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SYFY WIRE Yellowjackets

How 'Yellowjackets' became the best new horror show you might not be watching

Showtime's popular new show may start off as a survival thriller, but its heart is pure horror.

By Matthew Jackson
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It's easy to see why Yellowjackets, the Showtime original series from showrunners and creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, is garnering plenty of attention since its under-the-radar premiere in November 2021, as well as comparisons to another mystery-filled TV phenomenon, Lost. Both shows deal with the survivors of a plane crash, both make extensive use of flashbacks (and flash forwards) to fill us in on the lives of various characters, and both seem to inhabit the same suspense-filled territory of unanswered questions and fan theories.

But while there's certainly some shared DNA there, as well as threads of William Golding's classic novel Lord of the FliesYellowjackets is not content to coast as a familiar survival drama, nor is it especially eager to delve headlong into structural societal breakdowns as Golding's novel did. While its trailers certainly played up the time-jumping survival thriller aspects of its plot, along with the all-star cast central to both the past and the present of its narrative, one of the most talked-about shows in recent memory is taking up considerable care space for audiences in large part because of its full-throated embrace of its horror elements. Not just in the context of wilderness desperation, but in the sense of dread that haunts nearly every scene of the series.

You might not know it if you've never watched the show, but Yellowjackets has spent the last two months establishing itself as one of the best live-action horror stories out there right now. It is an intoxicating blend of various subgenres, all merged into one suspenseful, terrifying package that feels equal parts Stephen King and JJ Abrams. A series fueled by a story engine that seems prime to sustain it for several seasons, especially as we approach the Season 1 finale.  

For those still uninitiated, here's the setup: Yellowjackets follows the members of the titular soccer team comprised of talented high school girls struggling to survive in a supernatural-tainted wilderness after their plane crashes on its way to the national championship. Some of the team members are friends, others are rivals posing as friends (but don't really know it yet). The show splits its run time across two separate storylines, just like Lost: One is set in 2021 modern day, following the complicated (and tragic) lives of four key members of the Yellowjackets, now adults, some time after they have been rescued. The other centers on the early days of the teenagers' lives struggling to survive in a wilderness that is either haunted, possessed by some...things, or both. The present day storyline is plagued with complications and horrifying revelations, as our four major players   discover that someone (or several people) know all their secrets from their time out in the woods — secrets that include the ritualistic eating of their teammates. If our survivors don't fork over some serious cash, those secrets will be revealed and upend their attempts at "normal" lives.

Though the cannibalism aspect veers into Thomas Harris-y horror territory, this show's inventive and clever setup also has all the trappings of a psychological thriller. A horror mystery that doesn't necessarily veer into terror, minus a few moments of pure survivalist gore in the wake of the plane crash. It's easy, even this far into the show, to see how Yellowjackets might have been successful had it simply stuck to a straightforward past/present wilderness and blackmail suspense story, particularly when you factor in the considerable talent of its fearless cast: Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, Sophie Thatcher, Sophie NélisseJasmin Savoy Brown, Ella Purnell and others.

What allows Yellowjackets to veer swiftly and effectively from that more predictable path are two key factors. The first is the show's undeniable commitment to let its characters be not just messy, and vulnerable and, at times, hard to root for, but often downright mean before, during, and after the plane crash that sends their lives ravaging toward cult-like ceremonies where their former pals find themselves on the dinner menu. From the jump, the show paints portraits of team captain/popular girl Jackie (Purnell), aspiring leader Taissa (Brown as a teen, Cypress as an adult), deceptively-quiet Shauna (Nélisse as a teen, Lynskey as an adult), rebel Nat (Thatcher as a teen, Lewis as adult), and ruthless Misty (Sammi Hanratty as a teen, Ricci as an adult) as both young girls and (for some of them) women who are capable of destruction, self-destruction, and violent salvation — whether in the wilderness or in the seemingly predictable confines of their adult lives. "Allow your characters to be flawed" seems like very straightforward, easy writing advice, but walking the line between realistically flawed and continually compelling is tough, and Yellowjackets makes it look effortless. 

The second key factor is how the show threads its horror elements into the teenage drama. If you've seen the show's trailers, then you've seen sinister figures cloaked in furs, adorned with horns in an almost ceremonial way. Obviously, surviving a plane crash and then living with your battered frenemies in the wilderness is a scary thought, one just as scary as the urge to do anything to survive. Even if it means eating your classmate. But the scary doesn't come from that horrific aspect alone; it comes from the constant tension at play as we experience this devolution into Alive meets Lord of the Flies at ground level with our characters. We are never ahead of them, which makes each panicked breath they take or gruesome ordeal they endure feel like one of our own. 

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Yellowjackets wisely, almost defiantly, steps around and over the cliched or predictable, in both storylines. The beating heart of this show is made out of all the broken ones the main characters possess, and the mystery and guilt that seemingly possess them. (In addition to, well, actual spiritual possessions possibly). While we're told these cannibalistic deaths have taken place at some point in our survivors' desperate future, we don't know why, who, or exactly when this dark turn happens. The slow-burn laying of breadcrumbs to this point of no return — from mysterious symbols carved into trees to one girl's seemingly prophetic visions — along with Tai's almost out-of-body sleepwalking spells, almost makes the plane crash seem like a golden age. It also makes watching episodes highly addictive as audiences love this kind of puzzle-plotting. 

Even in the present, as we delve into the lives of Misty, Nat, Taissa and Shauna and the various challenges they face, and problematic situations they put themselves into, Yellowjackets retains an eerie mix of survival horror, folk horror, possible ghost story elements and even a possession narrative. But the real key to its success is its willingness to never quite explain any of it. To give us just enough to keep us coming back for more. Is Taissa possessed or just having very volatile sleepwalking episodes? Is Misty crazy or just really, almost dementedly, practical? Did Jackie die in the woods or did she just vanish sometime later? Is Shauna involved with someone who could expose her fellow survivors? Are they all haunted by what they had to do, or are they haunted by something significantly more tangible? Something that came back to the mainland with them? 

On Yellowjackets, all of these could be true, and none of them would not feel earned if they came to pass. Few horror entries can pull that off, and this series does it every. Week. If you haven't made time for this series yet, best fix that before the freshman season wraps up. If there's any show worth your time, it's this one. 

Yellowjackets airs Sundays on Showtime.