Each week Terry and Joe discuss the most recent episode of Showtime’s serialized thriller, Yellowjackets.
Spoilers follow for episode 1, ‘Pilot.’
Plot: On the eve of a fateful flight, a championship high school girls soccer team celebrates by betraying one another. 25 years later, the survivors do their best imitations of well-adjusted people.
You know, Terry, it’s a good thing that this pilot is as good as it is so that critics can’t make any “plane crash” puns in their reviews.
I’ve been keeping an eye on this project since it was announced back in Oct 2019, principally because of the talent attached. Karyn Kusama as director, with Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress and Juliette Lewis attached to star; it basically didn’t matter what the premise was because I was already sold.
Still, this is a complicated premise and one that could have gone pear shaped quite easily. The plane carrying a combative and divided girls soccer team crashes Alive-style in the mountains and what they do to survive is a secret they carry into adulthood. On paper it’s relatively straightforward, but on-screen it’s a full-blown mystery: which of these girls died in the crash, who died after the crash and what exactly happened in those woods?
Ironically the answer to the final question is provided in the cold open (heh): an unnamed girl, barefoot and barely clothed, is hunted through the snowy woods until she collapses into a trap and dies after being impaled. Over the course of the ‘Pilot’, her gruesome fate is revealed: to no one’s surprise she is bled, skinned and cooked up for a clan of cannibals wearing fur coats over contemporary fashion like pink Converse sneakers.
The majority of the ‘Pilot’ documents two different time periods: present day 2021 and the day before the plane crash in 1996 (complete with period appropriate fashion and a litany of 90s jukebox jams from the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Snow and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch).
Thanks to the present day scenes, we know at least four characters who survived into adulthood, including:
- bad best friend Shauna (Sophie Nélisse / Lynskey)
- druggie Natalie (Sophie Thatcher / Lewis)
- decisive politician Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown / Cypress), and
- wannabe hanger-on Misty (Samantha Hanratty / Ricci)
That leaves the fate of the other girls like team captain – and Shauna’s best friend – Jackie (Ella Purnell), rich girl Lottie (Courtney Eaton), goalie Van (Liv Hewson), and religious Laura Lee (Jane Widdop) all uncertain. That’s before we even get to the Red Shirts, like the junior girl who briefly gets pranked on the plane or Coach Martinez (Carlos Sanz) and his two sons, who barely register as characters.
While there’s an obvious delight in trying to figure out who has survived and who was eaten, that’s not a sustainable enough premise to hang ten one-hour episodes on. So the split time period narrative makes sense, although one has to wonder if show creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson wish they weren’t following in the footsteps of the similarly-structured Cruel Summer, which was a surprise buzzy hit for Freeform earlier this year.
The smartest move that the pilot makes is confirming that the girls did, in fact, resort to cannibalism to survive (Better to get it on the table than keep us guessing for the next five episodes!) Obviously the animalistic, feral nature of the opening kill confirms that their survival tactics evolved over time, so the brief mention by inquisitive Star Ledger reporter Jessica Roberts (Rekha Sharma) of the lengthy 19 months they were missing offers plenty of narrative ground to explore in future episodes.
And really that’s my big take-away from this opener, Terry: I was so drawn-in that I immediately wanted to hit play on the next episode, which means the ‘Pilot’ did its job.
What are your first impressions? Do you feel like you have a good idea who these teen girls (or the surviving adult counterparts) are? Are you surprised at the female focus considering there are clearly boys aboard the plane?
First of all, this is how you do a pilot episode for a series, Joe. It’s perfectly paced and fiercely executed, giving us a taste of the characters and the drama between them, but not lingering on any single plot line too long.
We know that things were rocky with this all-star soccer team heading to nationals before the plane crash. We know that tensions between some of the girls have boiled over, causing an accident on a scrimmage field that resulted in Allie (Pearl Amanda Dickson)’s broken shin, sidelining her from nationals (and presumably from getting on the plane?). But it doesn’t spend a lot of time with each individual character, outside of the drama simmering just below the surface between Shauna and Jackie.
You mentioned that Yellowjackets homages Alive, with the group stranded in the forest and resorting to cannibalism. But it also brings to mind the way that LOST was structured, operating between different time periods. In that show, it was to tell us who those characters were (at least in the beginning) before getting stranded. Here, it’s informing us who these characters become. And of course, you can’t talk about teens stranded in the woods and resorting to animalistic societal behaviors and violence without mentioning Lord of the Flies.
Obviously, there’s a connection here, as you also hinted that we’ve only focused on the girls and not the boys who were also on the flight. I’m curious to hear what happened to them and whether they feature into the story at all because, without them, Yellowjackets feels like a direct response to William Golding’s oft-taught novel. In an introduction to Lord of the Flies, Golding states:
“I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been. But one thing you can’t do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down, so to speak, into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilisation, of society.”
He insinuates that if Lord of the Flies was about a group of girls and not boys, the story would have turned out completely different. That societal structure wouldn’t break down and violence wouldn’t be perpetrated like it was. Yellowjackets effectively says, “hold my beer” and begins to show the hierarchical structure, the drive, the ambition and the viciousness that can also arise with teenage girls. I’m fascinated to see how this plays out as a kind of inverse of Golding’s dictum.
All this to say that I’m hooked, Joe. This is the kind of subversive genre fare I live for.
