Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and teen cannibals: why Yellowjackets is the most fun TV show in forever

A brilliant cast lead this outrageously fun gorefest, which navigates a 90s-to-present-day timeline with laughs, panache – and exploding planes

What’s not to love about Yellowjackets (Sky Atlantic), a series largely driven by the central mystery of which teenage girl has been eaten, and who ordered the eating? The US horror/thriller/drama, which is also truly a comedy (is it so wrong to laugh at an exploding plane?), has acquired a big following over the course of its first season. It tells the story of a girls’ high-school football team, whose plane crashes while they’re travelling to a national tournament, leaving survivors stranded in the wilderness, having to fight for their lives. Think of it as a hybrid of The Craft and The Island with Bear Grylls, or Lost – with intentional jokes – plus a hint of Big Little Lies, if that had more of an interest in cannibalism than property porn.

I can’t remember the last time a TV series offered such unadulterated and outrageous fun. 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.

Christina Ricci as Misty in Yellowjackets.
Christina Ricci as Misty in Yellowjackets. Photograph: Paul Sarkis/Showtime

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. It’s a nostalgia fest for 90s lovers, with Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci putting in their best performances in years. Lewis is outstanding as the wild and troubled Natalie, while Ricci is in danger of creating an iconic villain – if you see her as a villain, though there are moments in which she verges on the heroic – in the fabulously unhinged Misty. Tawny Cypress is Taissa, an ambitious politician in the making whose trauma from the crash continues to manifest itself in strange and uncanny ways. The reliably wonderful Melanie Lynskey is pitch perfect as present-day Shauna, stuck in a domestic trap of her own creation but destructively desperate to break out of it, and suspiciously capable of coolly culling the rabbits in her garden.

Juliette Lewis as Natalie in Yellowjackets.
Juliette Lewis as Natalie in Yellowjackets. Photograph: Paul Sarkis/Showtime

While there is a suggestion that dark forces surround their wilderness days, and the boundaries of reality are stretched – particularly when mixing hooch made from rotten berries with mushroom stew – the series holds our attention by rationing the reveals, carefully drip-feeding information about who may or may not have made it out, and by hinting at whatever gruesome business went down. While we know our central four characters survived into the present day, the identity and whereabouts of the others are not yet clear. Fan forums are teeming with theories and speculation. Who is the girl who appears to have been sacrificed? Who is the Antler Queen, conducting her acolytes? What happens to the baby? What do Lottie’s visions mean? What about Jackie? Was Adam really a random, handsome guy, who just happened to be everywhere that Shauna was? And just happened to be a little bit of a modern-day Yellowjackets fanboy?

The impending season finale, which can’t come soon enough, should answer at least some of those questions. It has already been renewed for a second season, and rightly so. I have recommended Yellowjackets to a lot of people, and, up until this point, it has had a very strong hit rate. My only concern is that it will leave us hanging, that, with more seasons to go, we might have to wait a Lost length of time to get proper answers. But, then again, with Misty on the rampage and Natalie out for revenge, I can think of worse things to do than strapping in for the ride.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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