The Yellowjackets season-one finale packs more twists and reveals into its last ten minutes than some entire seasons of television.
In that time frame, we get: a cigarette poisoning, an election victory, a near suicide, a kidnapping, evidence of two heart-sacrifice rituals, and a shattering death. And that’s not even a complete list. The wham-bam slam of all these moments, back-to-back, could feel cheap or gimmicky on another show. On Yellowjackets, it doesn’t because each gasp-inducer achieves what this series has done so deftly throughout its first season: answer questions, with great emotional impact, while raising new ones in the process.
As this Showtime drama has become buzzier and buzzier over the past month or so, numerous TV observers have tried to pinpoint what makes Yellowjackets such an addictive and dissectible series. In a piece for Slate, Madison Malone-Kircher (a former Vulture colleague) cites the fact that it depicts teenage girls “in all their awful, hormonal glory.” For the A.V. Club, Kelly McClure (also Vulture’s Yellowjackets recapper) cites the show’s embrace of gay relationships and themes as one of its strongest assets: “Not since the days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer has a television show with horror elements and a strong ribbon of queer been this exciting.” Kevin Fallon of the Daily Beast suggests that the fascination with both Yellowjackets and the tremendous Station Eleven indicates that we’ve turned a corner in our pandemic viewing habits. “At this point,” he writes, “we’re interested in stories about what happens after we survive.”
Yellowjackets is such a multifaceted show that all of these takes qualify as accurate interpretations of its magnetic pull. But I keep coming back to the mystery element and how smartly co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, along with their writers, have handled it. I see a lot of Lost in Yellowjackets. To be fair, I see Lost in a lot of things: all kinds of TV shows, polar bears in any context, airplanes generally. But in the case of Yellowjackets, and particularly this season-one finale, the comparison is actually apt. Yellowjackets is the rare mystery-box show that, as Lost did, also works on an emotional level while encouraging an almost psychotic interest in solving its riddles.
So much of the conversation around Yellowjackets, as was the case with Lost, has been fueled by an interest in figuring out what’s really going on with several characters and story lines. The central concern of the series is steeped in mystery: What really happened out in those woods after that plane crash, and why do our grown central characters — Shauna, Natalie, Taissa, and Misty — seem so intent on continuing to keep it a secret? Those two related inquiries are the equivalent of the “What is the island?” question mark that hung over Lost for six seasons.
After this Yellowjackets finale, we still don’t fully know the answer to those interrelated questions, even though some blanks get filled in. All the way back in the pilot, we were warned this might be the case. During her final group meeting in rehab, Natalie refers vaguely to the things that happened to her out in the woods, prompting one of her cohorts to ask, with extreme irritation, “Oh my God, what did you do? You’ve literally never told us.” We also still literally don’t know the extent of what they did.
We do find out some things, though. We learn that Jackie froze to death while sleeping outside in the woods after Shauna told her to leave the cabin during a nasty argument. But we don’t yet know, despite all the speculation on Reddit and elsewhere, whether Jackie becomes dinner (or maybe brunch?) for her fellow Yellowjackets. The opening sequence of the pilot makes it fairly clear that at some point, the girls resort to cannibalism after several months of trying to survive in the middle of nowhere. But even that is not officially-officially confirmed, nor do we know the identity of the so-called pit girl — aka the person who gets barbecued — after watching the finale, other than ruling out Jackie.
With every new piece of information the show confirms — about Lottie, or Taissa’s freaky shrine in the basement — more causes for speculation arise. That’s true of a key development that involves Natalie, who’s kidnapped by people who appear to be members of a cult connected to whatever happened in the woods. It’s a scene that directly calls to mind a moment from Lost’s season-one finale and also exemplifies what Yellowjackets does so well.
Just before the kidnapping, Natalie, resigned to the fact that Travis killed himself and broke the pact they made never to take their own lives, prepares to take her own. She nestles a gun under her chin and puts her thumb on the trigger, prompting us to brace for a bang. But the bang that comes is at the door when the cult members (or whoever they are) break into Nat’s hotel room and drag her away.
