tv review

In Yellowjackets, the Girls Are Hungry to Live

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

In L.A. this weekend? Come catch a special early screening of Yellowjackets at Vulture Festival on Saturday, November 13, followed by a conversation with cast members Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress, Ella Purnell, Samantha Hanratty, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher and Sophie Néliss. Get your tickets here.

“I knew how this would be settled within the animal world,” Lindsay Lohan’s Cady says to herself in a famous scene from Mean Girls, before leaping over a cafeteria table and going full jungle cat on queen bee Regina George. It’s a brief, funny reminder that just under the surface, there is potential savagery lurking in every teenage girl, an idea Yellowjackets takes and runs through the wild woods with. The new Showtime series, premiering Sunday, feels like a hybrid of other shows that nonetheless forms its own compelling teen/adult psychological study, with some dashes of horror and cannibalism added to the mix.

Upon first viewing, the storytelling template Yellowjackets mirrors most closely is Lost. Like that mystery-box saga, this series toggles between flashbacks and the present day, and involves a plane crash that leaves a group of people in an isolated location, forced to figure out how to fend for themselves. The difference is that this crash happened in the past, specifically 1996, when a private airplane taking a New Jersey girls’ high-school soccer team (mascot name: the Yellowjackets) to the national championships suddenly goes down in the remote wilderness. There are a few male survivors — at least one coach and the teen and preteen sons of the head coach — but practically everyone who makes it out of the wreckage is a young woman. To make another apt comparison, for what surely won’t be the first or last time, you could also view this as gender-flipped Lord of the Flies.

Certainly television has shown us resilient women in survival stories before — see, yes, Lost, The Walking Dead, every season of Survivor, the recently cancelled Y: The Last Man, etc. Amazon’s The Wilds even depicted teenage girls attempting to be rescued following a plane crash. But there is something refreshingly rich in watching these young women immediately become resourceful leaders in a life-or-death situation, while simultaneously seeing how that experience has affected them in later years. The fact that their life-defining moment happens in 1996 — which a New York Times piece published at the time referred to as “the year of the teenage girl” — reflects the post-feminist promise of that era and, given what comes of these women later in life, strikes a note of tragedy.

When we become acquainted with some of the adult Yellowjackets, it’s obvious that the resilience they may have learned during their time in the woods has been overshadowed by feelings of guilt, PTSD, and inertia. Shauna, played as an adult by Melanie Lynskey, becomes a dissatisfied wife and mom seemingly still fixated on living the carefree young adult life that eluded her. Natalie (Juliette Lewis) struggles with addiction. Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is running for public office in New Jersey while also trying to run away from her association with the crash, as well as the eerie misbehavior of the son she shares with her wife Simone (Rukiya Bernard). And then there’s Misty, the most confounding, surprising character in the series. As a teen, when she’s portrayed by Samantha Hanratty, she’s extremely capable, but so blatantly thirsty for friendship that people avoid her like she’s a contagion. As an adult, in the hands of Christina Ricci, those same qualities remain, but her confidence is more pronounced, and so is her manipulativeness. It’s never entirely clear what is motivating Misty, and that’s just one of the mysteries in Yellowjackets that gets teased out over its 10 episodes. (Critics were offered six in advance.)

Co-showrunners Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, and Jonathan Lisco take their time peeling away layers in the characters’ backstories and in the events that happened post-crash, keeping the audience in, if not the dark, then certainly very dim light about exactly how depraved things got after the crash. (An initial opening scene, in which a young woman falls into a trap and soon turns into a feast for her former teammates, hints that the answer is: pretty depraved!) As the episodes progress, elements of the supernatural rear their heads, suggesting that more than one character, in both eras, may be touched or haunted in some way. An alleged reporter (Rekha Sharma) also starts snooping around in the current timeline, implying that the truth about what happened out there in the woods could emerge, damaging the reputations of all involved.

The plot is pretty meaty (sorry), but Yellowjackets is adept at juggling it all, hopping between narratives and tones in a way that doesn’t register as jarring jumps, but moves in a purposefully choreographed dance. In a recent New York Times piece, Karyn Kusama, who directed the pilot, says when casting actors to play young and older versions of the same characters, they were not looking for physical doppelgängers but “a soul match.” That comes through in Shauna’s shyness and unforgiving nature, qualities effectively evoked by both Lynskey and Sophie Nélisse, the young Shauna. Lewis and Sophie Thatcher, as Natalie, have such similar punk rock, go-ahead-and-dare-me attitudes that they seem like sisters, while Cypress and Jasmin Savoy Brown of The Leftovers make it clear that Taissa’s stubbornness has been part of her DNA her whole life. Ricci and Hanratty, on the other hand, play Misty as two sides of the same coin. As teen Misty, Hanratty is vulnerable, but weird and impulsive; 25 years later, Ricci pushes those qualities further toward mental instability. Seeing the fullness of these personalities emerge based on two separate eras is fascinating, and serves as ample justification for the series’s timeline-hopping approach.

The series also gets the mid-’90s absolutely right, from its choice of props — of course there are Sassy magazines scattered around the bedroom that belongs to Shauna’s best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell) — to its soundtrack choices. The Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Salt-N-Pepa, Jane’s Addiction, Montell Jordan: Every needle drop is a time machine that captures an era the living Yellowjackets would like to forget but also, sometimes, yearn to revisit. When Shauna’s daughter mocks her mother for handing out candy on Halloween in a ’90s costume that no one recognizes, Lynskey responds sincerely, as though she’s thought about it a lot: “The people who matter recognize Daria.”

People who watch Yellowjackets may also recognize some of their teenage selves in it, both in the moments of solidarity — there’s a real sense of sisterhood when the girls win a game or break out into a spontaneous wilderness dance party — and in its moments where conflicts ratchet up from intense to potentially dangerous. Yellowjackets understands that, even in a non-crisis situation, the teenage world can very quickly turn into an animal one, and the scars from those primal experiences do not fade.

In Yellowjackets, the Girls Are Hungry to Live