In the Yellowjackets pilot, Shauna Sadecki – played by the singular Melanie Lynskey – masturbates to a picture of her teenage daughter’s boyfriend, in her daughter’s bed. Shauna, now in her 40s, yearns for a part of her youth that was taken away from her, that she can never get back. Then she’s approached by Jessica Roberts, a private investigator disguising herself as a reporter who pushes Shauna to tell her real side of the story. That is, the story of how she survived in the Canadian wilderness for nineteen months, stranded with her high school soccer team after a plane crash in 1996. “I moved on,” Shauna tells Jessica. But it’s so clear that she hasn’t, and never will.
There is an overwhelming amount of television right now. In the peak TV era, if you are behind on something (especially if it is on Netflix), it’s often pointless to catch up because a few days late is already too late to have the communal, modern equivalent of a water cooler chat. With more options than ever, it has somehow become even more difficult to find something as powerful, original, and as sure of itself as Yellowjackets. And even when you do find something that is great, it can quickly become a fleeting memory. I, for example, enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit, but do not remember most of what happened in it. My eyes have simply seen too much since fall 2020 to remember anything except Thomas Brodie-Sangster in a cowboy hat. But like the best television shows and movies, Yellowjackets, the best new show in years, is seared onto my brain forever.
From the very first scene of the pilot to the devastating but inevitable events of its season finale, Yellowjackets is a confident first-season show that knows its themes, its characters, and exactly what it’s about; there is no learning curve. The haunting first scene of the series shows a teenage girl being hunted in the snowy woods with no shoes or winter clothes. She falls into a pit of spikes and is subsequently bled out and, apparently, eaten in a cannibalistic ritual conducted by masked figures we can’t quite make out yet. From there, it jumps to Shauna’s introductory masturbating scene, which quickly establishes what this show is and always will be: bold, mysterious, violent, and irreverent. Shauna’s introduction establishes that Yellowjackets is, above all else, a show about trauma that explores how it manifests over decades with a varying set of personalities and backgrounds. Yellowjackets satisfies a need for discussion and theorizing, puts a necessary spotlight on the women of Gen X, and the complicated bonds between women. Whether you’ve been stranded in the wilderness with your soccer team or not, anyone can pinpoint a character, moment, or dynamic they can relate to on a deeply personal level.
Yellowjackets is a show about survival. Survival after the plane crash, survival in the woods, survival after the woods. Each character who made it out of the woods is still surviving. In addition to being haunted by the lost years of her youth, Shauna is haunted by visions of Jackie, her best friend from childhood, and in the 1996 timeline, we see their friendship deteriorate. Natalie (Juliette Lewis), an addict who makes regular rehab visits, is bound forever to Travis, another survivor who, for better or worse, helped her get through it. In the 1996 timeline, Natalie is one of the few rational thinkers essential to the group’s survival. Taissa Turner (Tawny Cypress) did everything she set out to do before the crash: she went to the right schools and followed the right career path. Her run for state senate triggers stress she has not experienced since being lost in the woods. She spent decades ignoring it, but it never really went away.
The ever-so-charming but very terrifying Misty (Christina Ricci), in contrast, appears to have enjoyed the experience in the woods because it was the first time she felt wanted, needed, and included. If Yellowjackets ever has a “we have to go back” moment, Misty would be delighted. As much as the survivors want to disconnect, they’re drawn to each other because no one else could or will understand what they experienced and how they feel about it. Through these separate and incredibly different depictions of trauma coming from the same experience, Yellowjackets separates itself from other shows by presenting multiple complex emotional arcs for women – and at that, women in their 40s. The show’s structure which follows the 1996 timeline and the 2021/present timeline shows how much people can change and evolve but still stay the same.
Although we as a society have long moved on from it (or have we?), Game of Thrones made us, for lack of a better word, thirsty for theories. The shocking twists and sudden, brutal deaths of unexpected characters created a new dynamic between show and audience only comparable, but on a smaller scale, to shows like Lost and The X-Files. The compelling mysteries and what-ifs of Yellowjackets are the most talked about elements of the show. The internet is flooded with questions including: who is the man with no eyes? Who is the man in the cabin? Why does Taissa eat dirt in trees? And who do they eat?
Even after amping up the supernatural elements toward the end of season one, Yellowjackets exists on a fine line between the real and the supernatural. Anything at this point could be explained from a realistic perspective, such as psychosis. But it could also be explained from a supernatural standpoint, like that the woods have a mind of their own and a purpose. While the major mysteries are kept from the audience to keep us on our toes, the mystifying nature of the show exists for more than just that. They’re kept from the audience because as a trauma response, the main characters Shauna, Natalie, Taisssa, and Misty, are keeping it from themselves. Okay, well, maybe not Misty.
Television quickly jumped from centering around sad, broken, difficult white men in the 2000s like Tony Soprano and Don Draper to self-deprecating millennials like Hannah Horvath in the 2010s. In the process, Generation X, particularly its women, were largely ignored throughout entertainment, perpetual middle children that they are. Even in the television shows and films portraying Gen Xers from the 1990s, the experience was conceived and written by adults trying to understand the MTV generation. A shorter way of saying this is that Gen X had My So-Called Life and Party of Five, but they didn’t get a Girls or a Euphoria. Yellowjackets is one of the first – if not the first and only – shows to center Gen X from an authentic lens because it’s written and played by them. Actors who were icons in the 90s including Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Melanie Lynskey were intentionally cast to give the actors a new life on-screen and to exaggerate and acknowledge the show’s intentions. While Juliette Lewis’ Natalie is exactly the type of character you’d expect Lewis to play, Christina Ricci’s Misty is quite unexpected, and Melanie Lynskey, who often plays secondary characters, is given a starring role. The characters do the stereotypical teens in the 90s things like listen to moody female rock and wear flannel but their depiction goes beyond pop culture consumption and aesthetics and digs deeper into the disaffected, independent generation.
Yellowjackets is the best new television show in a decade, with one of the strongest pilots ever made (it is Cheers and Friday Night Lights pilot level good), and one of the tightest, most cohesive first seasons in modern television. Other prestige shows such as Succession, Better Call Saul, or The Americans that have premiered in the past ten years have proven to be some of the best ever made, but it took them a while to get there. In an era of television with endless options – we have gone from a new show every week to a new show every day – Yellowjackets stands out as one of the most audacious, original shows in recent memory due to its strong premise, characters, and careful storytelling with its finger on the pulse of culture.