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Yellowjackets S2 review: these women might do anything

It’s exciting enough that a TV show tells its own unique story these days, but this is particularly rich, complex and gripping.

When season 1 of Yellowjackets aired in 2021 – on the then-new Paramount+ in Australia –  it became something of a word-of-mouth hit. It follows members of a New Jersey high-school girls’ soccer team, who spend 19 months stranded in remote Canadian wilderness after their plane crashes in 1996 en route to their national tournament in Seattle.

Twenty-five years later, some of the survivors reconnect. Their murky shared past is resurfacing, whether to threaten the lives they’ve built, or to set them free. Season two fleshes out, as it were, more of that wild time – and we meet more of the survivors as adults. The series mingles past and present timelines, with shrewdly cast actors portraying the same characters as teenagers and adults.

I instantly loved it – and I’m never going to do justice to it in this limited review space. I’m the same age as the characters, and Yellowjackets understands and indulges the specific ways power, taboo desire and existential danger mingled in the fantasies of 1990s teenagers. This was, after all, the era of The Craft, Romeo + Juliet and Titanic.

Yellowjackets. Image: Paramount+.

Yellowjackets’ survival themes are particularly astute because in the US, the Gen X–millennial cusp to which its key characters belong is sometimes called the ‘Oregon Trail Generation’, after the classroom computer game where 1980s primary-school students role-played as US white settlers navigating the notoriously perilous 19th-century westward wagon route. Yellowjackets similarly invites viewers to ask: in their situation, what would you do?

Meet the Bacchantes

The mystery plotting is gripping. Who lived to the present day? What profane choices did they make to survive? And how have those choices affected their lives since then? Season 1 teased the identity of the group’s horned ritual leader who led a ritual hunt involving human sacrifice. The finale episode ended on a massive cliffhanger as masked abductors burst into Natalie’s (Juliette Lewis) motel room and carried her off.

Now, she finds herself held captive by a personal-development cult led by her former teammate Lottie (Simone Kessell, Our Flag Means Death, Pine Gap). Lottie’s teachings are based on cultivating the ‘primal self’, and appear to have evolved from the Dionysian practices she led in the wilderness.

Simone Kessell in Yellowjackets. Image: Paramount+.

While Yellowjackets has frequently been compared to Lord of the Flies, it’s more strongly aligned with the ancient Greek cult of Dionysus, whose female devotees known as maenads commit horrific ritual violence while experiencing altered mental states.

Last season revealed that from an early age, Lottie (Australian actor Courtney Eaton, Gods of Egypt) has experienced visions that could be either precognitive or schizophrenic. Her controlling father has had Lottie treated normatively by psychiatry; but in the wilderness she becomes interested in what I refer to as ‘witch shit’, and becomes a shaman to the group.

(Ironically, her dad paid for the private plane whose crash then enabled Lottie to explore ways of being that he could not control.)

In last season’s climactic ‘Doomcoming’ episode 9, the group accidentally ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms at a ‘homecoming’ party, and rampaged through the forest hunting down Travis (Kevin Alves), the teenage son of their dead coach. Travis only narrowly escapes the revels with his life, while his little brother Javi (Luciano Leroux), flees.

Months later, in the dead of winter, Travis and his girlfriend and hunting partner Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) head off before dawn to explore the snowbound hinterland. Spurred on by the charismatic Lottie, Travis is still holding out hope that Javi is alive; the more pragmatic Natalie is mapping the terrain in the hope of finding a way out.

Outwardly a cynical burnout, but inwardly tender and vulnerable, Natalie’s connection to Travis – who in the present day has allegedly killed himself – has spurred most of her character arc. Season two is setting her up in conflict with Lottie … or will they become unlikely allies?

Sorry kid, your mum’s a maenad

What I love most about Yellowjackets is that its characters, having once slipped the harness of normal social roles, know it can never truly hold them again. Season one explored this theme through the teenage friendship of Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) and Jackie (Ella Purnell). Back home, Jackie was the team captain and homecoming queen, and Shauna her meek follower who secretly crushed on Jackie’s boyfriend Jeff Sadecki (Jack DePew).

