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Yellowjackets is part of TV's trend of ditching the "mystery box"

  • Vox

    The Showtime series may have a mystery-box show in its DNA. But like fellow Prestige TV shows Succession and the recent Station Eleven, Yellowjackets is not trying to trick viewers. "The buzzy (haha) Showtime series about a soccer team of teenage girls struggling to survive in the wilderness, contrasted with their adult selves 25 years later, has drawn comparisons to Lost from many, including me," says Emily VanDerWerff. "Both shows, after all, feature dueling timelines, an eerie wilderness that might be supernatural in nature, and a plane crash. I also drew Lost comparisons, though, because I thought Yellowjackets was what is typically known as a mystery-box show. On a mystery-box show, big questions unfurl into smaller questions, which unfurl into even smaller questions, which often loop back to the bigger questions. Ideally, those questions lead into each other...Yellowjackets certainly has elements of the mystery-box show in its DNA. Core to the show is the question of how its main characters escaped the wilderness to begin with. Since we’re also seeing those characters as adults, we know they escaped after 19 months in the middle of nowhere and that the show will inevitably have to explain how that happened. But crucially, this is a question the audience has that the characters don’t. The adult versions of these women know how they got home. We’re the ones who don’t. The longer you watch Yellowjackets, the more you realize that’s true of most of its mysteries. A character in the show usually knows the answer, and even if we don’t, what happened to them is informing how they act. Almost all of the mysteries established by the show’s pilot, mysteries I thought would last for several seasons, are largely answered by the end of the first season...It’s a different rhythm than TV fans are currently used to, but it’s part of a larger trend within TV drama at the moment, one where living with the implications of an answer bears richer drama than wrestling with the thorniness of a question." VanDerWerff adds: "As audiences in 2022, we’re burnt out on the mystery box. Too many shows with mystery-box elements ended up with the X-Files problem: The amount of dedication you had to have to unpeel all of their elements was simply too heavy a lift for many viewers. I love Lost’s finale and its gutsy choice to accept that any answer to 'What is this mysterious island?' was bound to disappoint. But I understand why many found that enervating. What’s more, we live in a reality where too many people try to turn the world into an elaborate conspiracy-driven hellhole, where everybody is trying to keep the truth from you and the villains are hidden in shadow. And that mentality cuts against something we know to be true, which is mostly that the villains are right out there in the open. Conspiracy theories in the real world have too often become a coping mechanism for those who feel powerless in the face of problems that seem insurmountable. If the truth is hidden in shadow, that’s an easier reality to approach than one where you know the truth but can’t do anything about it."


    • Yellowjackets' proved satisfying with mysteries with obvious answers: "The more a TV show tries to stump its viewers, the more prone it is to tripping over its own ambitions and falling into a black hole of narrative nonsense," says Caroline Framke. "Everything from Lost to Game of Thrones to Gossip Girl has tried to outsmart its audience by throwing so many surprises into the mix that they become an unwieldy pile. So-called 'mystery box' shows do their best to stack their puzzles inside each other so that there’s always more to solve, but often lose themselves amid their own complications. If a twist makes me go 'what?!' rather than 'whoa!,'  it’s usually a sign that the road leading to it wasn’t one I could actually follow. The best mysteries, or at least the most satisfying, layer in not just enough clues, but reasons why their conclusions make sense. Yellowjackets, with its intricate characterizations and dedication to giving even its wildest effects the most logical causes, threads that needle perfectly."
    • Yellowjackets is able to match what Lost did: "To be fair, I see Lost in a lot of things: all kinds of TV shows, polar bears in any context, airplanes generally," says Jen Chaney. "But in the case of Yellowjackets, and particularly this season one finale, the comparison is actually apt because Yellowjackets is the rare mystery box show that, as Lost did, also works so effectively on an emotional level while encouraging an almost psychotic interest in solving its riddles. So much of the conversation around Yellowjackets, as was the case with Lost, has been fueled by an interest in figuring out what’s really going on with several characters and storylines. The central concern of the whole series is steeped in mystery: what really happened out in those woods after that plane crash and why do our grown central characters — Shauna, Natalie, Taissa, and Misty — seem so intent on continuing to keep it a secret? Those two related inquiries are the equivalent of the 'What is the island?' question mark that hung over Lost for six seasons."
