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New York Times
1 Apr 2023

NextImg:‘Yellowjackets’ Shows Us the Teenage Girlhood We Were Hungry For

In a cabin in the wilderness, a group of starving teenage girls, a teenage boy and one adult man wake to an unfamiliar smell. Their noses twitching in the air, they leave their thin blankets and head out into the snowy wild in socks and insufficient clothes. Outside, their friend, whose body they tried to cremate last night, has turned into smoked meat. They surround her corpse, girl-shaped but foodlike, like a pig from the barbecue pit. One of the girls stands near the charred flesh, knife in hand. “She wants us to,” she says. A few moments later, the feast begins.

Thus “Yellowjackets,” Showtime’s hit drama, answered, in the second episode of its second season, the question teased throughout its first: What and whom are these girls going to eat? Named for a New Jersey high school girls’ soccer team whose plane crashes in the Canadian Rockies en route to the 1996 national championships, “Yellowjackets” toggles between the team’s 19-month sojourn in the wilderness and the present day, when the surviving members struggle with the aftereffects of what happened to them. The show has become a sensation, garnering five million viewers per week, making it Showtime’s second-most-streamed show ever. In addition to the standard BuzzFeed meme roundups, the show has spawned exuberant fan fiction and forums that include suggested paper topics (“ ‘Yellowjackets’: Yellow Wallpaper for the 21st Century”) and frenzied theories about what, exactly, the Yellowjackets did in the woods.

Plot mysteries abound: What happened to the hunter who died in the cabin where they shelter? Is there a malevolent spirit in the woods, and will it follow the girls to safety? But the show also grapples with questions of a more existential tenor, making it catnip for a demographic aging out of youth and into middle age, performing the excavations and re-evaluations that accompany midlife. Do people ever really change? Does trauma echo forever?

As Showtime teased the second season (which began streaming in late March) and the internet forums buzzed with anticipation for the revelations promised therein, I headed to the frigid north to see for myself. The sky over British Columbia was ashen and spitting indifferent snow as I navigated the slush to the Vancouver soundstage where much of the show was filmed. On the way to the set, I listened to the official “Yellowjackets” playlist, groaning with pleasure as one after another 1990s jam issued forth. I was vibrating with excitement.

I first came to the show as an exhausted mother with a free Showtime trial, repulsed and compelled by the unforgettable first scene of the pilot, written by the creators (and spouses) Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson and directed by Karyn Kusama. In it, a girl runs barefoot through the snow in a filmy nightie, blood in her tracks, until she falls into a pit and is impaled by sharpened sticks. Later, figures shrouded in animal pelts string her up naked and bleed her dry. It’s one of the most gruesome opening sequences I’ve ever seen on television, but “Yellowjackets” doesn’t sustain the wild pitch. One of the show’s winning qualities is the way it juxtaposes brutal violence with familiar scenes of soccer practice, futile groping in frilly bedrooms and the malaise of middle age, all against the soundtrack of the ’90s.

Two hours and a rapid PCR test later, I sat in the dark of a tent, watching as two young women formed a kind of Pietà in a pool of warm yellow lamplight. One, Courtney Eaton, playing the character Lottie with eerie poise, lay on her side in a nest of blankets. The other, Sammi Hanratty, portraying the marvelously weird Misty, knelt behind, her frizzy blond hair aglow, bringing unspeakable news from beyond the cabin’s walls. Karyn Kusama was behind the camera, making minute, courteous corrections to the angles and expressions of the actors’ pliant faces over the course of two scenes. The spoilers fell thick as the manufactured Canadian snow blanketing the adjacent stage. I was watching the season finale unfold in real time.

‘We didn’t want it to be about being women in a man’s world.’

