Yellowjackets Understands the Horror of Toxic Best Friends
In the show’s second season, bonds formed in adolescence continue to bless and poison the present.
This article contains spoilers for the entire first season as well as the second-season premiere of Yellowjackets.
Leave it to Yellowjackets to make a game of MASH creepy. In the second-season premiere of the breakout Showtime thriller, best friends Shauna (played by Sophie Nélisse) and Jackie (Ella Purnell) are joking over Shauna’s results. (She’s going to live in an apartment in New Jersey with a million dollars to her name! Neat!) The whole scene could have been plucked from a charming teenage comedy if not for the fact that, well, Jackie’s dead, and Shauna’s imagining all of this. In reality, she’s speaking to Jackie’s frozen corpse, which she’s disturbingly propped up against a wall. And Corpse Jackie isn’t a fan of the hangout—it’s far too cliché. As she observes to Alive Shauna, “It’s, like, Haunting 101.”
Yellowjackets enjoys combining horror and cheek to unsettle the viewer. The show operates as a tonal and narrative juggling act unfolding via two timelines: The first, set in the late 1990s, follows the titular American high-school girls’ soccer team, whose tournament-bound plane crashes in the Canadian hinterlands. The second, set in the present, tracks the adult survivors as they cope with their trauma and lingering paranoia. Both arcs are alternately delightful and brutal, deftly mixing coming-of-age milestones with violent endurance. Season 1 included an affair that ended in a murder, a beheaded puppy, and a hallucinogen-assisted homecoming party—not to mention an infamous cannibal feast that occurs in the pilot episode’s first scene.
Pardon the pun, but Season 2 is even meatier—as in, yes, more cannibalism, but also much more plot. In the ’90s, it’s winter, and the girls are starving and irritable, splitting into factions that threaten to devolve into bloodshed. In the present, the reunited Yellowjackets disband after helping Shauna (played as an adult by Melanie Lynskey) cover up a crime, and each character goes on a quest to piece together the past. This yields about a dozen story arcs that the show valiantly attempts to push forward in each episode, while simultaneously introducing new characters, locations, and mysteries. And yet, the series keeps a keen focus on how friendships formed in adolescence can be more menacing than anything the girls faced in the wilderness. Yellowjackets understands the potential toxicity of teenage intimacy, and how best-friendship can sometimes activate awful impulses.
Consider Shauna’s imagined conversation with Jackie. A different show might have conveyed Shauna’s grief in a more conventional way: showing her sitting silently by Jackie’s grave, perhaps, or rummaging sadly through her dead friend’s possessions. But Yellowjackets toys with the viewer instead. The audience hears Jackie’s voice as the Smashing Pumpkins plays softly in the background before they see her in the flesh, scribbling Shauna’s MASH-decreed future. The moment is bewildering in its mundanity; I started questioning my own memory, wondering if this was a flashback or if the events of the Season 1 finale had somehow been dreamt up by the girls. The trick is quickly revealed, but the disorientation lingers.
That feeling reflects the thrilling confusion of teenage relationships, with their terrible mix of hormones and anxiety. One second, your bestie is warm and communicative; the next, she’s giving you the cold shoulder. Shauna and Jackie’s relationship was defined by such extremes, and by constant doubt: Is Shauna loyal to Jackie, or is she resentful of her influence? Does Jackie even like Shauna, or is she merely tolerating her? That Shauna can still imagine Jackie alive is a testament to their bond; that she imagines Jackie taunting her speaks to its tenuousness. Shauna’s choice to spend her days—while pregnant, by the way—talking to Jackie’s corpse is at once tragic and tender.
Not every friendship on the show runs so hot and cold, but the new season of Yellowjackets consistently explores the dangers of youthful closeness. The clique forming around Lottie (Courtney Eaton) and her possible supernatural powers may help some of the girls have faith that they’ll survive, but it damages the trust among the team. The closer Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) grows to Travis (Kevin Alves), the more worried she becomes about losing him. An unexpected rapport between the ostracized pair Misty (Samantha Hanratty) and Crystal (Nuha Jes Izman) is both adorable and alarming—the two have barely anything in common beyond their lowly place in the social hierarchy and a mutual desperation.
The waxing and waning of these teenage relationships gives the half of Yellowjackets set in the wilderness more cohesion than the half that takes place in the present. The adult Yellowjackets are involved in disparate story lines: Misty (Christina Ricci) goes on a near-farcical road trip in search of Natalie (Juliette Lewis); Tai (Tawny Cypress) is caught in a horror show of possible hallucinations; Shauna’s domestic troubles gets soapier and more intense. Still, the show roots each of the grown-up characters’ choices in the decisions they made as teens. Alliances and divisions established long ago continue to bless and poison their present.
In fact, this is where Yellowjackets works best. I, too, want to know the answers to the show’s biggest theory-driving questions—who the Man With No Eyes is, what happens to Shauna’s baby, how the team returned to civilization. But the Yellowjackets’ response to these potentially supernatural mysteries can be more disturbing than the mysteries themselves. The characters are perfectly capable of endangering one another without the help of an otherworldly force. Toward the end of the Season 2 premiere, Shauna bites into Jackie’s ear. That’s not the wilderness casting some spell. That’s just a teenager succumbing to a gut feeling—of grief, of derision, of hunger—that she can no longer ignore.