Yellowjackets is not the show I thought it was

You’ve seen Lost. You may have seen The Wilds on Amazon Prime Video. And, like the whole of Twitter, you might have seen Showtime’s latest addition to the plane crash TV genre, Yellowjackets. The premise is seemingly simple: in 1996, a high school girls’ soccer team is on their way from New Jersey to the national competition in Seattle when their flight crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Meanwhile, in 2021, the survivors are in their 40s and trying to live normal lives, to varying degrees of success, while the terrible events of 25 years ago continue to haunt them.

Tuning into Yellowjackets, I was not expecting a show about a bunch of teenage girls to involve cannibalism right off the bat. So quickly off the bat, in fact, that mentioning it doesn’t even count as a spoiler. It’s right in the opening scene (or very heavily implied, at least) when a girl, dressed in white runs through the snow, leaving a trail of blood in her wake. Who or what she is running from is unclear, but she’s soon stopped in her tracks. A trap lies ahead, a pit covered with foliage, and she falls inside, landing face down on top of a cluster of sharp spikes. What looks like a ritual follows, with the girls’ peers draped in animal furs – and then they eat.

Now, perhaps these assumptions just speak to my own prejudices; I saw a show with a predominantly young and female cast and made my own assumptions. But, really, should it have come as a shock? Teenagers, and particularly teenage girls, are capable of terrible cruelty – it’s a tale as old as time, told over and over again in movies, shows, and books. 

Melanie Lynskey in Yellowjackets

(Image credit: Showtime)

Except what is the extent of this particular case of cruelty? What did the girls actually do in the wilderness? One thing we soon discover is that the survivors never told the full story about what happened during their time in the wilderness, neither to the press nor to their families, and their secrets become a way for them to be blackmailed for those with ulterior motives. Although we see the ritual in the opening scene, it’s not clear who’s involved – the victim or the perpetrators – as we don’t see anyone’s faces. It’s anyone’s guess.

Another thing that makes Yellowjackets different from other shows of its ilk is that, from episode one, the audience knows that the girls get rescued from the wilderness. Instead of making us ask if a rescue mission is ever going to arrive, Yellowjackets makes us ask: why did it take so long to get there, and what happened in the meantime?

Although some survival shows like Lost show the “after” in their later seasons, with the survivors returning to their old lives, Yellowjackets’ simultaneous timelines mean we get to see the psychological repercussions of the crash in real-time. Whether they’re fresh out of another stint in rehab, grappling with a rebellious teen daughter, or running for state senator, the women of Yellowjackets can’t ignore the events of 25 years previously. The present-day storyline also only includes a select few of the plane crash survivors, which begs the question of what happened to those we don’t see in 2021. 

Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci in Yellowjackets

(Image credit: Showtime)

With twists and turns abound, nothing in Yellowjackets is exactly as it seems, with the season 1 finale leaving us with more questions than answers. The incidents that are hinted at in the first episode are not so much addressed but blown wide open by the finale – knowing what’s happening to the survivors in the present day doesn’t mean we know what’s actually going on.

The majority of the girls seemingly do not want to be rescued. They don’t appear keen to go off in search of help, preferring to wait it out at their makeshift camp even when rescue looks less and less likely. With unhappy home lives or responsibilities they don’t want to take on back in the real world, it seems like they’re content to live off the grid forever. Through flashbacks, we see that their trauma does not originate with the plane crash; these girls have had demons laying dormant for some time, which are simply activated by their time in the woods.

The show has been officially renewed for season 2, so answers to at least some of these questions are on their way. Whether it keeps up the momentum established in the first season is another question, but what’s for sure is that this dual-timeline tale has the potential to turn the plane crash survival genre on its head.

Yellowjackets is currently available to watch on Showtime in the US and NOW TV in the UK. For more viewing inspiration, fill out your watch list with our picks of the best TV shows of 2021.

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