It was the last few days of shooting, and many of the primary executives were also on hand: the showrunners, Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson and Jonathan Lisco, and the producer Drew Comins. Comins was immediately identifiable as the show’s hype man; “Buzz, buzz, buzz!” was his cheerful greeting when we were introduced. They gathered together in the tent to watch the shoot. “Karyn loves to live in the painting,” someone murmured, seeing the same Pietà in the light of the lamps.

Kusama joined us for a moment between shots. Lately, she has enjoyed vindication following the commercial flop and subsequent cult ascension of her 2009 film, “Jennifer’s Body” (another representation of women doing upsetting things). I asked her about something she said in a previous interview, about the ongoingness of TV and the way it allowed celebrated characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper to not change — to occupy the uneasy Dantean position of being midway through the journey of life, but without Dante’s final ascent up to virtue and improvement. “Yellowjackets” claims its own form of ongoingness, giving female characters the same opportunities to flail in midlife, while anchoring them to a traumatic formative experience that made them heroes, of a sort, in their own lives. Kusama took on an oracular aspect in the dark as she spoke. “Any marginalized psyche is often positioned as an object, not a subject,” she said. The Yellowjackets “are characters who got through most of high school, learning that hard terrible lesson in female adolescence, that you’re not the subject of your own story.”

The first episodes of the first season established this truth with a light touch, showing the girls leaving something nasty behind them: the guys yelling “Show us your tits,” the mean girls who prank call, alcoholic mothers, violent fathers. After the crash, the problem is simply the Yellowjackets, trying to survive. It’s the perfect canvas for Kusama, who was drawn to the idea of “living completely in your appetites and starvation.” Kusama believes questions of appetite “are very rich ideas for women: being hungry, being fed, feeding each other.” For her the show conveys “a very pure relationship to the metaphor,” and indeed these were the subjects of the day’s scenes, about which I now possessed sinister knowledge.

When Kusama, who is also an executive producer, first met with Lyle and Nickerson to discuss the pilot, she likened it to a war story. She told me that the real wilderness of the show is “female interiority, female experience, female transformation and the presence of a kind of unchangeable chaos in women,” a delicious phrase. “It is progress to see ourselves change,” she said, “but the reality of many people’s lives is that the patterns we learn early are the patterns we enact and re-enact for years to come.” Part of the show’s inquiry, she said in the darkness, is “to what degree is positive change possible,” given that there is “very real anguish in their past.”

As the sounds of activity outside the tent picked up and it was clear our time would soon come to an end, I asked Kusama about the challenge of exploitation that invariably lives in a show about cannibal teenage girls. “Yellowjackets” is in some ways a quintessential Dead Girl show, an idea explored by the writer Alice Bolin in her book on the subject to account for shows like “True Detective” and “Twin Peaks.” These mysteries are structured around beautiful, dead white girls and “the investigator’s haunted, semi-sexual obsession” with them. In “Yellowjackets,” it is the audience who steps into the inspector’s role, only to find our voyeurism thwarted, at least most of the time, by a conscientious editorial sensibility. It’s a fundamental conundrum of storytelling, Kusama said, “the urge to entertain and engage versus the urge to confront and provoke.” She approached her episodes with a firm rule: “None of this is a joke,” she told herself and her colleagues. It was imperative for her to treat these characters “with some degree of gravity, because otherwise I really wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

I walked through the extant sets — a remarkable recreation of the Canadian forest replete with the scent of real (salvaged) pine trees dangling from the rafters — past rooms of stacked up crates with labels like “antlers” and “fur.” I followed Lyle, Nickerson and Lisco to the warren of modular offices tucked above the soundstages. I admired Lyle’s outfit as we walked, an array of ’90s layers befitting the “Yellowjackets” universe: a leopard cardigan, a red animal-print skirt, black tights, boots. It was such a good outfit that I forgot to look at the men.

