In 1996 and today, the hit thriller returns both excellent and merciless.
Season one of Showtime’s surprise hit Yellowjackets left us with as many questions as it answered. With the show’s sophomore season—launching this week—creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson take us deeper into their strange, terrifying wonderland, doling out mystery, horror, humor, and some exquisite needle drops. Prepare for a Tori Amos renaissance in the vein of Kate Bush’s success on Stranger Things 4.
We last left the 1996-era Yellowjackets in the first days of winter, with Jackie (Ella Purnell) being the first to succumb to the elements. Teen Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) isn’t dealing with the loss well, devoting hours of her day to a BFF fantasy with Jackie’s frozen corpse. The rest of the team isn’t faring much better. Taissa’s (Jasmine Savoy Brown) sleepwalking grows increasingly weird, leading her–and a watchful Van (Liv Hewson)–on a cult-symbol scavenger hunt. Coach Ben (Steven Krueger) slips into a Sliding Doors-esque delusion where he moves in with Paul (Francois Arnaud) and lives a happy, uncloseted life, essentially leaving the team without even the pretense of adult supervision.
Food is scarcer than scarce, and the lack of game combined with the search for a still-missing Javi (Luciano Leroux) has led Travis (Kevin Alves) to buy into Lottie’s (Courtney Eaton) occult blessings and rituals. The only Yellowjacket who seems to be holding on to frail shreds of their sanity is Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), who struggles with the dual pressures of finding enough food to keep the team alive, and keeping Travis moderately sane.
The present-day Yellowjackets might be warmer and more well-fed, but their brushes with discovery and capture have them in just as much peril as their younger selves, with Taissa (Tawny Cypress) dealing with the fallout of Simone’s discovery of the Altar of Biscuit (RIP, Biscuit, Steve will never replace you) and Natalie (Juliette Lewis) now a reluctant guest/hostage of Lottie’s (Simone Kessell) heliotrope-obsessed cult. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) feels the pressure of the investigation into Adam’s disappearance despite interrogation coaching from Misty (Christina Ricci) that she must have been all too happy to provide.
While we are introduced to more present-day crash survivors—notably Kessell and Lauren Ambrose, brilliantly cast as the adult Van—other new players thicken the proverbial stew. Notable among the new faces? Elijah Wood as fellow Citizen Detective Walter (who might be the Penn to Misty’s Teller), and Search Party’s John Reynolds as the detective investigating Adam’s disappearance. While Nat tries to navigate Lottie’s involvement in the last days of Travis’s life and “The Bad One” sends Tai running right to Van, Shauna is forced to rely on Jeff (Warren Kole) and Callie (Sarah Desjardins) to save her from herself as the investigation closes in on her. And, predictably, the pressure is enough to send Shauna hurtling deeper into her inner darkness.
What Yellowjackets does so brilliantly is showcase the dangers of underestimating someone because they’re soft or feminine. There is a coldness—an unrelenting brutality—that Shauna has managed to lock away like her old journals. And like the journals, once that darkness is out of the safe, it gets harder and harder to lock away again and again.
Lynskey shifts deftly from Shauna’s role as wife and mother to the shadow-touched Shauna of the Wilderness as the lines that separate her two lives begin to erode. Between this and her stint as a hardened militia leader in The Last of Us, Lynskey proves her understanding of the duality of women, just as capable of brutality as they are of nurturing. Adam underestimated Shauna’s instincts, Jeff underestimated her cunning, and everyone else underestimates her rage. All that fury and despair simmers under Shauna’s soft voice and dark eyes, visible only to those willing to give her a longer look.
Having tasted forbidden fruit, Season two offers plenty of opportunities for the wilder, more deadly Shauna to come out, hungry for more. Lynskey gives a powerhouse performance as Shauna slowly unravels under the weight of the past and the real possibility of arrest and exposure. Every Yellowjackets player brings their A-game this season, but this is undoubtedly Lynskey’s moment.
While the present-day portions of the show drag and meander a bit more than necessary, keeping our team members more separated than last season, the 1996 sequences remain grimly riveting. Winter and starvation push the boundaries of everyone’s rationality, resulting in a fascinating and gruesome sequence set appropriately to Radiohead’s ‘Climbing Up The Walls.’ Let’s say eating while watching episode two wouldn’t be wise.
In the pilot episode, Natalie tells her therapy group that she’d lost her purpose, which is never more evident than it is this season. As each survivor grapples with what they experienced in the wilderness, it becomes clear that their guilt and trauma are intertwined with longing for that place and time—for the simplicity of survival, of do or die. Shauna, Tai, Nat, Misty, and their fellow one-time teammates struggle to find purpose in the mundane details of daily life. Sometimes surviving at knifepoint is a hell of a lot simpler than merely existing.
Yellowjackets’ second season begins streaming on March 24th on Showtime.