Those of us who have been through high school can say with confidence that it’s a nervewracking experience all on its own — as well as an ecosystem that runs on social hierarchy and the perceived notion of popularity. Often, the reason that high school becomes less of a struggle is that we stumble into finding our own spheres. For some, those bonds are forged in places like band or theater; for others, it happens on the baseball mound or the basketball court. But when it comes to the girls of the wunderkind soccer team featured front and center in Showtime’s new series Yellowjackets, their dynamic is tested in ways they never could have anticipated when a devastating plane crash strands them deep in the Canadian wilderness, leaving them forced to rely on themselves and each other. What’s more, the show from creators and EPs Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson dedicates itself to depicting dual timelines as we see the survivors of that incident 25 years later, still grappling with the nightmare of their experience — all while someone else might be sniffing around, trying to uncover the truth of what really happened out in those woods.
A common dilemma with a show like Yellowjackets, which structures itself around illustrating both past and present, is that one setting can end up being less compelling than the other. That’s definitely not the case here. While the adult versions of the Yellowjackets are portrayed by an undeniable bevy of stars — Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci — the actors we follow in pivotal flashbacks to their teenage years are just as riveting to watch on-screen.
Sophie Nélisse infuses her role as the shy Shauna with quiet observation as well as an inward yearning to break out of her static existence and do something bold and daring for once. Sophie Thatcher proves to be particularly magnetic, playing the punkish Natalie with all the simmering energy of a barely-contained scream. And Sammi Hanratty is beyond unsettling as Misty, an assistant for the soccer team whose intentions for the wounded members of their party go way past the point of basic first-aid and start to veer into manipulative, Munchausen’s by proxy-like behavior. Rounding out the young cast with other strong presences like Liv Hewson (Santa Clarita Diet), Ella Purnell (Army of the Dead), and Courtney Eaton (Mad Max: Fury Road) means that you’ve got a show pretty much overflowing with talent.
Comparisons to Lord of the Flies might be inevitable considering the crux of the story, but where Yellowjackets succeeds as a survival drama is in the minutiae — and not shying away from the messy realities of what would happen when a group of young women is stuck out in the woods with only a limited amount of supplies and food (especially once their menstrual cycles all sync up). Those with a particular inclination toward learning critical skills assert their value immediately, but tensions rise between the survivors who are pitching in to help and the ones who are more concerned with finding batteries for their Walkmans. Relationships that might have already been frayed long before the crash took place are strained to their breaking point, while other teammates find themselves acting on long-simmering romantic feelings now that they’re out in the middle of nowhere with no one but the trees to keep their secrets. Meanwhile, a deeper threat seems to lurk in the darkest parts of the woods, something that the first six episodes provided to reviewers only, unfortunately, hints at in fits and starts — but as the pilot indicates, the biggest danger posed to these girls might just actually be each other.
Fast-forwarding to the present day means that we already have a sense of who has lived and who might not have necessarily made it home — but the crash survivors, all grown-up, still have their own demons to grapple with. Public perception of what really occurred before the group was rescued is couched in a lot of vague buzzwords, especially because the now-adult Taissa (Cypress) has designs on a successful political career and any spilling of secrets could ruin her goal. Yet even while it’s clear that the adult Yellowjackets have mostly gone their separate ways — Natalie (Lewis) has done stints in and out of rehab, Shauna (Lynskey) is struggling in a dissatisfying marriage, and Misty (Ricci) is taking a little too much pleasure out of tormenting her patients at the local nursing home — they’re still linked together by their shared experience and trauma. There are moments of dark levity in this drama too; Lewis has an absolute knack for body comedy, and Ricci commits to her character’s questionable actions with a twisted glee. However, in the background, it seems that an unseen person isn’t content to let the past lie, and in the process, some who survived might wind up dead.
The mystery of the show, thus, becomes twofold too: what happened out in those woods 25 years ago, and why is someone attempting to uncover the truth now at deadly cost? There are times viewers might be more interested in the answer to one of those questions over the other, but Yellowjackets is worth taking that harrowing journey to find out.