Where to even start with Yellowjackets? The series (streams on Crave) has just concluded its first season and during its run became a huge hit and a critical darling. Deservedly. It wasn’t on every critic’s list of best series last year because only a handful of episodes had aired when those lists were compiled.
But now it can be said: Yellowjackets is sensationally good, fearless, utterly compelling and unique. The virtuosity required to pull it off is itself extraordinary. It tells two stories, in the past and present, but intertwined, and requires two sets of actors, all equally adept. At the same time it injects livid humour into a dark tale of brutality, survival and, maybe, derangement.
The gist, if you are now about to embark on watching all 10 episodes, is this: The Yellowjackets of the title are members of a winning high-school women’s soccer team, and in 1996 when they fly to a national-championship game in Seattle, their plane crashes in a far-north wilderness and brutal things happen among the survivors. From the first episode there’s a suggestion of ritual murder and cannibalism. In the present, among the survivors are Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), a dour suburban housewife; Natalie (Juliette Lewis), an acid-tongued, gun-toting addict; and Misty (Christina Ricci). As a teenager, Misty’s a hanger-on with the team and as an adult a terrifyingly cruel nurse. Someone is trying to dig up their secrets and they are worried.
Unpacking the meaning and pleasure of it all is daunting. Principally, there’s the theme of curiosity about whether pampered, bourgeois people could survive in the wild. Will they revert to their most crude, arrogant, animalistic, reckless instincts? It’s a literary theme, the premise of Robinson Crusoe, the novel by Daniel Defoe long considered the first actual novel in English. That story is really about self-reliance, civilization and power dynamics. It’s a theme that preoccupies us to this day. The reality show Survivor, still going strong, is based on Robinson Crusoe crossed with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
In Yellowjackets, the subversive twist is having an all-female group at its centre. (Be aware, their interactions with the few males who survive the plane crash are more terrifying than the crash itself.) At first, the young women seem to be familiar figures. Teenage Jackie (Ella Purnell) is the popular, powerful one, a star on the team and at the centre of social life. But from the get-go we don’t see a grown-up Jackie, which hints at either her demise or her exclusion from the adult group. We watch in horrified fascination as Jackie tries to be, in the wilderness, what she was in high school while, around her, the other teens have become long-buried, new versions of themselves. Envies, resentments and furies are unleashed in the wilderness when there are no constraints. And you have to ask, when these primordial impulses are released, are they being their best and truest selves? Given what their adult lives look like, was the forbidding, brutal wilderness a paradise for these women?
In the wildly speculative coverage of the series there’s been a lot of mention of trauma. Much of this coverage starts from the rather lazy assumption that the young women were truly traumatized and bear the scars of that. Perhaps not. Perhaps these adult women know that they lived their best lives as part of a riotous but organically created matriarchy in the wilderness. And, by the way, it’s not worth bothering to dwell on the vague supernatural element in the story, since what’s going on there is really a matter of determining what is “real” when senses are heightened to an unforgiving degree.
See, the true greatness of Yellowjackets might be in its macabre scrutiny of long-standing themes through a different lens. The dwelling in literature on tensions between society and individuality – from Robinson Crusoe through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile to Lord of the Flies – has always been about a patriarchal society and male individuals. The central question has always been about innate human goodness, but the entire history of speculating on that topic is subverted when you meet Misty in Yellowjackets.
Best of all, Yellowjackets (created by the husband and wife team of Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson) is fun. It’s a mystery story and it rocks with bracingly sardonic humour and gloriously off-kilter set pieces. There’s even wit in the choice of soundtrack music. Yellowjackets is gruesome and can still make you grin with delight. A classic.
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