Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, Showtime’s The Yellowjackets isn’t exactly a new story. It features elements of Lord of the Flies, The Wilds, Lost, and Alive (1993), among various other pop culture influences. Likewise, it has historical precedent in any number of catastrophes in which an unsuspecting group has found itself lost in the snowy woods, desperately fighting to survive, possibly even resorting to devouring human flesh to do so. The series makes no bones about it, and even gets the implied devouring of a fellow traveler out of the way in the first episode to let viewers know that it will definitely be “a thing.”
Instead, the story’s uniqueness comes from the volatile interpersonal relationships that have developed over decades, and how they have changed, or how they’ve stayed the same. Tapping an all-star cast that delivers killer performances every step of the way under the direction of Karyn Kusama, the pilot gives a promising glance at what’s to come for the series by taking us deep into the past.
Ostensibly set in the present day, Yellowjackets spends equal time in flashbacks that take us all the way back to 1996 with a soundtrack to match. The series premise is that teen soccer stars The Yellowjackets are taking a private plane to the state championship, at which time they crash in the wilderness and find themselves forced to resort to survivalism in order to make it back home. Though they told the world that they starved and prayed their way back to civilization, there was obviously something more to the story that has gone untold. In the present day, we meet these women, all now in their early forties, as they work to keep the past hidden.
Jessica Roberts (Rekha Sharma) portrays a reporter trying to get to the bottom of things, showing up to ask suburban housewife Shauna (Sophie Nelisse/Melanie Lynskey) “What really happened out there?” Shauna is absolutely not having it and demands that she leave with a definite threat in her voice. We see various other signs of her ruthlessness throughout the episode, including when she and her shovel come face-to-face with a very cute garden-nibbling rabbit. In her teen years, she is just as secretive and mercurial, occasionally boiling over into outright aggression, and it draws a clear throughline from past to present. This establishes a major theme in which each character is very much their own worst enemy, and each character has ample cause to fear her closest friends.
The immediate cause and effect of the bad choices that characters make in their youth is evident through the time jump. Shauna’s husband is implied to be avoiding her and she takes it personally that her teenage daughter isn’t staying home to have dinner with her on a Friday night. Teenage rebel Natalie (Sophie Thatcher/Juliette Lewis) struggles with life-long addiction issues that begin early on, stemming from deep sensitivity that seems out-of-place in the group. Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown/Tawny Cypress) will do anything to win, which can mean cutting off her emotions and putting herself and others at risk, then is later shoehorned as a “queer Kamala” in her political career. Misty (Sammi Hanratty/Christina Ricci) is a wild card who goes from being a passionate superfan of the team to threatening an elderly woman in her day job. And Jackie, who worked to bring the team together and brought out the best in everyone…well, Jackie doesn’t seem to have an older counterpart.
As pilots go, this one is exceptional, with a willingness to push central characters into difficult spaces right off the bat. Whether the series sustains this or not, it’s a Hell of an opener, tapping into pacing that will draw to mind any number of instant classics over the last few years, from Nine Perfect Strangers to The Americans. Everyone brought their A-game to this one, and watching these actors and their younger counterparts mirror one another is an unexpected delight.
Yet, perhaps the greatest success of the series so far is the way it exemplifies the regret that can come with age, as the end results of the choices these characters made as teenagers have had time to play out before their very eyes over the course of decades. Desperate to keep the past hidden in hopes of preserving the sparse peace of mind they’ve carved out for themselves, each of them watches helplessly as everything comes apart at the seams, and this is just evidence of the shaky foundation they each built their lives on. With each character at a crossroads, their inner worlds unfold, and that’s where Yellowjackets unquestionably succeeds.