Nineteen months is an incredibly long time to be stuck in the wilderness and Yellowjackets leans into that trauma to show how it can have long-term effects. “Pilot” focuses most of its attention on Shauna and Lynskey is obviously relishing this part. Adult Shauna is introduced, immediately after teen Jackie and Jeff fool around, masturbating in her daughter’s room, staring at a picture of her daughter’s shirtless boyfriend. As we learn more about Adult Shauna, we discover that she actually married Jeff (Jack DePew), Jackie’s boyfriend from 1996, and that their relationship is on the rocks. She also has a safe in her closet filled with weather-worn books and journals, presumably detailing life in the wilderness.
It’s when we see Adult Taissa and Shauna together at a diner that we learn there’s a surprising power dynamic between the two. Taissa might seem to hold the cards, as she’s running to be a senator, but their interaction suggests that Shauna is actually the one in control. “I saw you on fucking television,” she tells Taissa. “If someone’s digging, we are all fucked. Take care of it,” she continues, pushing the reporter’s business card over to her. The woman who’s cleaning shitstains out of underwear seemingly has all the control in this relationship…and I’m curious whether that’s a hint about who’s in charge in the wilderness.
There’s so much to dig into with this first episode, Joe. And that has me excited that we’re getting a potentially meaty show to dig into, week after week. What are your thoughts about Natalie, her storage unit and the way the episode ends with her watching Misty? And speaking of Misty, were you surprised that the excitable equipment manager seems to harbor some very dark thoughts? And any thoughts on who died in the cold open? That necklace seems to be getting around…
You better believe I was clocking that necklace after its primo placement in the opener. It initially appears to be Jackie’s, but she offers it to Shauna on the plane when she gives her the Valium to help control her jitters. I imagine we’ll follow its progress over the next few episodes, but for now, my bet is that the dead girl is someone we haven’t even really met yet.
You’re absolutely right that Lynskey is unconditionally in control in the present day scenes. My big gay self was living for her delivery of lines like: “I don’t give a shit what you meant, you smug bitch. You don’t know a fucking thing about my life.” And yes, I definitely also clocked the power battle in the diner scene. Also: not for nothing, but Taissa becoming a power lesbian politician? I’m here for it (though I won’t gush uncomfortably like the photographer does. “You’re the queer Kamala?” Ick)
Natalie is definitely more of a question mark. In my notes, I pegged her as a rich California housewife type based on her introduction: meditating on a gorgeous property with a servant monitoring her schedule. Like a lot of elements of Yellowjackets, however, this is quickly subverted to reveal that Natalie isn’t rich; she’s in rehab! Considering her “bad girl” party persona in 1996, this track, though present-day Natalie appears to have found some kind of eerie zen calm (at least for the time being).
I’ve always been drawn to Lewis as a performer, if only because her presence has an intimidating edginess to it (perhaps I’ve just never recovered from Natural Born Killers?) There’s definitely a steely, threatening vibe to Natalie during the storage locker scene, and how she bides her time watching Misty. It’s pretty evident that these four agreed to some kind of code, but they sure as hell don’t seem to like or trust one another.
We get the least amount of time with Ricci’s Misty, but in the present she’s clearly no longer the wallflower she was in the past. I’m curious to know how far into the 19 months the cannibalism scenes are, but if I had to guess one member of this team to go full-feral, it probably would have been Misty (she is, after all, watching a rat drown in her pool the day the plane takes off). I blame the hair (but seriously: what is up with the frizzy wig on Ricci in the contemporary scenes?!)
We’ll unquestionably get to know these girls more in the episodes and weeks to come; if for no other reason than for Yellowjackets to really twist the knife when the girls start to go Lord of the Flies on one another.
But Terry, where do you think we’ll go next? Who’s the character you want to know more about? And where can I commission a cross-stitched pillow bearing the line “If you come inside me, I will raise the baby out of spite and train it to hunt you down and kill you”?
Joe, if you find somewhere to commission that cross stitch, sign me the heck up because I clocked that line so hard I underlined and bolded it. This episode is full of those gay, bitchy lines like the ones you’ve mentioned. It adds a veneer of queerness while heightening the dark comedy aspects.
Yellowjackets has the potential to be very grim and dark, yet moments like this swerve it – if only a little bit – into more comedic directions. The dichotomy between these serves and the cannibalism is something I hope continues throughout the season.
I’m also curious where most of the story is going to land. So far, the past is informing the present, but this is very much a present day story. One in which I wouldn’t be surprised to see Natalie hunting down the remaining women for the atrocities committed years earlier. I’m wondering whether we’ll continue this trend or if we’ll get more time spent in the past.
I honestly want to know more about Misty. As you hinted, she watches a rat drowning before they even get on the plane and her future self, denying a cranky old woman her morphine, shows that this hasn’t mellowed in the 25 years since. The trope of the somewhat manic and overly cheerful character (she’s introduced cheering on the squad and being nothing but smiles and unrequited affection) mixed with sociopathic tendencies always works for me. And, wig aside (seriously…what?), Ricci has the chops to pull that off.
Mostly I’m excited that this pilot episode is so strong and assured. It makes me hopeful that we’re in for a thrilling season. Right now I just can’t wait to see what happens next.
We’ll find out when we pop over to Gayly Dreadful for episode two, ‘F Sharp,’ next week.
Yellowjackets airs Sundays on Showtime