“Maybe Shauna is going to eat Jackie,” is a thought that crossed my mind several times during the first season of Yellowjackets, the phenomenal new drama series on Showtime that many are comparing to Lost. This is an unusual thought to have, especially while watching what is ostensibly a survival thriller about teenage girls. But Yellowjackets, in an opening episode gambit that is not just bold but also borderline genius, tells you that one of those teenage girls is going to be ritualistically slaughtered and devoured by her friends.
The real mystery, of course, isn’t why the girl was killed—for food, most likely—but why she was killed in an occult ritual.
Broadly influenced by the Donner Party and the Miracle on the Andes incidents—both true stories about stranded humans who turn to cannibalism to survive—Yellowjackets is a violently allegorical coming-of-age tale about a girls high school soccer team whose plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness en-route to the nationals, leaving them to fend for themselves as they quickly come to the realisation that help is not on its way.
The show puts a fiendishly clever twist on a familiar set-up, which makes for an experience as morbidly addictive as tracking Omicron figures every morning. The jury’s still out on when we’ll recover from the shared trauma of having lived through the pandemic, but it’s clear that even decades later, the four women who returned after 19 months in the wilderness are still struggling to assimilate into polite society.
A standout Melanie Lynskey stars the bored housewife Shauna, who casually contemplates committing adultery to add some spice to her life; Juliette Lewis plays the suicidal addict Natalie; Tawny Cypress appears as the driven politician Taissa. And in a bit of spoiler casting, Christina Ricci plays the mousy sociopath Misty.
Split between two timelines—one in the present day and the other in the mid-90s—the flashbacks put a female perspective to a classic Lord of the Flies-style set-up, as it examines the survivors’ attempts to govern themselves. The girls are trapped, yes, but also free of the gender-norms dictated by a male-dominated society.
In the present-day timeline, Shauna, Natalie, Taissa and Misty—who’d made a pact with each other to not utter a word of what happened in the wilderness—are reunited after getting a sense that somebody is snooping around in their past. It is still rather uncommon to see female relationships explored in such a manner; and Yellowjackets switches tone as it transitions from the more vicious teenage years to the mundanity of middle age. But it never loses its trademark genre edge. For instance, the four women bond not over brunch, but botched murder cover-up.
Yellowjackets reveals its hand in the very first episode. The identity of the girl who is killed in that first episode flashback is just one of the many mysteries that the show sprinkles in front of you as you settle in, immediately hooked onto a masterfully constructed plot that deftly deploys twists and red herrings to keep you on your toes. Who is the Antler Queen that has assumed leadership, and why are the others following along? Were ‘miracles’ performed; are they all a part of some shared psychosis? And what’s the deal with those strange occult symbols scraped onto trees?
It is on the strength of these narrative threads (and a soundtrack stacked with 90s bangers) that Yellowjackets weaves its spooky magic on you, even as some of the present-day sequences—particularly those involving Misty—become slightly laborious.
Having settled into a comfortable rhythm after the first few episodes, co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson introduce a mid-season twist that completely reconfigures the core of the show, setting the stage for an arc that will hopefully be explored with more depth in future seasons. Lyle and Nickerson have said they have a five-season plan, but have recently begun hinting that it might be shorter.
After premiering to moderate success at the end of 2021, the show transformed into a cultural obsession over the course of its 10-episode debut season, with every frame being pored over on Reddit forums, and (some truly bonkers) fan theories floating around on the internet. Like the similarly engaging HBO series Big Little Lies and more recently, Succession, Yellowjackets also evokes a mostly bygone era of episodic storytelling, where audiences could savour the narrative over several weeks, instead of having to settle for the binge-and-burp streaming model.
All that talk about Yellowjackets being the next Lost is justified, but really, comparing the two is an oversimplified reading of both shows. Because towards the end, Yellowjackets starts to resemble a totally different drama. It’s only a coincidence that this one, too, was created by Damon Lindelof. With an equally foreboding tone and a glimmer of grandiosity, Yellowjackets might be the next The Leftovers. And that’s an ever bigger compliment.
Creators – Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson
Cast – Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Ella Purnell, Sophie Nélisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher, Sammi Hanratty
Rating – 4/5