Note: I did not anticipate how swiftly the Yellowjackets pilot would take over my brain, so I had not originally planned on doing episodic recaps of the series. However, here we are! I’m playing a bit of catchup since the series premiered last week, so today’s recap covers episode one, and a recap of episode two will publish tomorrow. After that, recaps will resume weekly on Mondays. Buzz buzz!
I have this odd habit of crying during television shows and movies I love. I suppose it’s not all that odd, but I don’t even cry during emotional parts! It’s not me crying about the narrative or what’s happening on screen at all. It’s me crying, I suppose, because I’m just happy? Satisfied? It’s like something has clicked into place. It’s rare, and it’s mostly unnoticeable to people around me, because it’s more of a watery eyes situation versus outright sobbing. But it happens from time to time. I didn’t cry the first time I breezed through my screeners of the first six episodes of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, but when I went back to the beginning and watched the pilot again, it happened. Something clicked into place. To be fair, it’s one of the best pilots to air in my recent memory. So yeah! I teared up when the title card hit! I am who I am!
So. Yellowjackets. Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, it’s a survival-horror series centered on a teen girls soccer team, a premise that in and of itself prompted multiple people to text me and ask: “Hey, have you watched Yellowjackets yet?” Indeed, somehow blood + teen girls has become My Brand.
The Yellowjackets pilot opens on a girl running through snowy woods. We never see if someone — or something —is pursuing her. We never fully see her face. The bright white snow set against dark trees; the percussive sound of the running girl’s desperate breaths; the uncertainty of what she’s running from — it’s simple and effective horror. Suddenly, she crashes down through the snow, falling into a trap. Large wooden stakes impale her hand, her middle. Karyn Kusama’s (Jennifer’s Body and Girlfight) direction is impeccable.
We move into a Big Little Lies-style interview sequence of various unnamed characters telling a journalist played by Rekha Sharma (who I’ve loved since Battlestar Galactica) about a horrific event in the past. This is 2021. A New Jersey town has been indelibly shaped by tragedy. Yellowjackets then shifts again to 1996, where we meet the titular Yellowjackets, a very good varsity girls soccer team. We watch them win the game that’ll take them to nationals, and then we start to meet some of the individual players, like best friends Jackie (Ella Purnell) and Shauna (Sophie Nélisse). Jackie wears a heart-shaped gold necklace. It’s the same necklace from the opening sequence, worn then by the slain girl. This isn’t perfect confirmation that the girl from the opening is Jackie, but it’s definitely what we’re meant to believe. Their problems are of the usual teen drama sort. Prom drama, sports drama, mediocre sex, big emotions, bad choices.
From there, Yellowjackets weaves between three different points of telling. There’s 1. Fucked up stuff happening in the snowy woods 2. The days leading up to the Yellowjackets going down in a plane crash on their way to nationals and 3. The Yellowjackets (or, more accurately, some of them) as adults. As for #1, there are very few scenes, and they’re all dialogue-less. They’re also largely faceless. But they’re the guts of Yellowjackets. In each consecutive scene set in the woods, the horror grows. The staked girl is dragged bloody, naked, and lifeless through the snow. She’s strung up upside down, her neck sliced, the blood rushing out of her. The people participating in this ritual are covered in animal skins, masks, and antlers, obscuring their faces. Later, we watch as these masked people eat chunks of meat around a bonfire. It’s pretty clear what they’re eating. Yep, we’re going full cannibalism!!!!!!!
So, a planeful of soccer girls crashes in the woods, and they eventually turn on each other to the point of actual cannibalism. That’s Yellowjackets in a nutshell. But the pilot does so much, weaving between these timelines masterfully. We see just enough of those nightmarish scenes in the woods. You almost forget about them when we’re in the other timelines, watching these girls navigate normal teen shit and then watching them as adults, too. But just when you’ve settled into those scenes, the woods jump back like a monster under the bed, waiting, stalking.