    • Yellowjackets is the most f*cked up show on TV -- more disturbing than Hannibal: "It may be the most f*cked up show ever," says Ben Travers, adding: "If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Hannibal is the only TV program that’s ever given me nightmares. Bryan Fuller’s blend of evocative atmospherics, unsettling implications, and artful violence results in a potent concoction that lingers to this day. But I think Yellowjackets is even more disturbing. Shows like Hannibal and Dexter introduce a separation between their audience and central characters. Most viewers are not professional psychiatrists of Dr. Lecter’s stature, and fewer still (I hope) extend their interest in fine cuisine to include the consumption of human livers (among other organs). Will Graham is closer to the audience proxy — a tortured everyman trying to do good — and it takes time for his dark nature to emerge, just as it takes time for the audience to process their own complicated attachments to Dr. Lecter. You’re asked to go along on their journey, but you’re not required to put yourself in their shoes — these are characters that exist in a whole other universe. Yellowjackets is about you, and me, and everyone else shaped in some way by the good and bad of the high school experience. While pushing those painful memories to twisted extremes, the series consistently forces the viewer to see themselves in its leads."
    • Yellowjackets is sneakily subversive with its approach to teen girls: "If ever you need your faith in humanity restored, just remember this: Yellowjackets ended its first season a hit," says Judy Berman. "Showtime’s teen-girl survival chiller owes a good bit of its popularity to its Lost-style mysteries, which have had obsessive Yellowjacketologists dissecting those puzzle-box elements in various online forums. (Misty would be so proud.) I, too, have lost hours debating whether Adam is grown-up Javi and trying to identify the girl who gets skewered in the pilot’s cold open. And yet, I came out of Sunday’s finale—which confirmed that the victim was neither Jackie, who froze to death, nor Lottie, who is apparently still alive—far more eager to talk through the season’s sneakily subversive themes. Because adolescence is a gauntlet, and because women are still the second sex, almost every story pop culture tells about teenage girls is also in some way a story about the horrors, physical and emotional, society inflicts on them. That includes many roles that made Yellowjackets’ stars famous. Juliette Lewis played a notorious spree killer scarred by sexual abuse in Natural Born Killers. Christina Ricci portrayed a beautiful young hostage in Buffalo ’66. Melanie Lynskey made her debut, in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, as a sick child turned delusional murderer. What we rarely see are depictions of young women cut off—or liberated—from their social context."
    • Yellowjackets leans into the drama that heightens every facet of girlhood: "The series has kept a vise grip on my mind since it began airing in November, and not only because I’ve been itching to see whether my theory about the identity of the antlered cult leader would turn out to be correct," says Shirley Li. "Like other shows that filter the high-school experience through a dark, often bloody lens (Euphoria and Pretty Little Liars come to mind), Yellowjackets frames the coming-of-age journey as a psychological horror. But unlike those dramas, it gleefully takes the idea to the extreme, mixing supernatural elements and pitch-black humor into an already pulpy premise. In this stew of hormones, gore, and mordant farce, the series captures the way that growing out of girlhood is an inherently brutal and absurd process. Despite comparisons to Lord of the Flies and Lost, Yellowjackets quickly moves past the survival framework. Soon after the crash, the team finds a freshwater lake, a cabin that provides suitable shelter, and ample game to hunt. Given the present-day timeline, the question isn’t whether the survivors will be rescued; it’s how exactly their fragile interpersonal relationships will change during their 19 months in the woods. The mere fact that they’re stranded shuffles the team’s pecking order. Misty (played by Samantha Hanratty), the friendless equipment manager, finds herself newly essential because she has basic medical skills. In contrast, the team captain, Jackie (Ella Purnell), was popular in the halls of their high school but now struggles to find her place in the group. The instability of the Yellowjackets’ hierarchy is scarier than anything they might encounter in the woods, making clear how the team’s camaraderie could morph into something as feral as a cannibalistic cult."
