. After hearing Travis screaming over Javi’s body, Lottie wants to know what happens: Misty tells her, plainly, that after Misty passed along Lottie’s message that she didn’t want her body to go to waste, they decided they couldn’t go forward without their high priestess and determined they needed to choose someone else’s body to survive on. When Lottie reacts in pure horror—especially to Misty’s thinly-veiled excitement at the events of “the chase”—Misty sours towards her: “Lottie, you started this. It’s done. And it’s going to save all of our lives. So you better not start making people feel bad about it now.” When Misty returns downstairs, she keeps Lottie’s true feelings about this new way of life clandestine, instead telling the group: “Lottie’s pleased with the wilderness’ choice. She says Javi will save us.” Later on, as Lottie eats resigned in front of Misty, she wonders (for the first time, maybe) if the wilderness actually wants what’s best for us. “Your team needs you,” Misty shuts her down. “Eat.”
The team mentality feels just as prevalent in the adult timeline as the teen timeline this episode, if in a different manner. Nearly every side character we’ve been introduced to thus far (save beloved bozo, Randy Walsh, who hopefully spent the night cuddled up with Tammy on the couch over a movie) converges on Lottie’s commune. There’s Jeff and Callie, who arrive looking for Shauna and contemplating disappearing with fake passports; there’s Saracusa and Kevin Tan, who arrive on Jeff and Callie’s tail certain something’s afoot. Even Walter has returned to rescue Misty with a plan right out of her playbook: poisoning Kevin with phenobarbital hot chocolate. (Side note: how is everyone getting phenobarbital these days? It’s like Ozempic for Wiskayok High School alumni.)
After Walter casually offs Kevin—much to Jeff’s shock, who watched Kevin keel over while he was in the middle of yet another semi-believable false confession to Adam’s murder—he corners Saracusa and, after revealing he’s set Kevin up to take the fall for both Adam and Jessica Roberts, offers Saracusa a choice: be the local hero who uncovered his partners presumed dirty work, or take the fall himself. Saracusa doesn’t answer right off the bat, but knowing his needling personality, Walter asked the right questions to the right guy.
As loose ends are tied up all around the commune, Tai, Van, Lottie, Misty, Shauna, and Nat finally come as close to full circle as they’ve been yet: standing around a fire, drawing cards, and drawing knives. When Shauna asks Misty how long it will take “them” (the crisis team she thinks is coming) to get here, Misty says they should arrive soon–she doesn’t know that Van convinced Tai not to make that call, feeling in part guilty for her own role in worshipping Lottie and making her “like this,” and in part feeling tempted by the idea that maybe she’s right, and maybe appeasing the wilderness will beget safety, perhaps even blessings. Long story short: Before Shauna knows it, the draw has become all too real. They go in a circle, tossing each drawn card on the fire. When one round goes by, and no one has selected the queen, they go again, and again. Ultimately, it’s Shauna who draws the card.
Tearfully, frustratedly, and pleadingly, it’s then that Shauna utters perhaps the most important line of the season so far, and asks the question that ultimately guides the series: “You know there’s no it, right? It was just us.” Over two seasons, Yellowjackets has always blossomed in the liminal spaces between reality and imagination, using wildly unreliable narrators and cleanly split timelines as a canvas for artful confusion. The real meat of the series has always been the emotional and literal uncertainty of the trauma the survivors shared. Were they pushed to the most primal depths of their psyche or did they reach for them? Did the wilderness make decisions, or did they? And as Lottie so aptly points out in response to Shauna: “Is there a difference?”
The negligible difference between the wilderness and its worshippers feels most salient in the episode’s final brutal turn: Natalie Scartuccio’s death. At the end of all things, Natalie doesn’t die by the wilderness’ hands or by her own. She dies to save Lisa from Misty, jumping in between them and taking a stab from Misty’s phenobarbital needle in a cruelly swift moment. Headed towards death, Natalie finds herself on an airplane, surrounded by visions of her past: Javi, herself as a young girl, and finally, a young Lottie, who puts her hand over a terrified Nat’s heart. “It’s not evil, just hungry. Like us. Just let it in.”
Natalie’s death leaves Lottie’s “Is there a difference?” question more confusing than ever. Before Natalie took Misty’s needle, Callie stepped in, shooting Lottie in the arm as she chased Shauna with a knife. Even before that, as the women chased Shauna at a somewhat slow saunter, it still remained unclear whether they would actually kill her or not. Just as with most tragedies on this show, whether in the ’90s timeline or beyond, everything is a game until it’s not, and in the wilderness, the playing field is always changing.
So are the players and the roles they play. As Van tells her story of the wilderness over bowls of Javi stew, Lottie interrupts to reveal that she’s not going to be in charge anymore. By engaging in the hunt as an attempt to save her, Lottie opines, they’ve also shown her she’s not the right conduit for the wilderness anymore and it’s time for a new leader. Although Misty and Shauna both perk up, Lottie is actually talking about Natalie: When they tried to kill her, the wilderness wouldn’t let them. On Lottie’s direction, the girls pledge their allegiance to Natalie, who is overwhelmed but not exactly unhappy about her new role. Shauna, however, is pissed: Scribbling in her diary late that night about feeling invisible, she’s only interrupted when she smells smoke, then sees flames, then sees the doors are locked. Their cabin has been set on fire (ostensibly by Coach Ben) with them inside, and the house the wilderness built is a home for them no more.
That’s how we leave our intrepid survivors, as the season closes to the tune of “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen: huddled outside their burning, crumbling abode only holdin what they could carry, playing a game that won’t stop changing, living on borrowed time on cruel, complex terrain. As the months dragged on and winter set in, it became more and more confusing where this show could possibly head next, and how much deeper the survivors could actually fall into, well, survival mode. But with their home base on fire and their standing with the wilderness wildly unclear, the only thing that feels certain about this series is that there are deeper, darker depths in store.
- When Jeff overhears Walter tell Kevin Tan “My methods aren’t exactly admissible in a court of law” and Kevin respond, “I think you’d get along with my partner.” Please, please let this be foreshadowing of a new, notable, and nightmarish buddy-cop relationship!
- Thank god Jeff was able to say “The American family is crumbling” before this season concluded. Just feels right!
- One loose end that still feels extremely untied: Tai’s alter ego. Season three stands to reckon with that in a much stronger way. There’s so much we still don’t know, and even what we do know feels uncertain.
- Lottie describing Callie as “powerful” makes sense, but also feels primed to set up a larger role for Callie next season, at least as far as her connection to her mother’s past goes. As much of a dickwad as he is, Saracusa might just be right: the apple doesn’t fall far from the fucked up tree.
- Natalie’s words to Coach Ben right before he leaves—“You really don’t belong in this place”—almost directly echo the words Paul said in Ben’s hallucination. Whether it’s correlation, causation, or what, time alone in Javi’s strange wilderness chamber certainly seems like a situation that would lead Ben to have a lot more imagined combinations with Paul in the future.
- Most heart wrenching line of the episode goes to: a resigned Natalie telling Lisa “I appreciate you trying to teach me forgiveness. It’s a nice idea.”
- Lottie’s shocked reaction to Tai’s initial decision to refuse the draw—that they all know what happens after a refusal—indicates there’s still new levels of their hunting process to be revealed in season three. The wilderness took Javi instead of Natalie the first time they hunted, but he didn’t say no to the draw. What happens when someone outright refuses?
- The women’s use of masks as a part of their hunts is such an interesting way to explore how traditions get made and societies get shaped.