We took off our masks and sat in a circle. Trucks bearing the material of filmmaking rumbled around the buildings on the roads below the window. I raised the topic of covertly dignified treatment of teenage girls. Lyle and Nickerson, who previously wrote for “Narcos,” Netflix’s drama about the life and death of Pablo Escobar, knew that they wanted to make a show about women. “But we didn’t want it to be about being women in a man’s world,” Lyle said. “So we were like, ‘Well, I guess we can drop them into the wilderness in a plane crash and see what happens.’” For Nickerson, the frame was less important than the development of the characters, to give them “the dignity of a point of view” and let them proceed from there.

When I suggested that the first season was a bit of a bait and switch, because audiences drawn in by the cannibalistic first episode will find all kinds of other complex human dramas playing out, Lyle agreed. “That slightly salacious or plot-driven outset to the story with the plane crash and the cannibalism,” she said, is “a little bit of a Trojan horse to just make you care about these women.” She went on, “It’s interesting that you almost need something like that to tell a story about women that is hopefully nuanced and complicated.”

Lisco, who previously worked on hits like “N.Y.P.D. Blue” and “Halt and Catch Fire” and came on as a showrunner after Lyle and Nickerson sold “Yellowjackets,” spoke to the show’s juxtapositions as its strengths, its blend of the gruesome “reality of what they’re going through with real comedy, because the bizarre incongruities of life are with us always.” He thought people longed, perhaps because of the pandemic, “to feel something and feel the totality and richness of their human experiences.”

“Yellowjackets” does have a little something for everyone. There’s a fundamental humor in the show’s timing: one moment of grotesque violence in the past, one moment of mundanity in the present, contrasts à la “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad,” but with teenage girls doing the things, broadening the innate disconnect. Gliding brashly and mostly successfully among horror, buddy detective, melodrama and light camp, the show also achieves something that I can only describe as the sometime triumph of Prime Time over Prestige, the marriage of surreality and strong character development within the confines of fast-paced entertainment doled out a week a time. It harks back to the golden age of weird prime-time shows like “Twin Peaks” or “Lost,” which delighted, shocked, titillated and annoyed, but never in quite the way audiences expected.

Like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” another fan favorite that trucked in teenage-girl archetypes, “Yellowjackets” is occasionally quippy and self-referential. “Wow. I’ve never been in a French farce before,” says one doomed character when he hides from a husband in a bedroom closet. As adult Misty (Christina Ricci) prepares to kill a nosy reporter (long story), she ponders who might play her in a movie adaptation. “Who’s the one in that thing about those rich ladies that kill that guy?” she asks guilelessly, a nod to “Big Little Lies,” one reference to which Comins compared the show during pitch meetings. “Big Little Lies” disguised a searing portrait of abuse as a piece of gossamer lifestyle porn. “Yellowjackets” performs a similar trick: It sneaks a thoughtful excavation of teenage girlhood and middle-aged floundering into its genre pleasures.

Toward the end of the day, I visited costumes, where Amy Parris, who like me is nearing 40, kept a stack of ancient magazines as reference material: Seventeen and Sassy and YM, which could have been mine. One magazine contains a photo of a teenage Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood — who joins the show this season as Walter, one of Misty’s fellow citizen detectives from the true-crime forums — together at the height of their early fame. It’s a potent reminder of the psychic resonance the show holds for someone who grew up with these referents. I read some headlines aloud: “A ballerina and her eating disorder.” “So you think you want a nose job? Read this first.” We briefly observed how nasty it was to be alive and teenage in the 1990s. And yet these nostalgic artifacts opened a yawning chasm of feeling. Perhaps the real resonance of the show is the age of its present-day characters — early 40s, just tipped into the zone of midlife where women have historically become invisible, a tendency that popular culture dances with and occasionally fights against.