There are bits of violence and horror that come through in these other timelines, too. You get a sense of how these girls might turn on each other under dire circumstances from the way some of the team members decide to freeze out freshman player Allie (Pearl Amanda Dickson) for choking at states. At the helm of this plan is Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) who, as Valerie wrote, is our resident queer girl. Teen Shauna and teen Jackie are also giving off — at the very least — romantic friendship vibes. Shauna’s Meaningful Glances at Jackie are, perhaps, a result of the guilt she feels for secretly hooking up with Jackie’s boyfriend Jeff. But that’s such a surface-level reading imo. Shauna is undeniably drawn to Jackie — does she want to be her? Kiss her? Consume her? (I mean that metaphorically, of course.) Yellowjackets leans into a lot of uncertainty, teasing out the turbulence of young girlhood in surprising and visceral ways.
We don’t see teen Taissa’s queerness surface in the pilot, but in the 2021 timeline, Adult Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is married to a woman and has a young son. She’s also running for state senator, which probably isn’t a great idea, because the survivors of the plane crash are very much hiding something. Like, you know, casual cannibalism. But back to those flashes of violence: Teen Taissa ends up putting the pressure on Allie to the point of slide-tackling her during a scrimmage, resulting in a bone just fully popping right out of Allie’s leg for all to see! (I suppose now is the time to mention that if you can’t do body horror, this might not be the show for you.) There’s also Something About Misty, who as a teen (Samantha Hanratty) is the team’s bespectacled manager and who as an adult (Christina Ricci) is a bespectacled nurse in a senior living facility. We see teen Misty staring in wonder as a rat drowns in a pool. We see adult Misty refuse an elderly woman her pain meds as revenge. Also, Misty’s the only face we see in those cannibalism scenes. The vibes are off with this girl.
The only adult Yellowjackets we meet so far are Taissa, Misty, Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), and Nat (Juliette Lewis). Adult Taissa presents as tough, very much a politician who wants to seem like she has a perfect family and life. But she crumbles easily when a photographer asks her about her past. Her preferred coping method seems to be denial. We meet Nat at the tail-end of a stint in rehab. As a teen, she has a reputation as a bit of a wild child, stomping around with some fellow emo weirdos. As an adult, she’s…scary. The only real relationship she seems to have is with her rifle.
All four of these survivors are varying versions of Not Okay. They’re stuck in the past even as they desperately claw themselves away from it. Early in the pilot, adult Shauna masturbates in her daughter’s bedroom while looking at a picture of her daughter’s BOYFRIEND. Weird and disturbing are absolutely the first adjectives that come to mind re:Yellowjackets. Also, surprise! She’s married to Jeff, Jackie’s ex-boyfriend who Shauna was secretly sleeping with when they were teens. Shauna’s got a violent streak, quick to anger in small moments and eventually killing a rabbit who has been nibbling on her garden by stabbing it with a shovel. Rekha Sharma’s character corners Shauna and tries to get her to spill more about what happened in the aftermath of the plane crash. Shauna reveals they were in the wilderness for a smooth 19 months. But she doesn’t want to say more. And she rendezvouses with Taissa to make sure she hasn’t been talking either. The trauma these women experienced and the secrets they continue to keep simmer just beneath the surface of every move they make.
Amid the violence, there’s tenderness, too. When a fight breaks out between the teen Yellowjackets at a bonfire — a quintessential teen movie/show setting — team captain Jackie forces all the girls to say one nice thing about each other. They resist at first but then soften. These girls do care deeply about each other. Their relationship dynamics feel lived-in and complex. That playful, drunken bonfire quickly cuts away to the cannibal bonfire, a juxtaposition that crackles with urgency. Again, the Yellowjackets pilot uses just the right amount of foreshadowing, moving between the different timelines seamlessly but also unsettlingly. We go from Nat meditating outside at rehab and walking calmly in the sun directly to bloody hair dragged across snow. The usual teen drama, the problems in their adult lives, the violent encounters in the woods — it’s all connected. The stakes are equally high for all of it.
“Everything works until it doesn’t,” teen Taissa says. She’s talking about soccer. But it could just as easily apply to these haunted women and their coping mechanisms, which might occasionally work but aren’t permanent fixes. Shit went down in those woods. They will never be who they were before.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be recapping this series and absolutely touching on all the queer stuff. But I’ll also use these episodic breakdowns to discuss some of the show’s central mysteries and all the elements that make it so damn compelling. As I say up top, I have indeed seen the first six episodes, but I will not discuss anything other than the episode that aired that week — I promise! No spoilers! I encourage theories and analysis in the comments — I’m desperate to talk to more people about this show! So hit me with all your Yellowjackets pilot thoughts!