    • Yellowjackets is its own invention -- and one of the most fun shows in years: "I can’t remember the last time a TV series offered such unadulterated and outrageous fun," says Rebecca Nicholson. "It even manages to navigate one of contemporary television’s most irritating trends, the split timeline, with style and panache. Half of the action takes place in 1996, starting out as a retro teen drama in the run-up to the crash, morphing into a folk-horror gorefest once the girls (and the odd boy or two) are right there in the thick of it. The other half takes place 25 years later, in the present day, as some of the women who made it out alive have to work out who knows what about the terrible things they did while they were stranded, and who is trying to blackmail them about it. But, really, Yellowjackets is its own invention, a macabre and amusing one. It shares the spirit of those mid-to-late-90s teen films, such as Scream and The Faculty, in the way it juggles horror and humour; and it places near equal emphasis on the small teenage dramas, such as stolen boyfriends and new crushes, and the hunger and desperation of trying to live in an inhospitable, and possibly haunted, environment. It plays with supernatural elements without ever leaning too heavily into them, leaving us with the notion that what is within us is the scariest thing of all. Karyn Kusama directed the pilot episode and executive produces; she is responsible for the perpetually re-evaluated and underrated film Jennifer’s Body, and this shares a lot of its knowing tone. The cast is brilliant, the younger actors impeccably matched to their older counterparts."
    • Yellowjackets is the rare series to tackle being "old" in your 40s: "If you’re 40, you’re old," says Soraya Roberts. "It’s all over your face. Your cheeks start to hollow, lines that used to smooth out don’t, freckles and sunspots spread everywhere. In your 40s, your face exposes all the bad decisions you’ve made: all those times you didn’t wear sun lotion, all those blemishes you wouldn’t leave alone, all those moments you frowned when you didn’t have to, how much you drank or smoked or didn’t sleep. Forty is when you really stop getting carded. Past this age, the beauty is in the decay. This is the flower right before it droops, the fruit the day before it rots—have you ever tasted anything so good? That’s the shadow of the end you’re tasting, and it always makes what comes before it so much sweeter. The preference for age is not something you see much in Hollywood, an industry that prides itself on the promise of youth. To cast your young as an afterthought is madness and yet that’s how it plays out in Yellowjackets. The Showtime series’s slow-burn success—it started in November and ends this month, with a growing contingent of devotees in line for its second season—is apt for a story about a team of teen girl soccer players in 1996 whose plane crashes on the way to nationals and who, 25 years later, are still living with the decisions they made while stranded during those 19 months (including some not-particularly-light cannibalism, the sudden potential public leak of which is what brings four of them back together). In this show, the teenagers act as conduits, for how they inform their grown-up selves, for the nostalgia those grown-ups hold. They are a stopgap on the way to adulthood. Age is the main event. Yellowjackets is the rare series that incorporates its interrogation of the gendered aging process into its casting. As a show about women in their 40s, it casts accordingly. Juliette Lewis (48), Christina Ricci (41), and Melanie Lynskey (44) are all women who look their age and, yet, whose youth is still accessible. All three of these actresses became famous as teenagers in the ’90s: Lewis in Cape Fear (1991), Ricci in The Addams Family (1991), Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994). Nostalgia is embedded in their celebrity. (The fourth lead, Tawny Cypress (45), is the outlier.)"
