Creating the bonds of friendship in high school already sucks. Yet, if you’re a member of the Yellowjackets, that friendship has been pushed to a new level of sacrifice. After all, it’s not every day that your plane crashes in the woods, and you’re forced to eat your friends. The dramatic mystery series revived Showtime and features some of the best performances of 2021 on television. We’re looking back at what made Season One so good as we prepare for the Season Two premiere later this week.
After winning the New Jersey state championship in soccer, the Yellowjackets qualified for nationals. The team boards a plane to fly to the competition, only for the flight to crash land in the woods. Team Captain Jackie (Ella Purnell) struggles to balance her friendship with Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) after secrets come out. Taissa (Jasmine Savoy Brown) must navigate her sexuality and guilt with partner Van (Liv Hewson). Nat (Sophie Thatcher) struggles with her sexual reputation, while Misty (Sammi Hammratty) remains an outsider.
Twenty-five years later, the surviving players find themselves struggling in new ways. Adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) finds herself in a stale marriage. Taissa (Tawny Cypress) runs for political office. Nat (Juliette Lewis) suffers from addiction. Misty (Christina Ricci) remains an outsider but has a very dark side.
The first season of Yellowjackets creates an uneasy sense of dread from its opening moments. Throughout the first episode, we watch the girls in their last state of happiness before their world literally crashes down around them. While we have some spoilers for which characters are alive in the future, showrunners Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, and Jonathan Lisco keep the mystery going. More than anything, they never slip and tell us how many people have survived. While this may not always make sense in-world, this choice is essential for the well-being of Yellowjackets. They built out the mystery-box structure that most series hope to achieve while keeping much of the story close to the vest.
The large ensemble could have caused actresses to get lost in the process. However, one of the incredible things about Yellowjackets comes from the balance Lyle, Nickerson, and Lisco achieve. Despite the bulk of the attention going to Ricci and Lynskey (and with good reason), this is a true act of an ensemble clicking into place. Everyone gets showcase moments, especially the younger actresses. Despite having to live up to incredible hype, they each thrive and put extra pressure on the veterans of the cast.
As noted, most of the attention fell on Ricci and Lynskey, but each actress earned every moment of praise. Ricci truly steals the show in the limited screen time, embracing the quirkier sides of her talent and shading it with real darkness. Ricci, once best known for playing Wednesday Addams, brings an entirely different kind of performance in Yellowjackets. It’s masterful work on display, and even more surprising, Hammratty brings the same intensity to Teen Misty.
Meanwhile, Lynskey crafts a relatable woman looking for answers in her life. Yet Lynskey’s far from innocent. Very much like her turn in I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore, Lynskey brings out the comedy of her scenes with a twist on Minnesota nice. Yet few performers communicate frustration or vindication like Lynskey. She remains one of our very best actresses because of this versatility. Her performance becomes the heartbeat of Yellowjackets.
Cypress, Savoy Brown, and Lewis all bring unique performance choices to the table. The Cypress and Savoy Brown duo almost works too well. You would genuinely think the actress carried over from her teen years into adulthood, as each brings familiar mannerisms and even vocal rhythms. Savoy Brown does elicit more moments of pure pathos, while Cypress brings an edge of menace and ambition to her role.
While the actresses playing Taissa blend together exceptionally well, Lewis and Thatcher get to go full wildcard. Lewis’ darkness matches Thatcher’s, with each actress suffering from chronic PTSD. However, Lewis wears that heartbreak with decades of trauma layered on top, while Thatcher feels more in control. If not for Ricci and Hammratty’s breakout roles, Lewis and Thatcher might be the rave of the town.
While Karyn Kusama‘s involvement certainly brings headlines, the bevy of directors step into the chair. The fact that the series maintains the dark, sinister tone throughout shows off the strength of the writers’ room. The direction certainly enhances what’s on the page, but the strong voice of Yellowjackets comes shining through. This vision from the complete team is so strong, Yellowjackets would have been a success no matter when it was released.
Most striking in the first season is the way power dynamics shift and change based on societal positions. Without strong patriarchal figures to lead the way, survival skills become the most important factor in determining who holds power within the group. Aspects that once mattered, including perceived social capital, fade away. The ways in which the women begin to reshape and restructure society around unique beliefs cannot be ignored. Where this goes in Season Two will determine the long-term success of Yellowjackets.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the series is the final ten minutes of season one, which goes completely haywire. Finally, we have a clear direction to dive into the story’s darker elements moving forward. The story is always skewed dark, but who steps into the leadership role should lead to some genuinely exciting surprises.
Yellowjackets broke out as one of the best shows of 2021, and the new season has brought a lot of excitement. Considering how Season one deftly handled the introduction and sunsetting of characters, it’s hard to argue against the team’s ability to tell a large-scale story. With the setup for the characters out of the way, who will step into the highlight roles this season? Only time will tell, but if nothing else, we have a phenomenal season of television to always rewatch.