There’s an art to building a pilot that sets the premise of the show, introduces the main characters, and lays out an element of mystery to entice viewers to return again the following episode for more, all in under an hour. Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, along with director Karyn Kusama, do that in the very first episode of Yellowjackets better than we’ve seen in a long, long time. The pilot runs viewers through a gamut of emotions at an athletic pace, using dual timelines to introduce the young women of the Yellowjackets, an undefeated high-school soccer team on its way to nationals in 1996, and also show how their lives look 25 years after surviving a plane crash en route to that very game.
Kusama is a notable win for the showrunners as the director of the pilot, having previously directed several other female-driven projects of a physical nature, many of which tip toward dark subject matter, such as Jennifer’s Body, XX, Destroyer, and her directorial debut, Girlfight, which landed her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Feature. This next bit will quite possibly only be exciting to me, but she directed one solitary episode of The L Word during the original series’ fourth season. So yeah, with all that in mind, she is the perfect person to introduce us to what I, and many others, passionately claim to be the best new show of 2021. Actually, to say that this is merely the best new show of 2021 may be an understatement, but before I launch into a poem about it, let’s go further into the pilot.
Something terrible happened to the Yellowjackets, and we spend the bulk of the episode being expertly handed glimpses of what that something could be. We see them interacting as a team and as a group of friends within that team. We see them gathering at a party in the woods to blow off steam and exchange emotional anxieties over flying to nationals the next day. And we see them board a private plane paid for by the father of one of the girls, Lottie (Courtney Eaton), which promptly plummets from the sky into the thick woods beneath them, leaving them to fend for themselves for what we come to learn was 19 months. And beyond that, which is a lot in and of itself, we get snippets showing us that whatever happened to those girls during those 19 months was bad enough to bleed into their new reality post-rescue, leaving them upright but not altogether right.
The first scene of the episode goes back to those wilderness months, when a girl with long dark hair is running barefoot through the snow, pursued by unseen others making wolf and bird noises as they hunt her straight into a wooden-stake-filled trap and then string her up in a tree, slit her neck, and prepare to dress her meat for consumption. As they chomp on human flesh, they shield their identities with animal skins and horned crowns. This serves to keep us from knowing who’s doing what, aside from glimpses of telltale pink Converse, specific T-shirts, and huge glasses. The costumes are likely also a way for them to keep a distance from their true selves, as they were post-crash and the savages they’ve become.
We see a lot of what 2021 is like for a post-crash Yellowjacket through the eyes of Shauna, portrayed as an adult by Melanie Lynskey and in flashbacks by Sophie Nélisse. Self-isolating in suburban New Jersey as the begrudging matriarch of a family of three, she spends her days grumbling over rabbits tearing up her garden and stain-sticking skid marks out of her husband Jeff’s boxers. Jeff, played as an adult by Warren Kole and in flashbacks by Jack Depew, was, at one time, the steady boyfriend of Shauna’s best friend, Jackie, who was the team captain of the Yellowjackets and, judging by facial expressions and body language, Shauna’s actual true love. Jackie is played by Ella Purnell in flashbacks, and we do not see her as an adult, which feels like a pretty good indicator that she either didn’t make it out of the wilderness or didn’t make it out for very long.
While occupied in her daily miseries, masturbating as she stares at a picture of her daughter’s teenage boyfriend and whatnot, Shauna is approached by a woman named Jessica Roberts (Rekha Sharma) who claims to be a reporter for the Star Ledger, although Shauna is unable to find any articles, anywhere, with her byline. Jessica is fishing for info on what happened during their time in the wilderness and says she can probably get her a seven-figure book advance for a tell-all about it, but Shauna shoots her down, delivering an icy-cold “You smug little bitch” monologue that would turn anyone’s knees to jelly, let alone a nosey “reporter” who is way out of her league with all this.
Later, rejected by her own teenage daughter, Callie (Sarah Desjardins), on an offer of meatballs and movies, Shauna pulls out an old flip-phone kept in a safe along with blood-stained journals from her months in the wilderness and arranges to meet up with another fellow Yellowjacket survivor, Taissa, a married lesbian running for state senate portrayed as an adult by Tawny Cypress and in flashbacks by Jasmin Savoy Brown. The two women meet at a diner and go over the probability of the reporter knowing anything about the secrets they’ve spent their adult lives trying to keep under wraps and whether the other surviving Yellowjackets could potentially be persuaded to fork them over.
As far as those other survivors go, we’re swept between the past and present of Misty, an Annie Wilkes–level care-facility nurse played as an adult by Christina Ricci and in flashbacks by Sammi Hanratty, and the hard-as-nails Natalie, portrayed as an adult by Juliette Lewis and in flashbacks as Sophie Thatcher, who checks out of a fancy rehab and heads straight for a slick black Porsche with a rifle in the trunk. They seem otherwise occupied and not likely to be easily persuaded to do anything by anyone, regardless of the bribe offered. Like Natalie says in her last group session before leaving rehab, you gotta find a way to keep the tiger in the cage. But what happens when the cage is 25 years old and rusty at the joints?
Buzz Buzz Buzz
• Melanie Lynskey has the kind of perfect line delivery that is unique just to her. When she’s watching a quiz show while ironing and expresses her distaste at a lady getting a question wrong with “Oh, Linda, you dumb bitch,” it warmed my heart in a Melanie Lynskey–specific way.
• Young Taissa keeping their weakest team member, Allie, out of nationals by switching sides during a scrimmage and causing her to fall and break her leg was a telling display of violence. If she had that in her even before 19 months in the wilderness, picture what she must have been like during and after.
• “I like your pilgrim hat.” —Natalie
• I like thinking about Randy out there getting outsmarted by escalators and asking people who invented the pope. The ’90s were a simpler time.
• Jackie’s gold heart necklace is something to keep an eye on as we follow it from Jackie, to Shauna, to the girl who dies in the trap at the beginning of the episode. We know that it wasn’t Shauna who got eaten, so who was it?