    • The genius of Yellowjackets is it is not one show, but two: "One is a survival drama, with elements of horror and coming of age; the other is a suburban thriller, a few highway stops short of a soap," says Andrea Long Chu. "The survival drama, as a form, tends to explore how long characters who are cut off from civilization can retain their humanity before descending into madness or instinct. It is no accident that it includes, almost invariably, a plane crash—a monument of mankind’s hubris, struck down to the animal earth. The classic of the genre is Alive, the 1993 film about the real-life Uruguayan rugby team, portrayed by Ethan Hawke and others, who were forced to eat their loved ones after a plane crash in the Andes. By comparison, the premise of the suburban thriller, neither revolutionary in its observation nor untrue, is that something dark and desperate lies beneath the surface of the American middle class, especially as represented by the family sitcom. (The exemplar is Breaking Bad, AMC’s landmark drama about a terminally ill chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth kingpin.) Driven from their enormous kitchens or wood-panelled bungalows by sexual frustration, financial anxiety, or medical crises, characters turn to infidelity, blackmail, drug trafficking, and murder, even as they drive minivans and make pot roasts. They launder money; they fold laundry. A good litmus test for this genre is whether a character who has just committed a crime might reasonably be expected to attend a parent-teacher conference the next day. I labor these distinctions to show you that Yellowjackets inhabits two genuinely distinct forms, each with its own proper set of interests and goals. I am not referring to genre hybridity, a more or less omnipresent phenomenon, in which multiple genres are crossbred into something new. What I’m talking about, to borrow a chemistry metaphor, is genre chirality—two genres like two hands, mirroring each other but not superimposable, capable of doing the television equivalent of patting one’s head and rubbing one’s belly at the same time."
    • Yellowjackets captures the strange rituals of teenage girlhood: "In the wild, overblown and sometimes absolutist ways that teen girls perceive of the world gain traction," says Bindu Bansinath. "Teen girls predict the future with clairvoyant abilities. Girls slip into supernatural, dirt-eating fugues; girls carry bone amulets for their protection; girls hoard psychedelic mushrooms to make men love them. They also have symbiotic, poisonous friendships. Living in a girl’s shadow is a lifelong commitment. What is the point of surviving when the one you hate is gone?"
    • Yellowjackets understands not all gore comes from flesh and bone: "There’s physical violence, and then there’s psychological violence; this is a show that uses each to enforce the other, and expertly so," says Alison Herman, adding: "Yellowjackets is clear from the start that those with the most to gain from the crash’s upheaval are those who benefit least from the 'real' world’s established order."
    • Yellowjackets creators wanted to strike a balance with its Season 1 finale: "We appreciate shows that don’t leave you hanging all the time and or have unanswered questions all over the place," says co-creator Ashley Lyle. "It remains to be seen to some extent, but our goal is always to make each episode satisfying and to make each season satisfying. We pitched an arc that we felt could last over the course of multiple seasons. To some extent, we have our blueprint, we have a game plan. That being said, television is a collaborative art, and it’s one in which the best-laid plans sometimes shift. Sometimes with the benefit of time, you can come up with an idea that is even more exciting. So I think as long as we have a framework, and we have answers to the questions that we are posing, we’re going to be in good shape. Sometimes you can think of a better answer, but I think the danger is when you don’t have those answers at all."
    • Yellowjackets didn't want the focus to be on cannabalism: "When I first got involved with this project, I had long discussions with Ash and Bart about the cannibalism of it all," says co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco. "And that’s not what the show is about. In fact, some of the commentary that I’ve most appreciated from our very enthusiastic fans is, like, 'Wow, this is a show where cannibalism is the least interesting thing about the show!' And that’s because we’ve tried to have these characters with a great deal of specificity, and psychological nuance. Because ultimately, the show is not about if cannibalism, it’s about why cannibalism, and how cannibalism. And it’s about this group of people, young women in the mid-‘90s, who suddenly wind up — ironically — more alive than they’ve ever felt in their entire lives. Because there’s a kind of rhapsodic freedom when they are stranded."  
