emergency discussion

Actually, Yellowjackets Did Bite Off More Than It Could Chew

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

From time to time, Vulture’s critics convene to hold a discussion about a current piece of culture. Today, Jen Chaney, Roxana Hadadi, and Kathryn VanArendonk don masks made of animal skulls and gather around an altar of bloody canine remains, deflated soccer balls, and Cranberries LPs in order to discuss the season-two finale of Yellowjackets.

Jen Chaney: Yellowjackets packed multiple plot twists into the final hour of season two. In the 1990s, there’s the consumption of Javi in the woods, the crowning of Natalie as the Yellowjackets’ new Antler Queen, and a fire, presumably set by Coach Ben, burning down the cabin in the episode’s closing moments. In 2021, Elijah Wood’s Walter returns, casually poisons Detective Kevyn, and blackmails Detective Saracusa into supporting a false narrative about the murders of his partner, Adam, and fake reporter Jessica. Most significantly, adult Lottie leads an attempt to make a present-day blood sacrifice to the Wilderness. This ends in the accidental killing of Natalie by Misty, who will undoubtedly be wracked with guilt for the rest of her life over stabbing her (perceived) best friend with a fatally dosed syringe.

I watched all of this with interest but did not have a strong emotional response to any of it. Maybe it’s the fact that so much is happening plot-wise, or that the gathering of the Yellowjackets at Lottie’s wellness retreat always seemed a bit too orchestrated, but I have felt detached from much of the back half of this second season, even though I am still entertained enough to continue watching.

Is this just me, or have you both been having a similar experience?

Kathryn VanArendonk: It is not just you! The issues of the two timelines, as they’ve understandably gotten less mysterious, have also gotten more frustrating. Now that I know roughly how things went in the forest (cannibalism and a possible Wilderness God), and also how things eventually turned out based on who’s still alive, the plot has less forward momentum than it used to. I do want to know about the Wilderness! And I want to know about the secret underground lair. Beyond that, I mostly just want to spend time with adult Shauna, because the show was always strongest for me when it centered on her.

Roxana Hadadi: I feel fairly rabid about season one. Both timelines worked in nearly every way — propulsive pacing, intriguing mysteries, layered characters, solid grasps of teenage yearning and middle-aged malaise — and when I reviewed the second season off the first six episodes (of nine total), I was similarly hopeful. The 1996 story line is so strong in the first half of this season, and it felt like Yellowjackets had a lot of room to continue exploring the jealous, competitive relationship between these teens, the (perhaps begrudging) mysticism of Lottie, and how “real” the supernatural stuff is. There’s just more to the past narrative, when all the survivors are forced to be together and create a new society and hierarchy to sustain them.

Compare that to the 2021 story line. There’s ambiguity and then there’s aimlessness, and I think the present-day stuff is far more of the latter, even though these actresses are exceedingly capable. A bunch of these subplots — Misty’s killing of Jessica Roberts, Shauna involving her family in the murder of Adam Martin, Lottie’s increased derangement — either stagnated or ended abruptly when it felt like Yellowjackets didn’t have an answer for where they should go. I worry we’re seeing an admission that Yellowjackets was a great idea for one timeline but not durable for both. Jen, did you feel detached from both timelines, or was one more successful for you than the other?

JC: The ’90s wilderness story line has resonated with me much more than present-day. I wish they had taken their time with certain elements: I loved when young Shauna was revealed to be secretly nibbling on Jackie’s ear at the end of the first episode, and I think the show could have let her do that for at least another episode before Taissa and everyone else realized what was happening. There was something ghoulish, heartbreaking, and fascinating in that idea — Shauna was consumed by guilt and responded by consuming her reminder of it — that hit right in the macabre-meets-angsty sweet spot where Yellowjackets thrives. The show seems more consistently comfortable with the tone in the Wilderness story line than it does with what’s going on in 2021.

Also, Lottie was a huge issue in both timelines this season, as discussed in depth in this piece by Ben Rosenstock. As Ben notes, there are major character development gaps surrounding Lottie, and I never at any point felt like adult Lottie, introduced this season and played by Simone Kessell, was the same person as Courtney Eaton’s young Lottie. As this season is structured, Lottie is the primary glue that holds the two timeliness together, but I never found that character particularly, well, sticky.

I also thought the writers were not sure what to do with adult Natalie, so they let her flail around at Lottie’s place until, eventually, she got killed. As much as I appreciate Juliette Lewis’s performance, I never got a firm grasp on what Natalie was experiencing. It was like she became a ghost before she even died. Kathryn, how did you feel about the decision to kill off grown-up Natalie?

KVA: I am of two minds about it. This season has felt like it’s not sure how to balance all of its character arcs, and from that perspective, eliminating a couple makes sense to me. Even more than that, the show clearly wants the group to be together in both the past and the present, and I understand and appreciate that impulse. For as forced as some of the current-day Lottie storytelling has been, my suspicion is that Natalie’s death will now tie the adults together much more effectively than the previous story lines have done. It’s a finale that is obviously pushing into what a third season will be, and I’m now more curious to see the contemporary Yellowjackets dealing with something together than I’ve been in previous episodes.

But I did long for some kind of groundwork laid for the Natalie death story — either less suggestive windup and more shock, or more dread-inducing buildup and a sinking sense of inevitability. Instead, it landed somewhere in the middle, and I found it functional but emotionally ineffective.

