Sex, drugs, and the promise of cannibalism. Yellowjackets buzzed straight into the realm of the best shows of 2021 when it premiered on Showtime on Nov. 14. Throughout the 10 episodes of season one, it patiently ekes out clues to its many mysteries with thrills, suspense, and high emotions. Effortlessly combining a slew of fan favorite genres like survival, teen drama, murder mystery, psychological thriller, and, yes, soccer – thank you, Ted Lasso for making this a thing – Yellowjackets is over-the-top in the best way possible.
The show – created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson – follows a high school soccer team, the Yellowjackets, whose plane crashes in the wilderness in 1996 on the way to the national championship. With dual timelines detailing the athletes’ immediate efforts to survive as well as their current lives in 2021, viewers experience the life-or-death decisions that shaped who the survivors would become and what they are now willing to do to keep their animalistic actions a secret.
Warning: Spoilers will be discussed from this point forward.
In 2021, Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) is an unhappy housewife who begins an affair with a mysterious artist after literally running into him in traffic. Taissa (Tawny Cypress) – once a star athlete – is now running for state senate while struggling to balance her family life. Natalie (Juliette Lewis) is fresh out of rehab and determined to find out who sent her a postcard with a cryptic symbol from the past, so she visits Misty (Christina Ricci), the one-time team equipment manager with a sadistic streak who’s now working as a nurse. These four survivors reunite to uncover the identity of their blackmailer and protect their secrets by any means necessary.
Lynskey is the show’s anchor. Always an actor who exudes authenticity, she portrays Shauna in a way that ensures audiences can relate to her quiet discontent and pragmatic approach to covering up a murder. Cypress’ subtlety of expression – comforting as she navigates personal obstacles – is downright chilling when she realizes that she is the “woman in the tree” who has been scaring her son. Although Misty is terrifying, Ricci adds a welcome bit of humor to her portrayal – think Kathy Bates in Misery – that makes viewers not want to look away. And what can be said about Lewis that hasn’t already been discussed? Whether she is wielding a gun to get answers or simply retrieving snacks from a vending machine, her performance is nothing short of captivating.
One of Yellowjackets’ many strengths is how it balances the two timelines in a way that always leaves you wanting more. With the above-mentioned all-star adult cast, it would be easy for viewers to feel disappointed every time the scene switched back to the wilderness. However, the teen drama/survival scenes are equally, if not more, compelling.
Back in 1996, Shauna (Sophie Nelisse) struggles with insecurity and has trouble coping with the fact that she is now stuck in the wilderness pregnant with the baby of her best friend’s boyfriend, a secret that – for a time – is only known by Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Taissa quickly emerges as a steadfast leader determined to help her friends – and her girlfriend, Van (Liv Hewson) – make it out of the woods, until she starts sleepwalking, leading to unthinkable problems. Burnout Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) emerges as a crack shot and she, along with Travis (Kevin Alves) – the coach’s son who she falls for – become the team’s hunter providers. Misty (Sammi Hanratty), an outcast back at home, is the onsite hero and go-to person for practical advice on surviving this ordeal as she “took the Red Cross babysitter training course twice.” Enjoying her new role as a quasi-leader, Misty destroys the plane’s black box, ensuring that rescuers will have a tough time finding the team and ending her reign.
In the very first episode, along with intercutting the narratives of 2021 and 1996, we see flashes of madness as the young survivors wear fur, antlers, and nightmare-inducing face masks as they chase down one of their own before enjoying a meat-filled feast. By the season finale, we never learn which team member has been relegated to the role of prey, so the tantalizing prospect of revealing her identity will have to wait.
You can’t talk about Yellowjackets without mentioning its delicious 1990s-centric soundtrack. Liz Phair, Salt-N-Pepa, Hole, PJ Harvey, and many more artists are incorporated to perfection. Not to mention the beautiful usage of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” as a survivor sing-along at their makeshift “Doomcoming” formal, as well as when it plays during the 25-year high school reunion when Shauna and her husband Jeff are forced into leading a slow dance. Love it or hate it, the song was ubiquitous in the mid-90s, and Yellowjackets‘ usage of the Batman Forever single captured just how impossible it was to not know every lyric.
After 10 episodes, there is still so much to learn about our past and present Yellowjackets. Who else survived? What happened to Shauna’s baby? Who kidnapped Natalie at the end of the season finale? Is there something supernatural going on? Does anything sting more than the traumas of adolescence? As Yellowjackets heads into the second season, its unanswered questions may be its greatest assets.
Season one of Yellowjackets can be streamed on Showtime.