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En route to a soccer tournament in 1996, a plane carrying a team of girls and their coaches crashes in a remote region of the Rocky Mountains, leaving them stranded. The unthinkable lengths they had to go to in order to survive in the wilderness for 19 months becomes the big mystery of Yellowjackets, which also follows the troubled present-day lives of those who made it home.
The cast includes Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress as the present-day versions of the survivors. It was created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (Dispatches from Elsewhere, Narcos).
For anyone into dark and wild stories that meander the path between psychological thriller, mystery, and horror, sprinkled with supernatural and survivalist elements along the way and even a bit of wry humor, Yellowjackets will surely hit the spot. If that sounds like a tall and complicated order, it is, and it speaks to the ambition of what this gripping series attempts to accomplish. It does all that and more.
From the first episode’s opening images of what looks like a ritualistic cult ceremony involving human sacrifice in the woods, Yellowjackets grabs you and never lets go. Who are these strange hooded figures and what (or who?) exactly are they eating? Who is the white-clad leader fans have dubbed the “antler queen?” These questions loom large over the entire season. And it makes for a stark contrast when we rewind to the days before the crash and see the girls as ordinary teens going about their high-school lives (the title refers to their school mascot and team name) before embarking on that fateful flight. This isn’t a show that ever lets you get too comfortable, though. Because we’re soon catapulted 25 years forward to the present day. Catching up with them now, it’s painfully clear that the handful of grown survivors we meet are still haunted by whatever happened in those woods.
The main grown-ups in the series are Shauna (Lynskey) now married and feeling stifled in her life as suburban housewife and mother; Natalie (Lewis), a tough-as-nails drug addict who’s been in and out of rehab; Taissa (Cypress), the most ambitious of the group, whose campaign for state senate brings renewed attention to the remaining Yellowjackets; and Misty (Ricci), a lonely and manipulative elder-care nurse with questionable morals. Each one is a deep, dark well of collective and individual secrets, and they all seem to be unraveling in their own unique ways as the questions about their past mount up.
Meanwhile, we continuously flash back to the girls in the aftermath of the crash. As their situation gets progressively more desperate, personalities clash and relationships fracture. Shots of the group framed from the woods or the dusty rafters of an abandoned cabin evoke a feeling of voyeurism, as if they’re being watched by a malevolent presence. An enigmatic symbol, carved into nearby trees and on the floor of the creepy cabin’s attic, further adds to the implication that something occult is at work here (but you’re also constantly aware of being manipulated, so nothing is certain). If that wasn’t already enough reason to watch, the black cherry on top is the ’90s soundtrack, full of nostalgic grunge and riot grrrl anthems that enhance the fatalistic tone.
Along with Shauna (played as a teen by Sophie Nélisse), Natalie (Sophie Tatcher), Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown), and Misty (Samantha Hanratty), there are a handful of other crash survivors we don’t see in the present, leaving us to wonder about their fates. Trying to piece together the gaps between the past and present, and guessing what’s going to happen to who and how is one of the most intriguing aspects of the series. Like all good mysteries, Yellowjackets keeps up the suspense and never tips its hand. Whether your personal theories turn out to be right or wrong in the end doesn’t matter because it’s a thrilling ride either way.
Yellowjackets is a dark and potent cocktail, mixing genres in a way that makes it fresh and different from anything you’ve seen before. It digs deep into the human psyche, testing the boundaries of what its characters (and audience) can endure, but also keeps you wanting more.
This would make a great girls’ night watch for a group of girlfriends with taste for more edgy fare.
Yellowjackets is definitely not for the faint of heart. Be prepared for lots of blood and gore. It’s also a mine field of triggers, so keep that in mind and find someone you trust to watch it with you if you’re sensitive to material involving self harm, substance abuse, suicide, or other mental-health issues.