meat deets

‘Who’s Gonna Throw Up First?’

“Edible Complex” writer Jonathan Lisco dissects Yellowjackets’s long-awaited feast.

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime
Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime
Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Major spoilers follow for Yellowjackets season two, episode two, which made its streaming debut March 31, 2023; it premieres April 2 on Showtime.

“It continues to haunt me and live inside me, even though I wrote it. That’s either a good sign or a sign that I’m a little psychotic,” says Jonathan Lisco, co-showrunner of Yellowjackets and writer of season-two episode “Edible Complex.” Lisco is referencing the events of the episode’s final act, in which the teen survivors stuck for months in the Canadian wilderness collectively eat their former soccer team captain, Jackie (Ella Purnell). The sequence has a carousing quality, cutting between the exhausted and shivering teens feasting on Jackie’s steaming body and a fantasy in which they’re clad as Greco-Roman revelers dining at an opulent table. The moment follows up on the cannibalism promise of the series’ pilot, in which a group of young women seemingly hunt, capture, kill, and consume one of their own, and wraps up the frenemy storyline between Jackie and Shauna (Sophie Nelisse), whose up-and-down relationship in 1996 drove so much of the first season’s tension.

Did a supernatural entity help cook Jackie? Why would it want to keep the Yellowjackets alive? “Edible Complex” doesn’t exactly answer those questions. But as the imagined bacchanal and the real meal grow more and more frenzied, the paired scenes show us what the young women will do to survive — and, according to Lisco, “this is the least transgressive thing they may do” in this season of Yellowjackets.

Was eating Jackie always the first narrative priority of this episode? How did you approach balancing all the other elements of this episode — the flashback to adult Travis’s death, Tai’s shadow self — before we get into that final act?
When we were breaking season two, we didn’t know it would necessarily be Jackie who was eaten. We didn’t know whether she was really right for it. But when we started to realize we could do it through the prism of Shauna’s story, when it could be about toxic friendship, about the anatomy of desire, about her self-recrimination and her guilt and her needing to sort of hallucinate and be haunted by Jackie, and what that meant in terms of their friendship and her own survival — not just physical, but psychic — that’s a great story. Once we felt it could be a real character story through Shauna, we decided to go for it — and of course we had the literal convenience of having Jackie’s corpse.

Shauna’s eulogy for Jackie is very brief, and that line — “I don’t even know where you end and I begin” — feels like a grim nod to their friendship and a wink to the fact that Shauna ate Jackie’s ear in “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” How did you write what Shauna would say as her final words to her best friend?
There was an opportunity for her to have a big monologue and something that was a real set piece, but you didn’t really need much because her actions told the story. This liminal space between the ear of Jackie and Shauna herself, physically as well as psychologically, told you the whole story in that moment. We decided to keep it very lean.

I should mention one thing about this “anatomy of desire.” It’s the name of a short story by John L’Heureux that I read when I was 13 years old. What’s so satisfying to me about this episode is I got to manifest all the feelings I had about that story. It’s the story of a man with this weird, intense desire to do more than just love. He wants to possess this woman, and he also wants to be possessed by her. He ends up skinning her and ultimately walking around in it, only to realize it’s a pyrrhic victory because he could never truly be possessed. He could only desire the feeling of being possessed. He winds up at the end pulling at his skin and crying. I remember putting that down and being like, That’s some writing there, and I want to maybe do that one day.

The friendship between Jackie and Shauna is like many friendships I’ve observed and even experienced in my life: You love this person so completely, but you also are in that person’s shadow and you sort of want to destroy that person, while at the same time you could never think of destroying that person. You want to consume that person and dominate that person and be dominated by her. What’s the next step? The eating of a person is the ultimate way to dignify that person and keep her with you forever, while at the same time destroy her and dominate her.

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Jackie is basically smoked by snow that falls from a tree above the pyre, and her smell wakes everyone up in the cabin. Did you do barbecue research?
Heck yeah we did! There is a line here where we’re playing with the supernatural, like we always do, and whether or not this could be physically feasible in the world, or whether there was some other dark force at work. But it is conceivable. Go back to Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” where the snow falls and it smothers the fire. If it’s big enough and the snow is hard-packed enough, then could this actually happen? We’re probably all going to get arrested at some point for the research that we do: “How do you cook a body?” But one of the references was the film by Peter Greenaway The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. As a punishment, one of the bodies is cooked by this chef. Then he turns to the quivering person who can’t believe what he’s seeing and says, “Try the cock.” It’s all laid out there, and nothing is hidden. It’s this perfectly browned body. We felt, “Could the wilderness serve that up?”

I wrote in my notes, “Did they summon the spirit here to cook Jackie?”
It is very much a summoning, very much a calling in.

