'Yellowjackets' TV Review: The Exciting Mystery Thriller Series Survives In Spite Of Its Unwieldy Ensemble

A teenage girl dressed in all white runs through a bleak, snow-filled forest. A cacophony of sounds follows her as she haphazardly flees an unknown terror. Suddenly she falls through the earth having reached a hidden trap hole. The camera holds its unflinching gaze on her broken body, crimson blood oozing from the holes pierced through her by wooden stakes, when a group of fur-clad people stares down at her lifeless body. Directed by Karyn Kusama, the pilot for Showtime’s new drama ‘Yellowjackets’ wants you to know this is a harsh world, and when pushed, humans are capable of unspeakably horrible acts of violence. 

Mostly oscillating between 1996 and 2021, ‘Yellowjackets’ follows the aftermath of a plane crash that stranded the New Jersey girls state champion soccer team—the eponymous Yellowjackets—in a remote mountain wilderness. The official story as told by the survivors—played as adults by Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis—is simply that some of their friends died, while the rest starved, scavenged, and prayed for 19 months. What the world wants to know, and what the show slowly reveals to the audience via flashbacks, is exactly what happened during that long wait for rescuers. 

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After the bloody opening sequence, a woman claiming to be an investigative journalist asks a series of people who knew the team before the crash questions about them. In a particularly bleak moment, underplayed to perfection, the principal tells her that when some kids die it’s not a big loss, but these girls were special: they were champions. This piece of dialogue underscores much of the angst these characters have in the past and the present. How do you live up to such expectations when you’re riddled with self-doubt? What happens if you settle for a life that is less than you think you deserve?

The ’90s-set flashbacks—rife with callbacks to the era like Kurt Corbain posters, Sassy magazine, needle drops featuring Smashing Pumpkins and Salt N’ Pepa—are split into before the crash and after, allowing us to see what the girls were like before this trauma, and the trauma they endured that made them the women they are in 2021. What they actually reveal is that these girls were already filled with secrets ready to shape them, the crash just pushed them further towards their more extreme traits. 

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The pilot episode, unfortunately, tries to cram way too much into its hour run time. Not only does it set up the central mystery, but it also introduces us to a dozen characters—both as teenagers in 1996 and adults in 2021. Trying to keep up with this many characters only works when they are all incredibly distinct a la “Twin Peaks.” Thankfully, as the show progresses, it slows down and focuses more on its five main characters: Yellowjacket teammate turned stay-at-home mom Shauna (Sophie Nélisse and Lynskey), her best friend and team captain Jackie (Ella Purnell), wild girl Natalie (Sophie Thatcher and Lewis), type-A forward turned state senate candidate Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown and Cypress), and the hanger-on Misty (Sammi Hanratty and Ricci).

The show particularly shines when it focuses on Lynskey’s Shauna, whose rage at what life has dealt her over the last twenty-five years is always bubbling just below the surface. Lynskey is a master at presenting herself as sweet and composed on the outside, while completely seething on the inside. It’s also just frankly refreshing to see her get to play up her sexuality. Appearing to be a hapless stay-at-home mom, she’s really a sultry femme fatale in mom jeans. Lynskey deftly balances her character’s sultry affair with a younger man and the terrifying way she cares for her family, like feeding them a dead rabbit she killed and skinned herself. In the flashbacks it’s revealed that teenage Shauna was also a master of deception, convincing her best friend Jackie she’s a virgin when really she’s pregnant with Jackie’s boyfriend’s baby. Never trust the quiet ones.     

Ricci is also a deranged delight in her scenes as grown-up Misty who is now a nurse who gets off on fucking with her elderly patients. She’s a “citizen detective” who likes to help solve cold cases on the internet, so when Lewis’s Natalie shows up at her apartment with a shotgun, she’s game for whatever thrills come with. The two appear to be good cop, bad cop as they try to figure out who sent them a blackmail postcard featuring the mountain wilderness and a mysterious symbol. But as the episodes progress, we discover that Misty’s true nature is far more fucked up than any of the girls expect – and always has been. 

The show dabbles in the supernatural, first with Taissa’s storyline as she runs for state senate while dealing with marital problems with her wife after their son begins showing disturbing signs of violence. He tells her it’s the woman in the tree, blaming his actions on the “bad one”. Similar supernatural elements fill the flashbacks. In an early episode, we learn Lottie (Courtney Eaton)—whose dad chartered the ill-fated private plane—takes medicine for schizophrenia. However, later we discover she may actually just have the gift of second sight. It feels a bit messy and weirdly exciting to have these metaphysical plot points assigned to only the biracial characters.

We’re left with several questions after the six episodes sent to critics. Who was the girl in the opening sequence? Did they actually eat her and if so why? Who sent the blackmail postcard? Why are we mostly focused on these characters in 2021 when the flashbacks feature many other girls? What happened to the rest of the team? 

While ‘Yellowjackets’ features strong performances from its leads and poses intriguing questions about human nature pushed to extremes, ultimately it feels crowded with too many plot points and characters. I’m hooked enough to want to find out what happens to them all in the latter half of the season, but I can’t help but think it would be stronger if the cast were pruned by half.  [B-]

“Yellowjackets” airs new episodes weekly on Showtime.