RH: I really disliked Natalie’s death, both because I think Juliette Lewis never got a ton to do, and because I think Yellowjackets has now tipped its hand as a show that kills off characters it doesn’t know what to do with, and that always disappoints me. All of the Adam Martin drama will seemingly go away because Walter killed Kevyn and got his detective partner to go along with the cover-up. Adult Natalie being so caught up in grief over Travis but having no other discernible qualities now goes away because of her (sort of silly) death at Misty’s hands. Even back in 1996, the death of Crystal/Kristin felt like the show washing its hands of a character who had so much personality she interrupted the show’s attempt to hand-wave away the surviving Yellowjackets who didn’t get as much screen time in season one. Yellowjackets wrote itself into a few corners this season, and instead of working its way out of them, just swiped pieces off the board. Look at Lottie, who is now seemingly going back to a mental institution. Why structure the entire second season around her?

A lot of my ultimate disappointment came from that “reset at all costs” mentality, and how Natalie, Travis, and Javi (who I think are the show’s most compelling characters) got caught up in it. I am a child of Heathers and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I love myself some tragic, star-crossed lovers, okay? I would have enjoyed a lot more — heck, any — time with adult Natalie and Travis that wasn’t just about their shared addictions but dug into why they kept being pulled back to each other. Was it guilt, or was it love, and is there a difference? Javi’s death was clearly intended to be a gut punch, and it was; I will give Yellowjackets credit for leaning into a “You want cannibalism? We’ll give you cannibalism!” sort of trolling that made me think of the first season of The Terror. But also, Luciano Leroux is an expressive actor and it would have been helpful, I think, to understand more of his perspective and reaction to returning to these young women who already put him in danger once. If Javi just becomes a way to get us underground, Lost hatch style, I’m going to be pretty bummed.

JC: I agree with both of you — on one hand, there are certainly too many characters and it may help to streamline things by having fewer in the mix. But I also agree that the show never quite knew what to do with adult Natalie, and it’s a shame that, to your point, Roxana, it didn’t spend more time helping us understand her psychology beyond being an addict.

KVA: I did like the burning cabin, though! I have seen how this plays out on Alone, and it is not good! (But now I’m worried we’ll never find out more about the mysterious man who once lived there?)

JC: It seems pretty obvious that Coach Ben started the fire, although we never definitively see him do it. Is it possible anyone else could be the arsonist, or is it almost certainly the coach, if only because we spent so damn much time on his flashbacks this season that there must have been a reason for that?

KVA: But what if it was [haunted voice] the Wilderness …

No, it’s probably Coach Ben, who’s embraced nihilistic wilderness apocalypse vibes and is ready for the hellfires of justice to cleanse the land. And it’s not like I can say “good for him,” because that would be weird, but I think it’s a potentially interesting dynamic to set up for the next season.

Truly, in spite of my overall feeling of disconnect from this season, I do think it’s possible for season three of this show to … not right the ship, because I don’t think that’s even the best goal. But to move into a new mode that can feel exciting and unexpected once again. Second seasons are always challenging, and second seasons of a show like this are, frankly, the worst. The first season was a striking, distinctive, unfamiliar tone for TV. It danced around with a bunch of complicated interwoven plots, and maintained a level of ambiguity about what was reality and what was a dream. It opened all kinds of questions and little plot threads. It’s so hard to make a second season in a way that doesn’t feel like a homework-y response to everything that came before. Every move seems potentially wrong. Can’t be exactly what it was, can’t be too different, has to catch all the balls lobbed from season one, has to do so in ways that feel satisfying. I’m not surprised this season wobbled a bit, is what I’m saying.

Season three now gets to be free of a lot of that burden. There’s energy and there’s opportunity to strike out in new directions. More explicit Coach Ben antagonism is one possibility. The need to find or create new shelter, the group dynamics with a new Antler Queen, the fact that cannibalism is not the most, er, sustainable food source … I’m hopeful!

RH: Unfortunately, I do think the removal of grown-up Natalie and Lottie does open up this story. If, for example, the malevolent “it” from the Wilderness is still hanging around these women after Lottie is sent away, that’s another way to work through whether it was their trauma all along or actually something mystical. But I would love for the series to commit more to its characters and who they are, day in and day out, than just an intangible evil other. We could witness the further unraveling of Misty, or the Big Bad vilification of Coach Scott. Tai’s shadow self is still present, doing spooky stuff in mirrors when Tai isn’t paying attention, and I’m thinking Adult Van is a lot more dangerous than we expect. Maybe Jeff will again say something as instantly iconic as “There’s no book club?!” It’s not that Yellowjackets doesn’t already have intriguing elements that need more exploration. They just happen to be mortal, and Yellowjackets needs to commit itself to storytelling that serves those characters fully rather than trying to make opacity and dearth virtues.

JC: There is also something about the way Yellowjackets braids in all those ’90s needle drops, so many of them performed by or about women who have been ostracized — in the finale alone, we got “Zombie” by the Cranberries and “God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, not to mention a double shot of Tori Amos earlier in the season — that makes me feel like the essence of this show is still in there somewhere. Yellowjackets is about women trying to find power and, upon discovering it, misunderstanding it, channeling it in the wrong ways, and trying to hide it from a society that doesn’t understand it at all. I really loved young Van’s speech in this episode about not feeling any shame about resorting to cannibalism. Adult Van is also the one who, until reuniting with Taissa, seemed to be living the most off the grid and isolated. Maybe she has to live that way because she, more than any of the others, refuses to conform. Let’s talk about that, Yellowjackets! Let’s explore THAT!

Actually, Yellowjackets Did Bite Off More Than It Could Chew