Within seconds of Yellowjackets’ first episode, I was hooked; a barefoot girl is running through snowy woods, chased by the voices of her classmates imitating woodland predators. She falls into a spike-filled pit, and dirty pink sneakers hidden under the matted fur of a bear stand over her. At the end of the episode, figures in football t-shirts, deer antlers, and animal skins gorge on cooked meat under firelight. A chilling soundtrack of humming female voices (the original score for this series is haunting) underpins what is clearly happening. That was in the year 1997, nineteen months after a high school team of girl’s football (soccer) players crashed in the woods and found themselves stranded. In the present day, four of the five survivors are brought back together after receiving mysterious postcards of those same woods – “WISH YOU WERE HERE!”. Yellowjackets’ pilot is most likely one of the finest hours of genre drama released in 2021.
Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) is now a bored housewife, who occasionally slaughters wild rabbits and prepares them for dinner. Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is running for Senate, and could be the first black woman to win the seat, but she still finds herself eating dirt whilst sleepwalking. Natalie (Juliette Lewis) is fresh out of rehab, in search of the fifth survivor, her on-again-off-again lover Travis, whilst Misty (Christina Ricci) abuses the patients at the care home she works at. The adult cast are paired impeccably with their teenage counterparts, Sophie Nélisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher, and Sammi Hanratty respectively. Yellowjackets came about from the showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson hearing that an all-female adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies couldn’t work ‘because women wouldn’t act like that’. Taking inspiration from both real-life cases of reported cannibalism for survival as well as the infamous failures of Lost (2004-2010), the pair eventually pitched their idea to Showtime Networks.
Yellowjackets wears its inspirations on its sleeve but, whereas the 1954 Lord of the Flies novel is a depiction of ‘English boys letting the side down’, this drama show is a much more humanistic take on isolation and desperation. Golding ends his story with the statement “I should have thought that a pack of British boys… would have been able to put up a better show than that”. Reading Lord of the Flies as a teenager was a shocking experience only because of how tame and dated the story is – those kids don’t resort to cannibalism at all, and so the relatively lush island on which they find themselves is a far cry from the chilly depths that Lyle and Nickerson are clearly willing to plunge. Gender differences don’t matter when the only meat around you are your fellow humans, do they? I was fascinated, for longer than I should’ve reasonably been, at how this team of immature athletes concerned with parties and sex would end up hunting and sacrificing each other. What would come first? The starvation-driven cannibalism, or their reverence of the forest? How would they even begin to justify the idea, and how much does the memory impact the survivors? Was the forest really a supernatural presence, or was their transformation just human psychology?
After masochistically subjecting myself to years’ worth of Netflix Original Series, it felt truly special to be engaged with the mysteries presented to me. The depiction of trauma and guilt impacting the four women was fun – at first. Natalie, the addict, chastises the others for ‘pretending’ that they’re okay with what they did, and Shauna notes that all the light had vanished from her world a long time ago. None of this is capitalised on for dramatic purposes, and there were no answers given to my questions. I was holding out hope for satisfaction until the credits rolled on episode ten, in which a memorial video is played at a reunion for all the kids we know were sacrificed and eaten. That scene would’ve been powerful had the actual cannibalism not been omitted from the preceding ten hours. It felt like being haunted by the ghost of a good TV show.
It was only after the blue-balling finale, which hints at a previously-unknown survivor and a cult she’s established, when Wikipedia enlightened me to a supposed “five-season storyline”. The entire show is haunted, not by the knowledge of the lengths those girls went to in the name of survival and the ancient histories that resurfaced in those woods and in suburbia, but by the ghost of American TV. Comparisons to Lost were assured for Yellowjackets, but it takes an astounding lack of something vital to make those same mistakes prior to your show even being greenlit. The promises of the first few episodes were fascinating, and enough for me to overlook the red flags prevalent throughout – plotlines would be dropped and picked up on a rotating basis because there’s not enough space for all of them in just ten episodes. It became crushingly clear that Yellowjackets had no intention of giving the audience what they were promised – the descent of a group of teenagers into pagan cannibals in deer skins and Converse – without stringing them along for a reported five seasons of cults, dead ends, and red herrings.
It’s a dead ringer for Lost, which notoriously jumped the shark with island monsters and secret scientific organisations. For the majority of Yellowjackets, nothing happens. The modern-day thriller plotlines were engaging enough, but whenever the show returned to the woods, I would hold my breath for something shocking to happen. The snows don’t fall, the animal skins are never donned. We spend more time focusing on the characters’ emotional states, which would’ve been amazing if there had been as much dark and oppressive psychology as there was tedious conspiracy nonsense. Much of the flashbacks are spent in the days and weeks after the plane crash, and we see a borderline-idyllic representation of hunter-gatherer life. Episode nine, “Doomcoming”, shows the desperate-for-attention Misty drugging the food for a paganistic homecoming party with shrooms – and those afflicted, in their flower crowns and dresses, hunt Travis through the woods, hallucinating that he’s a deer. It felt as though the series had finally caught up with itself, but Travis is saved and the girls come to their senses. I suppose we’re expected to wait until season two for the actual cannibalism.
Yellowjackets will apparently have five seasons to accomplish what could’ve been done in ten episodes, because its greed is stronger than its interest in the story. It carries on at its own status quo, trying and largely failing to grasp the minutia of its characters mental states and behaviours – when large strokes over the more expansive time frame of nineteen months would’ve served the show better. The last time the teenagers are shown is the day of the first snowfall. This means that everything succeeding that moment, the whole descent into paganism and animism – the conceit that was promised of a girls’ soccer team descending into ritualised cannibalism to survive a harsh winter – is thrown to the wolves of a five-season arc. For a series about teenagers lost in the woods, it definitely likes to overcomplicate things.