“So what do you think really happened out there?”
This burning inquiry — posed by a journalist (Rekha Sharma) in the opening lines of the pilot — reveals the crux of Showtime’s standout show “Yellowjackets,” an eclectic mix of survivalist story, family drama and horror — all dashed with a hint of the supernatural. Released in Nov. 2021, the pilot begins with an exhilarating sequence of visceral horror and desperation.
The opening scenes of the first episode show a girl running through snowy wilderness barefoot. Something pursues her from behind as wild, almost primitive cries reverberate across the barren twilight. The girl stumbles to a stop and screams in sheer terror of what will inevitably come. She soon tumbles into a trap with a sickening thud, impaled in a pit of stakes. After close-ups of her necklace and twitching fingers, we are finally shown her pursuer. A masked figure clad in muddied pink Converse steps to the edge of the trap, seeming to gloat over the gory capture.
Beginning “in medias res,” the show captivates from the get-go with its harrowing premise. The eponymous Yellowjackets — an elite high school girls soccer team — boarded a private plane bound for a national tournament in 1996. They never made it. The plane crashed, marooning them in the Canadian wilderness for over a year. The few who survived claimed they “starved, scavenged and prayed” until rescue finally came. The opening flashback proves there’s more to the story.
The audience is tantalizingly baited as the show slowly reveals exactly what happened during the team’s 19 months of isolation. What did the girls resort to in the freezing winter? How did a close-knit team of soccer champions become mask-donning cannibals? And, fast forward two decades, who is this journalist demanding answers from the traumatized survivors?
Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson — the husband-and-wife team behind “Narcos” and “The Originals” — establish a dualistic timeline, weaving back and forth between the survivalist tale in ’96 and the lives of the traumatized survivors 25 years later. Director Karyn Kusama — who spearheaded “Jennifer’s Body” and “The Invitation” — remains in familiar territory as she showcases a suspense-filled storyline, cutting back and forth in time and pulling audiences to the edge of their seats.
The cast, comprising both teenage and grown-up versions of the surviving Yellowjackets, shines in their portrayals of characters haunted by suppressed memories, ones that seem more nightmarish than real. Christina Ricci transforms into the sociopathic Misty Quigley, a mousy-haired oddball on the surviving soccer team whose overbearing presence becomes truly disturbing.
Melanie Lynskey, who plays the grown-up version of survivor Shauna Sheridan — a prospective Brown student accepted through Early Admissions — masterfully depicts the trope of the meek suburban housewife. At 40, Shauna is stuck in domestic malaise, yearning for the chance to partake in the high school shenanigans she missed out on due to the fateful plane crash. Lynskey deftly belies Shauna’s inner turmoil. Simmering beneath the character’s careful facade, an innate ruthlessness jilted by her traumatizing past threatens to resurface.
Tawny Cypress’s role as present-day Taissa Turner is another chillingly compelling performance. Headstrong and driven, the Yellowjackets survivor manages to accomplish her life goals despite the plane crash, running for state senate with a picture-perfect family. Nonetheless, when a wave of publicity bombards her campaign, she is confronted with a barrage of questions about her past. Like Shauna, she has secrets she would rather keep buried.
Still, in spite of the stellar ensemble, one critical flaw remains: The question asked within the first few minutes of the pilot — what actually happened in the woods all those years ago — is not substantially answered at all. Too many mysteries remain unsolved. In fact, the latter half of the season stalls as much as it can, meandering its way through prosaic teenage drama. Juliette Davis’s adult version of Natalie Scatorccio, another of the few Yellowjackets survivors, bears the brunt of this issue. Davis’s excellent portrayal of a woman broken down by trauma and heartache becomes restrained by an unwieldy script. Along with the audience and the main cast, her fractured character makes no progress in her quest for vengeance.
The show slows down significantly by the end of the season, reluctant to actually bring about the long-anticipated descent from civility to cannibalistic savagery. Perhaps the answer to what actually happened can only be found in the season to come. The audience can only hope that this second season won’t stall until the third to deliver on the show’s promise of wicked fun.