A Plane Crashed And People Struggled For Survival in a Mysterious Place. You Haven’t Heard This One Before
Better Late Than Never: Yellowjackets
Last fall, I made a major miscalculation. I’d seen the promos and the cast for Showtime’s new drama Yellowjackets and I wanted to get on board. But by the time it would make its debut, the final season of Insecure — which I desperately wanted to see — would have started and it would be running against Yellowjackets. No problem, I have a DVR now; I’ll just record the first episode than watch it later in the week.
Well, a week passed so I waited until the next week. Then the Critics Choice nominated for Best Drama; I still didn’t get around to it. Insecure ended; I didn’t get caught up during the hiatus of programming at the end of the year. Months and months went by and I kept lagging behind in so many other programs. Only now with the summer upon me, the Emmy nominations ahead, and Yellowjackets a likely contender in many major categories did I finally get around to watching the first two episodes. My reaction: boy I was an idiot.
For those of you who have seen the first season — and judging by the critical and popular response, there are a lot of you — I’m about to tell you nothing new. For the rest of you, buckle up.
Yellowjackets is the story that takes place in two time frames. The first is in a small town in New Jersey in 1996. It centers on a high school girl’s soccer team that has managed to capture their town’s attention by become state champions and are heading to nationals. One after in the fall, the team, their coaches, and their significant others get on a private plane that was arranged by one of the player’s parents. They take off…and they never get to their destination.
Twenty five years later, a reporter comes to the home to one of those girls Shauna. We saw her get an early acceptance to Brown in the Pilot and she seemed to have an unlimited future. Now she’s a housewife with a husband who doesn’t care for her and a teenage daughter who has no respect for her. When we first meet Shauna, she’s masturbated to the picture of her daughter’s boyfriend. We’ll learn quickly that’s far from the biggest secret she’s carrying.
When a reporter shows up, she gives a bare bones version about what happened to her. “The plane crashed. A bunch of my friends died. And we starved and scavenged until someone found us nineteen months later.” That is the story all the survivors have told, but we know from some of the flashbacks that far worse things happened. The series opens with a girl running in terror, falling into a bit, having her throat cut and then being served cooked to a bunch of survivors dressed in what can only be described as tribal garb. We have a feeling what we’ve just seen is the least of the traumas they’ve gone through.
We don’t know the exact number of survivors. The series focuses on three others along with Shauna: Talissa, an African-American lesbian who is running for state senator in New Jersey. Of the four, she seems the most put together, but when she meets with Shauna for a late night meeting, there’s clearly a haunted look in her eyes. There’s Natalie, who has just checked out of rehab ‘again’ as Shauna says, and who immediately gets into a car and drives off. And there’s Misty, the equipment manager on the team, who has since grown into one of the most aggressive care-givers you’ll ever see and seems very close to a sexual predator in an online date. When Misty walks into her house to find Natalie with a shotgun, neither is surprised to see each other.
It may tell you enough about what Yellowjackets is going to be like if I tell you who plays the four leads as an adult. Misty is played by Christina Ricci, who started her career as Wednesday Addams, spent her childhood playing bad girls in independent films and just a few years ago played Lizzie Borden. Natalie is played by Juliette Lewis, who started her career playing girlfriends to psychopaths in Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers and has always played women who never seem comfortable in their own skin. Shauna is played by Melanie Lynskey, an actress known for so much light comedy you might very well not know that she made her film debut in Heavenly Creatures, playing a friend of a character played by Kate Winslet who together end up murdering their mothers. Talissa is played by Tawny Cyprus, who has been acting two decades most notably in the first seasons of Heroes and House of Cards and did some time on The Blacklist. These women would never have ended up on Wisteria Lane.