The scene that precedes this is the sex scene between Natalie and Travis. It’s supposed to be Natalie and Travis having grief sex after Natalie’s loving act: By trying to prove that Javi is dead, she wants him to let go of the vice grip of his pain. We’d built this situation in episode one where Travis has the panic attack and Lottie comes over and puts her hand on his chest and calms him down. He goes into a quasi-religious reverie when she’s doing that. Why is this happening? Lottie represents faith, Lottie represents hope. Natalie represents cold pragmatism and resignation. This sex scene is really a battle for Travis’s soul — a battle for what’s meaningful to a person. Do you maintain faith even in the face of adversity and very low probabilities of anything good happening? Or do you just give in? As that’s happening, Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker’s music is swelling and getting more jagged and strange, then you hard-cut to this floating aerial camera in the wilderness as the bough breaks and the snow falls and covers Jackie. We’re caught up in a rhapsodic montage where she cooks, because what is happening is supranormal. It seemed very lyrical to us, and, as with a lot of things in the show, we want to operate not just with our left brain and make it logical and earned, but also with our right brain and try and make sure that people feel something.

But even though that’s a triad scene among Natalie, Travis, and Lottie, again, the point-of-view character for us is Shauna. This whole experience is emanating out of her desire and her need. When she comes out, there’s a very low sound of the stomach gurgling when she kneels down in front of Jackie’s roasted body, as if she needs to justify that her baby is hungry in order to eat her. But really that’s just a pretext, because the train has left the station at that point.

When the Yellowjackets eat Jackie, the scene is intercut with these images of everyone feasting at a bacchanal. They’re dressed in these beautiful Greco-Roman robes, with wine goblets and lit candles. Was the bacchanal inspired by any other artwork or pop culture?
Midsommar came up as a reference point, how that movie was haunting and riveting. We coupled that with this idea that they probably would have all taken world history and studied ancient Greece. To consume Jackie, they had to get themselves there. It served two functions. We do not shy away from the gruesome, but we also don’t want to be gratuitous about it. It’s funny because people say the show is so brutal, and I want to be clear that we never set out to be salacious or sensational. We have to objectively render some of what they’re going through because that’s truthful, but at the same time, this gave us an opportunity to add an extra element of mass hallucination that they needed to collectively protect themselves from the horror.

We also wanted to have an element of hedonism involved, because if you’re starving in the woods and you’re eating your friend, yeah, that’s not a good thing. But you have to, at some biological level, feel sated. That has to feel good. When they’re shoving figs and pomegranates and mutton and whatever in each other’s mouths, and it gets into a really histrionic state, we thought that was a thing of beauty, and the audience would get it on many levels: one, that it was a self-protective mechanism that they all had to engage in. Two, that it was sort of beyond reason. Three, that it was almost libidinous, like a quasi-erotic, hedonistic experience. And four, that they were actually having the most harrowing and traumatic experience of their lives.

There’s a moment when Van and Tai are kissing through a bite of fruit during the bacchanal that I thought, If you’re sitting down to your first hot meal in a while, you’re not sitting down and calmly eating.
I’m interested in people saying, “Oh my God, they did the worst possible thing they could do.” I’ll speak for myself: I don’t know if eating Jackie under these circumstances is what you’d call an immoral act. Certainly taboo breaking, and you could argue from many angles that it is immoral. But they’re also very hungry, and they’re also fearful, and they may die, and there is a person that can be consumed to save them. Like the Donner Party and all the cannibalistic tentpole stories we’ve heard over the years, the question of whether or not it’s strictly immoral is really interesting to me.

One of the things about the season that we’re very excited about is this is the least transgressive thing that they may do. Their choices are going to get more morally ambiguous as the season progresses, and they’re going to have to decide who they are and integrate their worst impulses into themselves.

What interested me most during this scene is how they justify it. When Shauna says of Jackie, “She wants us to,” part of me thought, I’m not sure the Jackie we’ve seen would want that.
Shauna can use, as a pretext, that Jackie would want them to — which does ring false. That’s part of Shauna’s justification for her own rabid desire to eat Jackie in the moment, and that’s sort of built on sand. But earlier in the episode — in a very moving scene which was rendered beautifully by our cast — they want to take her jacket, but Shauna refuses to allow that to happen even though it makes good sense. This person is obviously not in need of her jacket anymore. And yet Shauna feels like it would be undignified for Jackie. But later on in the episode, eating her butt doesn’t seem as undignified. [Laughs.] Shauna is wrestling with a lot of these different impulses, and it makes her character very gray in a good way.

How did the cast react to the script, and what was the on-set atmosphere like?
There were so many jaw-dropped reactions to the script when it came out, and I think it’s because they couldn’t believe we were going there so early in the season. We felt we were ready to do it. We’re also not in the business of manipulating the audience for something they already know is coming. It didn’t feel satisfying to introduce this concept of ritual cannibalism in the pilot and then make the audience wait to see when they actually cross that Rubicon.

We shot the teen cast eating Jackie on set one day, and the feast was in a location about an hour east of Vancouver in this beautiful place called Camp Howdy with old-growth trees, and we shot that on a completely separate night in the middle of the night. The cast was very into it — but then they realized what it actually entails. It was like art imitating life and vice versa, because when we started to talk about it, there was a lot of humor. In the same way that the Yellowjackets were using the Greco-Roman feast as a protective mechanism, the cast had to use humor as a protective mechanism when they started to anticipate actually playing the scene.