This reminded me of the kidnapping of Walt in “Exodus,” the multipart season-one finale of Lost, when Walt gets snatched by the Others, turning what at first appears to be a long-awaited rescue opportunity into a disturbing new emergency. It’s a development that confirms one thing — the Others really are interested in capturing children — while giving us new issues to worry about, like where they are taking Walt and what exactly they plan to do with him.
A couple other moments in the Yellowjackets finale also slyly echo Lost, including the appearance of a (nonpolar) bear and the comment that Allie makes when she fires up the Jackie tribute at the reunion: “In order to move forward, we must first go back” sounds an awful lot like Jack Shephard’s famous season-three finale proclamation that “we have to go back.”
Emotionally, what happens to Natalie during the kidnapping sequence plays differently than the Walt story line, turning from a terribly sad beat into something scary, but also vindicating. This scene verifies that Natalie was right and that Travis most likely did not kill himself, because there is some sort of conspiracy at work. It also opens a whole other series of speculative doors about who this group is, how they are tied to Travis and Lottie, and where they may be taking Natalie.
The scene has serious emotional impact because of Juliette Lewis’s performance. The way her face contorts with such profound anguish in that close-up of her with the gun is absolutely wrenching to watch. Lewis radiates desperation and reminds us how much we don’t want Nat to die. That’s why Nat getting kidnapped is so jarring and complicated. On one hand, she’s saved. She can’t shoot herself: What a relief! On the other hand, she’s very much in danger again, and it’s entirely possible these shadowy figures will try to kill her. The stakes feel incredibly high in part because of what happens, but more because by now, we care deeply about Nat.
I’m about to say some common-sense, Fiction Writing 101–type stuff, but given how tangled we’ve all gotten in theorizing about this show — something I also love, by the way — I think it’s important to reiterate that the characters are what matter more than anything on Yellowjackets (and on TV in general). What happens to them and why is important, but it’s secondary to the characters themselves. There have been many, many mystery-box shows in the nearly 20 years since Lost debuted. Most of them have been mediocre, but even some of the decent ones haven’t worked as well as Lost or Yellowjackets because they don’t elicit strong feelings. Westworld, for example, has a lot going for it, including an exceptional cast, but too much of it plays like an intellectual exercise rather than a story with a beating heart.
Lost fans continued to watch Lost not just in a desperate quest for answers, but because they felt bonded to the Oceanic 815 survivors. Yellowjackets has laid similar groundwork thanks to strong character development by the writers and the actors, and by the show’s combination of exploring dark subject matter and evoking nostalgia. If you were young in the ’90s, or a teenage girl (to Kircher’s point), or queer (to McClure’s), you recognize a bit of yourself in these young women in the woods and in who they’ve become 25 years later. Over the course of the ten episodes, you start giving even more of a damn about them, even when they engage in reprehensible behavior. (I just watched Misty Quigley poison a woman. I love her with all my heart.)
When Shauna discovers her best friend, Jackie, dead and buried under freshly fallen snow, it checks a mystery-revealed box. Check: Now we know how Jackie died. More importantly, this discovery really hurts. You can imagine and access the shock and despair Shauna feels, displayed with such gorgeously raw intensity by Sophie Nélisse, and grasp how carrying that guilt has eaten away at her as she’s gotten older. This is what we look to great television to do: not just to surprise us with wild twists, but to make us feel something.
In an essay for Polygon, Maddy Myers sang Yellowjackets’ praises for some of the same reasons cited here, but also expressed concern that all the puzzle-box building might prove to be hollow. “Lost already broke my heart years ago with this exact type of shit,” she wrote. Obviously, there is no way to know at this point whether Lyle, Nickerson, & Co. can take all the strands of story they’ve created and weave them toward a satisfying conclusion years down the road. What we do know is they did a pretty good job of that in the season-one finale while also proving there’s still plenty of story left to be told. Right now, that’s all we can ask for, and it’s also all we need.
This moment, when we’re all deeply infatuated with this new show and can’t wait to figure out what happens next because these characters are so important to us: This is the good part. This is the best part. Enjoy it. By all means, keep speculating about who might be a time traveler and what in the absolute hell is making Taissa eat her own arm in the middle of the night. But at the same time, don’t forget to take the advice offered by another Damon Lindelof series, The Leftovers: Embrace how it feels when we have no choice but to let the mystery be.