Retrospection is in the air. Younger millennials, apparently, are rewatching “Girls” in record numbers to parse the just-vanished particulars of their early 20s. Before “Yellowjackets,” I binged “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and was totally caught up in the backward excavation of its hapless middle-aged characters. I exchanged texts with my peers about the promised reappearance of Aidan on “And Just Like That,” an unheimlich but irresistible return to “Sex and the City,” a show that gave my generation a formative if deeply inaccurate picture of what our adulthood might hold. Cultural offerings like “Impeachment” or “I, Tonya” take up the specifics of the 1990s’ sensational moments and examine them in a new light. What a time, then, for both of the “Yellowjackets” story lines: its murderers’ row of former icons — Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey, now Elijah Wood — playing middle-aged roles, as well as the opportunity to see those characters as their past selves, a vicarious simultaneity.

The show takes the common awfulnesses of teenage girlhood in that era (which of course persist today, with their own temporal inflection) — the unsettling sexual experiences or outright assaults; the casual racism; homophobia and misogyny; Kate Moss languishing in her underwear — and discreetly moves them out of the way. A primary love story in the woods is a queer one; the romance between Van (Liv Hewson) and Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is a loving and fully realized relationship from the jump. The only adult man present, the team’s coach, Ben Scott (Steven Krueger), is gay, and his period-appropriate terror of being outed is understood and neutralized by the empathetic perspicacity of Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), who navigates her own halting romance with Travis (Kevin Alves), the only teenage boy in the cabin. Unlike the characters of “Euphoria,” whose goal seems to be to show as much pretend-under-age boob as possible, those in “Yellowjackets” have access to a form of fundamental self-respect and agency that many middle-aged women took years to attain. Maybe that’s part of the fantasy, too.

There’s something fundamentally melancholy, though, about all this looking back. Toward the end of the first season, in a wilderness interlude, Van is attacked by wolves, her face torn open. Back at the cabin, the girls work together to hold her down while one draws a curved needle through her cheek to stitch the wound. In the next moment, we see 40-something Taissa (Tawny Cypress), now at Shauna’s modest New Jersey ranch house, where Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) makes up her teenage daughter’s bed, beneath a poster that reads “Keep Calm You Can Still Marry Harry.” The two old friends lie in bed, and Shauna muses about what would have happened had they not crashed, had she gone to Brown the way she planned, where she would “write amazing papers on Dorothy Parker and Virginia Woolf” and fall in love with a “floppy-haired, sad-eyed poet boy.” Taissa, meanwhile, describes a litany of successes that actually came to pass: Howard University, “a bunch of beautiful women,” “first string on the soccer team,” Columbia Law. But achieving a dream can also become ash in the mouth. “Not a single one of those things felt real,” Taissa says. It was their time in the woods, when everything was terrible and vivid and somehow fundamental — and cheeks were stitched with twine — when feeling and reality were truly one.

Or at least that’s what the show wants us to think at first. That’s certainly how the characters feel in the early episodes, quietly assenting to the fate suggested in their bad marriages, puzzling children and unfulfilling jobs. But then the gang gets back together, and their efforts to keep their shared trauma among them amount to a kind of quest. Their days become unpredictable and enlivened again. At some point, viewers sense that the women approach their present-day escapades with the same ferocity they brought to their exploits in the wilderness.

From some angles, this vicarious pleasure might confirm our worst suspicions that for women, middle age signals the decline after the peak. But the notion of a miserable midlife turns out to be another bait and switch. “Yellowjackets,” then, becomes a deliciously macabre play on the midlife crisis. Certainly, healing and redemption appear to fall outside the boundaries of a “Yellowjackets” universe. So, like other women before them, these restless heroines begin to make the most of the diversions life finds for them, grim as their circumstances might be: sex, camaraderie, adventure and wild fun.

Source images for opening artwork: Showtime, the New York Public Library, Russell Lee via the New York Public Library.

Lydia Kiesling is the author of “The Golden State,” which was a 2018 National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” honoree. Her novel “Mobility” is set to be published in August. Sarah Palmer is an artist, photographer, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her solo exhibition, “The Delirious Sun,” at Mrs. gallery in Maspeth, is on display until May 6.

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