The premise of the Showtime series Yellowjackets following the 1996 stranding of a team of female high-school football (soccer) players, their coaches and one of the coach’s 2 teenage sons following a plane crash in a remote Canadian forest and the ensuing tribalism, primal instinct and desperate endeavour to survive, echoes tales such as William Golding’s 1954 novel ‘The Lord of The Flies’ (adapted to film in 1963, 1975 and 1990), the TV show ‘Lost’ (2004 -2010), the book and TV series ‘The Terror’ (adapted from Dan Simmons’ 2007 book in 2018) which was based on the true 1845 case of the disappearance of the ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in the Canadian Northwest Passage and the 1993 film ‘Alive’ directed by Frank Marshall which was based upon the true-life 1972 airplane crash that left members of the Uruguayan Old Christians Rugby Union Team stranded in the snow of the Andes for 72 days, (in which time cannibalism of those who did not survive the crash and aftermath was resorted to as a tragic but necessary means of survival).
Add to the mix, the female coming of age drama of offbeat teen films such as ‘Heathers’ or ‘The Craft’ and that gives the basic gist of Yellowjackets.
It is seasoned however with aesthetic and cult/occult elements of folk horror and also crime thriller action as the story also picks up in the present day following the lives of several of the survivors and how they are still haunted by the 19 horrific months they spent in the wilderness.
The narrative of the show flits between different periods of time in the main characters’ lives – before the crash – during their wilderness time – and 25 years later – so we see some of the roles played both by teen/young adult and middle aged actresses. This provides for good drama as we see the evolution of their inter-personal relationships which in adulthood here are as complex as their adolescent times – more-so because of what the weird feral period they shared and the strange experiences they have lived through. Experiences which are teased out slowly with a lot of speculation and anticipation inspired within the viewing community.
In the adult casting there is good interaction between some actresses familiar to the horror/ weird genres with Juliette Lewis cast as Nat (an off-off the wagon substance abuser who as played by Sophie Thatcher was an alternative teenager who despite their mutual love of football, was left-field to the other girls), Christina Ricci as Misty ( acted by Sammi Hanratty as a teen, another girl on the social fringes who desperately wants to fit in but as the story develops we discover alarming facets of her character) and Melanie Lynskey (perhaps known best in this community for her childhood role as Pauline Parker in Peter Jackson’s 1994 ‘Heavenly Creatures’, a retelling of a true murder case whereby childhood innocence was lost forever) as Shauna who both in adulthood and as a youth (played by Sophie Nelisse) has a complex relationship with sex and loyalty. The other adult survivor we encounter mostly in Season 1 is Taissa (played by Tawny Cypress and Jasmin Savoy Brown) a strong-willed character who has made a success in her life, both in law practice and then as a senate candidate; however her life is more haunted than she may project.
Other characters also lay paths of intrigue – Ben the only adult male and team coach to survive the crash, Van, Laura Lee – a born-again Christian and the enigmatic and mystical Lottie. I will not drop major spoilers but we are left curious wondering to how the fates of these characters will play out (there apparently being 5 seasons of the show planned, there is much to be revealed in time).
But there is another element to Yellowjackets and that is the presence of folk horror motifs. Following the discovery of an old seemingly-abandoned cabin in the woods, things begin to take an even stranger turn than the nightmare of being trapped miles from anywhere with an encroaching hard season and limited supplies, from having to pull dead friends, colleagues and in one instance a parent from the wreckage site of a plane crash and bury them. The cabin has a history and a mystery. A supernatural presence is in play, but is it real or the imaginative manifestation of traumatised, stressed minds? Was it there inherent, in the cabin – in the woods, or brought to the site by one or more of the team? Whatever it was did it stay there or did it follow the eventual survivors back to ‘civilisation’?
From the opening scenes of the very first episode we encounter a girl being hunted down in the snow, we see a fireside rite of fur-clothed and masked figures. We are led to believe that ritual cannibalism occurs (we are led to believe certain things throughout the series however only for the paths we are following to change direction) but certainly a new (or old?) religion starts to fall upon the survivors’ camp and tribute paid to gods of dirt and sky. A religion reluctant to stay in the woods perhaps. And who is the figure named by fans as the Antler Queen? The season leads us to believe it is a certain member of the team, but can we be sure that we have not been led on a path with branches and chicanes?
And then there is the symbol. A mysterious sigil that seems to have predated the team’s descent into the forest but has followed them out of it, appearing on a postcard involved in a blackmail plot that several members.
I enjoyed the show and its genre-bending style and look forward to season 2.
Review by Andy Paciorek