But in the wilderness, Jackie’s social authority evaporated – and her friendship with Shauna fractured when she learned Shauna was pregnant with Jeff’s baby. Angry with the group, Jackie decided to sleep outside the cabin they’re bunking down in … and froze to death. Season 2 reveals that, months later, Shauna still visits Jackie’s frozen body in an outbuilding, hallucinating conversations with her – and that’s not the most perverse thing she does.

In the present day, Shauna (a delightful Melanie Lynskey) is shaking up her old life as a New Jersey housewife married to Jeff (Warren Kole) and raising their teenage daughter Callie (Sarah Desjardins). Last season, a chance encounter with artist Adam (Peter Gadiot) reawakened Shauna’s desires, but she became convinced he was blackmailing her after reading the journals she kept after the crash, and impulsively stabbed him to death. Her former teammates Natalie, Taissa (Tawny Cypress) and Misty (Christina Ricci) helped her cover up Adam’s death … and now, so is Jeff.

Melanie Linskey in Yellowjackets. Image: Paramount+.

But the Sadecki family is struggling to relate to Shauna’s newly revealed authentic self. Jeff is confused by the complex erotic feelings his unfaithful wife inspires, while Callie is upset and disgusted to discover her mum’s grey morality. Will she rat Shauna out for Adam’s murder?

Unconsciousness and self-knowledge

Bespectacled, practical Misty has become a terrifyingly chirpy aged-care nurse who thrives on dominating her helpless patients. Season 1 showed how this started: when Misty (Samantha Hanratty) amputated the crushed leg of her high-school crush, assistant coach Ben (Steven Krueger), and revelled in his newfound dependence on her care.

As the team’s equipment manager, and then in the wilderness, Misty was only ever tolerated by her fellow Yellowjackets because her obvious hunger for human connection made her offputtingly weird and intense. Having supplied the magic mushrooms that fuelled the Doomcoming rite, Misty has been further ostracised by the survivor group … but she’s making a tentative new connection with musical-theatre nerd Akila (Nia Sondaya).

Misty is also an amateur detective who’s willing to go further than most to solve crime. And on her favourite true-crime messageboard, she learns that Walter (Elijah Wood) has taken an interest in Adam’s disappearance. What will happen when this gruesome twosome meet up?

Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood in Yellowjackets. Image: Paramount+.

What makes Misty a fascinating character is that unlike most of her fellow Yellowjackets, she knows exactly who she is. Taissa, on the other hand, has disastrously repressed her savage impulses. She’s just won a dirty, hard-fought election campaign as state congress representative … but she’s estranged from her wife Simone (Rukiya Bernard) and son Sammy (Aiden Stoxx), after it emerges that Taissa commits appalling acts of ritual violence while sleepwalking.

This scary sleep violence is already a problem in the wilderness. Having rescued her long-suffering girlfriend Van (Liv Hewson, Homecoming Queens) from a burning aeroplane and then a near-deadly wolf attack, Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) unconsciously bites and scratches Van. She’s afraid of herself … but Van insists she isn’t afraid of Taissa.

This disastrous interpersonal dynamic – Taissa’s denial of her worst impulses, and her expectation of a passive, masochistic partner – is now threatening her nascent political career. This season we’re going to meet the adult Van (Lauren Ambrose), but how will she feel about Taissa now?

It’s exciting enough that any TV show now tells its own unique story rather than being based on pre-existing intellectual property. But Yellowjackets is particularly rich, complex and gripping, and I love the way it subverts many of the simplistic ‘trauma and recovery’ tropes familiar from ‘elevated horror’.

It has a flinty, anti-nostalgic quality: do you look back yearningly at your youth, or strive to outrun your past mistakes and regrets? Yes, the characters are ‘damaged’ – but they also have agency, and they can’t truly be controlled. This is a show in which women might do literally anything.

Yellowjackets is currently screening on Paramount+ with a new episode each Friday.

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).