[Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Yellowjackets Season 2, Episode 2, “Edible Complex.”]
Well, it happened. It finally happened. They ate Jackie.
For a show that began with the devouring of the mysterious “pit girl,” Yellowjackets took its time putting another body on the menu. The cannibalistic moment was teased in the hallucinogenic mushroom-fueled frenzy in Season 1's “Doomcoming,” and the Season 2 premiere ended with Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) swallowing her dead friend's ear, but there are no more baby steps to be taken. The surviving Yellowjackets sat around their friend’s roasted body, shared knowing glances, and stripped the flesh from her bones, shoveling it into their starving mouths with distinctly Bacchanalian revelry.
But eating Jackie (Ella Purnell) was more than just a desperate quest for sustenance, and may in fact unlock the fundamental mystery of what is actually going on. Where in “Doomcoming,” there was alcohol and a stew spiked with hallucinogens to blame, the previously ambiguous supernatural elements have come to the fore. Having planned to cremate her on a wooden pyre, the Yellowjackets pay their last respects to their late captain. Shauna tearfully bids farewell by saying “Jackie, I’ll never have another friend like you, I don’t even know where you end and I begin. I’m sorry and I love you.”
But it seems that something otherworldly has other plans and as the unsuspecting survivors slumber, a large pile of snow is dumped on the flames and the 2-month dead teen is not cremated, but slow-roasted to tender perfection. The smell wafts into the cabin and the ravenous girls walk out to see a solution to their starvation as Radiohead’s ode to madness “Climbing Up The Walls” plays, and Shauna, who previously wouldn’t even consider taking Jackie’s jacket, cradles her pregnant belly and whispers “She wants us to.” Well, something certainly did, and the clues the show provides indicate it's something a lot older, and more dangerous, than Jackie.
The show vacillates between showing the feast in its grim reality and fully embracing a Bacchanalian fantasy. The teens girls are beautifully adorned in gold laurel wreathes and elaborate braided up-dos, with Travis (Kevin Alves) smartly draped in a toga. The feast of golden goblets of wine fruit and roasted meats descends into a frenzy, with the girls becoming equally grotesque, shovelling berries and drenching themselves in wine in an increasingly violent manner. The allusion to the bacchanalia, the worship of the ancient god Bacchus, is clear, and may be the key to unlocking the entire show.
For those a little rusty on their ancient Roman mythology, Bacchus was the god of wine, fertility, festivity, ecstasy, and theatre. The god was known as Dionysus to the ancient Greeks but as Season 2’s first episode is titled “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” I’ll stick with Bacchus to avoid confusion. He (although that pronoun is debatable as Bacchus was sometimes depicted as a half man/half woman) was immortalized in 450 BC by the Euripedes play The Bacchae, in which his worship is outlawed by King Pentheus. Bacchus then lures Pentheus to the woods, where his female followers tear the king apart and his own mother rips off his head in a state of Bacchic frenzy (that detail bodes poorly for Shauna’s baby).
For centuries the worship of Bacchus and the bacchanalia continued. As it became largely more authoritarian, the Roman empire suppressed the mystery religion, but rumors also abounded that beyond feasting, its rites included pansexual orgies from its largely female participants, drunkenness, possession by Bacchus himself, poisonings, animal sacrifice, murder, infanticide, and cannibalism. While few scholars hold much stock in those claims, the cultural image of a secret hedonistic cult endured, and much of what Roman historian Titus Livius wrote about the bacchanalia centuries after the events in around 9 BC could be copied and pasted into a conspiratorial 4Chan board about the secret goings-on of the Illuminati/Satanists/Clinton fundraisers.
But Yellowjackets is being more specific than just alluding to broader cults and conspiracy, and after seeing our young women feasting in resplendent ancient Roman finery, other references to Bacchus seem glaringly obvious. The pine cone that was stuffed in Travis’ mouth in “Doomcoming” now becomes a nod to a thyrsus, a long stick wrapped in ivy or vine leaves and tipped with a pine cone that his worshippers (bacchantes) would carry. The masks and pelts from that episode, and the show’s opening scene, resemble the dress code for the bacchanalia.
The whooshing wind in the wilderness when the teenagers had their séance seemed like an Evil Dead reference but now speaks to how Bacchus’ presence was described as “Bromios” aka roaring of the wind. The rituals performed in Lottie’s compound ceremony involve masks, music, and ritualistic rebirth, just as the followers of Bacchus performed, seeing him as a bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead. When the bear is killed by a single blow from a dagger at the end of the first season, it bows down its head and seems like a willing participant in the sacrifice, resembling the ancient practice of slaughtering animals to Bacchus that were “willing participants” and placing grain on the ground and water on their heads to make them bow in acceptance of their fate before immortals and mortals alike would feast upon its flesh.
Even poor Biscuit’s fate seems a potential clue, as Bacchus preferred the sacrifice of domesticated animals as opposed to wild ones. And one of the strangest details, that of Taissa eating soil, could be connected — the Roman General and philosopher Pliny wrote about observing soil-eating by the women of the Greek island of Lemnos. To tie it in even further, legend has it that Lemnos’ women rose up and murdered the men as revenge for their infidelity, overthrowing the king who was… Bacchus’ son Thoas.
In the present, Travis had a distinctly bacchanalian ambition to bridge the land of the living and the dead, haunted by what was in the wilderness and claiming that “the only way to confront the darkness is to get as close to death as possible,” which speaks to Bacchanalian worship of death and resurrection. And when Taissa claws at the ground and a white liquid comes through the cracks, it is pure Euripides, who wrote that “Those who wanted milk scratched at the soil with bare fingers and the white milk came welling up.”
So what does that mean for our ensemble in the past and present? Well for one, we can move past the whole “this is about PTSD” discussion and on to wildly speculating about some tantalizingly supernatural, less rote possibilities. If Lottie’s present-day followers are engaging in the same worship as the girls in the past, then Nat may be sober but she is in grave danger. And if Bacchus, an actual ancient god, is what is hunting them, determined to reclaim his bacchantes, then maybe despite such a grisly end, Jackie will prove to be the lucky one.
New episodes of Yellowjackets stream Fridays and air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on Showtime. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Leila Latif is Contributing Editor to Total Film, the host of Truth & Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast and a regular at Sight and Sound, Indiewire, The Guardian, The BBC and others. Follow her on twitter @Leila_Latif.
TOPICS: Yellowjackets, Showtime, Christina Ricci, Ella Purnell, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Sophie Nélisse, Sophie Thatcher, Tawny Cypress