    • Yellowjackets didn't set out to cast actresses who played teens in the 1990s: "It’s an added bonus," says co-creator Bart Nickerson. "It wasn’t necessarily something we said, 'Oh, it has to be this.' First and foremost, we just needed great actors. It did start to become this thing that we might want to draw on, because part of this story is about the world we created [where the characters] are known quantities to everyone else because of what they went through. People have a lot of thoughts about who they are and what they did. So that was really fun." Was there a particular instance where a younger actor was cast first? "There was one particular case where we cast the younger version first, and it’s a goddamn miracle, which is that we actually cast Sophie Thatcher in the role of teen Natalie before we got Juliette," says Lyle. "She just embodied the role of Natalie to us, and then the gods of television were shining on us a little bit, because then Juliette was interested in that role, and they do have a really strong similarity of spirit. In most other cases, we either cast the adults first or both at the same time."
    • Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson tried and failed to avoid online chatter about Yellowjackets: "I admire anybody who has the actual self-discipline or willpower to not be checking in on these things," says Lyle. "But for me personally, I find it impossible to have invested this much of myself, and for Bart to have invested himself—just the sheer tonnage of hours and worries and stress—and to not see what people think? That is not a quality that I possess."
    • Sophie Thatcher, who was cast first, was thrilled when she learned Juliette Lewis would be playing the adult version of her character: “I’ve always looked up to her," she says. "She’s pretty much as cool as it gets, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was a really big movie for me growing up,” she says. “We talked a lot on the phone and I would always see her doing the Zoom read-throughs. So I would try and study her mannerisms because she has such specific mannerisms. Artistically, we were always on the same page. We have each other’s backs. And for season two, we just want the best for our character and for both of us to be happy. So it’s very collaborative and I’m really thankful for her.”
    • Liv Hewson on how she thinks Van would describe herself: "Van is honest but not communicative. When we were filming the pilot, I had a limited amount of information about her because we didn’t know what was going to happen in the season," she says. "Right from the beginning, I was like, 'What are the things I know about this person?' I know she’s the goalie, so what does that tell me? That she’s probably defensive, protective, watches very closely, sees herself as separate, perhaps — maybe feels a little isolated. I know she’s funny, I know she probably deflects with humor, and I know her home life is really troubled, and she probably does a lot of parenting herself, keeping herself in check and upright on her own. She’s no-nonsense, comfortable with taking control of her circumstances, comfortable with her own aggression — but I don’t think she makes herself vulnerable with the team very often."
    • Melanie Lynskey discusses the Season 1 finale: “There are moments with this character when we have to remember that she’s operating on Autopilot,” Lynskey says of Shauna. “There’s a problem, and she’s just like, OK, let me get through this part of the problem until another problem arises. She’s just trying to keep one foot in front of the other.”
    • Lynskey explains how learning about the season finale influenced her performance
    • Ella Purnell worried about Jackie losing the audience: "I was worried she would just become instantly unlikable," she says. "When she doesn’t pull her weight in the group, that would piss anyone off. That would piss me off!"
    • Christina Ricci says she was treated differently on set wearing Misty's tragic wig: "The character has the haircut my mother had my entire childhood: a curly bob with side bangs," she tells The New Yorker. "I really don’t mind it. I don’t like how people treat me once I’m in costume. But aside from that..." How was she treated? "It’s like a bizarre social experiment," she says. "The second you get into Misty’s wardrobe—wig and glasses—people forget that you’re an actress. People teasing or making jokes about you, taking a lot of liberties. I had to be very cold and mean, to offset it. My attitude had to always be very 'Don’t touch me. Why are you touching me?' People have a reaction to the way she looks, which is very informative as to how this person would have experienced life. I was just, like, Oh, this is so interesting, that just because I’m wearing this wig and glasses they’ve forgotten I’m No. 3 on the call sheet."
    • Here are the seven biggest questions for Season 2
    • 10 TV casts that should survive in the wilderness, Yellowjackets-style, from Ted Lasso to Emily in Paris to Succession

    TOPICS: Yellowjackets, Showtime, Lost, Station Eleven, Succession, The X-Files, Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, Christina Ricci, Ella Purnell, Jonathan Lisco, Liv Hewson, Melanie Lynskey, Sophie Thatcher