On the set of “Edible Complex” with the Yellowjackets crew and cast. Kailey Schwerman/Showtime.
On the set of “Edible Complex” with the Yellowjackets crew and cast. Kailey Schwerman/Showtime.

I have an eight-minute audio clip of Ben Semanoff, the director, coming over to the cast as they gathered around and Jackie’s golden-brown corpse was brought out by the props department and our art department. They’re just totally stunned. Here’s this dummy, she’s got the perfect biometric face of Jackie, but there were these big crevices and fissures. Then our guy comes over who made the Jackie-fruit, which we called it, because it was made of jackfruit, paprika, maple syrup, some smoke flavors, salt, and pepper. Some of the teen cast is vegan, so we had to make it out of something everybody could eat. Then, if you couldn’t stand those flavors, there was a flavorless version made out of jackfruit also. To the sides, we had spittoons if you didn’t want to ingest it, but it actually tasted pretty good. The skin was made out of rice paper that had been soaked and crisped in an air fryer, and you’ve got Ben talking about how to turn the skin up so that it looks really vivid and dynamic, and how everybody could reach into the various crevices and holes, and where he was gonna put the cameras. The cast is just laughing their butts off — and yet also vibrating. You could feel the energy: “Oh my God, are we really gonna do this?” Some of them are nervous. We all bet on who’s gonna throw up first — obviously just jovially. If anybody was really uncomfortable, we would have stopped and we would have dealt with it. But everybody was ready to go.

The way in which we filmed it was one or two of them would be onscreen at one time. Everybody else just had to mime eating, and only those people onscreen at that time had to eat. You probably can’t feel it in the cut because we did it so quickly, and I hope very seamlessly, but it’s not like everybody had to eat for all nine takes. People were going for the face and the legs. A few of the young cast members came up and said, “This is the weirdest, most bizarre thing I’ve ever done as an actor,” and that made us feel great because we want to put them in situations where they can stretch their limits. And yet they’re so talented that they grounded it somehow. We had long conversations with them about tone, and I also talked to Ben about it extensively. It has to feel at some level both surreal and bizarre and crazy, but also grounded, or else it’s just gonna feel like some weird fantasy show. We probably shot an hour of footage, from different angles, of the bacchanal, and how much do we use? Thirty-five seconds, 40 seconds. We wanted to make sure that we could cherry-pick the most evocative images, and that we could pair them with images from the wilderness. To do that, you really have to overshoot, and that was fun on set.

On the day that we were shooting the Greco-Roman feast, they were in such good spirits. It was early in the morning, probably 1, 2 a.m., and so dark and beautiful and mysterious in this old-growth forest. They came out and they were just regal — the costumes by Amy Parris were so special. One of the challenges we had is because they were so unique, we didn’t really have duplicates. Often on a film set, you’ll have triples and quadruples so you can get blood on them and can reset. But here we had to shoot it in a certain way where, “Wait a second — before that line dribbles down your arm onto your tunic, let’s make sure we’ve got everything, because we don’t have anything for you to change into.” We had to be a little craftier and a little bit more strategic about how we shot. But the entire table was laid with exactly what you would imagine: real figs, real pomegranates, beautiful braided breads, all sorts of fruits and meats, so that our cast could just dig in and feel wild. But the way they start is with that one strawberry.

And turning to Shauna to make sure that she’s the one who does it first, and that she nods for them to continue.
Exactly. She’s breaking the taboo and thus giving them consent to do so, and the collective hive mind takes over.

But then there’s Coach Ben, who’s not down with any of this. The episode has a great final shot: He’s in the foreground in the cabin looking horrified, and you can see the Yellowjackets kneeling over Jackie’s body through the window behind him. Was it established early on that Coach Ben would abstain?
Yes. I can’t remember exactly what it was in, but in some book I read when I was younger, there was a line about a man who’d saved another man’s life. There’s a third person saying, “You saved his life, so he must love you.” And the man who saved the man’s life said, “No, obviously, he hates me. He’ll despise me forever. Now he has the moral high ground, and I will never be able to live up to what he has done — the heroism.” And in this case, the abstinence. Coach Scott is in a tricky spot right now. He’s not experiencing the same kind of rhapsodic freedom as these young women are. One of the conceits of the show that really broke it open for me in season one is that, despite the fact that they went through this terrible trauma in the woods, on some level, because of the lack of gender conventions and all those things that started to slough away, this was weirdly one of the freest times they’ll ever have in their life. But Coach Scott was still clinging to civilization, and so he abstains, and he is obviously horrified by what they’re doing. That’s why in that final shot, it looks like a coven of witches looming over the pyre and eating. The idea that he abstains now has the potential to weaponize the young women against him, because in-group/out-group politics develop. Because he abstained, he must think he’s superior to them. He must think what they did was awful and evil, and they feel judged by that. And because they feel judged, they may have to neutralize him in some way. That’s the feeling you’re going to get at some point in the rest of the season — not to say they’re going to necessarily kill him and eat him, but in the ether, that’s a possibility.

I wrote, “Is he next?”
Almost like we planned it!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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‘Who’s Gonna Throw Up First?’