Now let me pull back and give you some broader strokes. The scenes of the plane crash in the first two episodes no doubt have already drawn comparisons to Lost, except done on a much more dangerous scale. The show takes one mystery out of the equation in the Pilot — will they survive — and asks a more interesting one: who will survive? It is clear these women are traumatized in many ways — in one episode we see Shauna kill a rabbit and calmly peacefully butcher it and serve it for her family dinner. We wonder was it to shock her family or because a part of her is still fond of the taste? All of them have been received postcards that say ‘Wish You Were Here’ with a mountain view and a symbol that they all recognize. The writers are very clear to make sure they didn’t design it; we see it carved on a tree in the second episode. So what does it mean other than the fact that someone clearly knows the secrets they’ve been keeping? Talissa’s son is socially isolated — a parent teacher conference says he doesn’t have a friend, and we see he’s drawing picture on his wall. Talissa asks about them and says: “A women in a tree is watching him.”
We also don’t know several questions, some that would have occurred to viewers of Lost already, some that never would. What caused the plane crashed? Why did it take so long for someone to find them? It’s one thing to crash in the middle of the Pacific, but in the Continental U.S. Where were they when they were rescued? And most horrifically, who started them on this path? There is a strong indication that part of their problems may have been caused by Misty, who was a social outcast and hanger on before, seemed way too happy to be active during the initial stages and no problem cutting off their coach’s leg, then cauterizing the wound. And at the end of the last episode, we see her angrily destroy the flight data recorder which very likely held up the rescue efforts. Based on what we know of Misty in the future, did she do just to be a friend?
I want to know the answers to these questions believe me, but a large part of me doesn’t care so much as long as I get to see these glorious actresses in action. Ricci and Lewis in particular are magnificent. For the last decade I’ve watched Lewis work through Peak TV in either series that were good but never got an audience (NBC’s adaptation of The Firm) or roles that she was clearly miscast in (Secrets and Lies; the complete misfire Camping). Here she gets to tear into the crazy she had in her early years with full relish (and mustard, and steak sauce) and look utterly perfect in it. Ricci, who started her career out playing fundamentally creepy, doesn’t bother to hide being a note off from the beginning and her efforts for friendship make you trust her even less. I would love to see both of them with Emmy nominations.
The actress certain to walk away with a nomination is Lynskey, whose triumph at this year’s Critics Choice was one of the high points of the years. It is clear that she is just as broken as the others, but is trying to hide it at a far worse level. She’s married to someone she loved in high school, but it’s not working now: they’re in therapy in the second episode and she can’t go along with one of the most banal sexual fantasies in history. Of course, her husband is cheating on her. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise: in the Pilot, we see her cheating on her best friend with him. Lynskey is much like Shauna in that as an actress she had great early potential that she has not quite realized. She’ll be getting an Emmy for this role some day, maybe not this year but certainly in the future.
I should also mention that it’s not just the adults in the cast who are magnificent; it’s the teens that play the earlier versions. Set aside the fact that they were clearly cast to look much like the adult versions of them in the future; there is an aggressive to their personality and bad ass nature to them that makes you realize even before the plane crash the truth ‘that these girls were special’. Most of them are complete unknowns, but just as with the cast of another extraordinary 1990s female centric series Cruel Summer, these girls will be known for years to come.
Yellowjackets was listed once as a different kind of mythology series where the mysteries of the show are unknown only to the audience, not the characters. And to state the obvious, I’m pretty sure a lot of the baggage that so many critics had with the final season of Lost will not be present here. There’s no higher powers trying to con these girls into some savior roles and I know for damn sure that none of them are going to find a place together in the afterlife hugging; they barely want to be together in the past or present, and there’s a decent chance some of them would have put the others there. But I find the same anticipation with Yellowjackets that I did with Lost and for all the right reasons. The verve, the brilliance of the direction and writing, the wonder of the performances, and trying to figure out what comes next. I’m also grateful that by the time I finish with Season 1, Season 2 will be right around the corner. (The writers promised it would be back this year.)
Ever since Season 5 of Homeland, despite having some valid contenders such as The Affair and Billions, Showtime has not had a series nominated for Best Drama. I have a strong intuition that next month, Yellowjackets will end that streak. It is a Lost-like series that even viewers who never watched Lost will love, and even at its most extreme, the atmosphere for these high school students is infinitely more realistic than you will ever find in Euphoria. In the case of the principal who doesn’t know the first thing about what happened to them when it comes to Yellowjackets he’s spot on: “These girls are special.”
My score: 4.75 stars.