This recap of Yellowjackets season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.
The hook of Yellowjackets is that it’s a Lord of the Flies-style survival drama about kids descending into horrible primitivism that also shows us how the kids grew up into traumatized adults years later. The split focus doesn’t do a great deal for the show’s pilot, an introductory hour that is mainly spent establishing some of the key characters and setting up the basic premise, but you can really see how it might pay off down the line. Not just a teen drama but also, it seems, a kind of grim horror story, Showtime is probably onto a winner here, or at least an interesting new redo of a very old idea.
Yellowjackets season 1, episode 1 recap
Death sets the scene, as it always tends to in shows like this. A girl in a nightgown pelts through the woods. There are runes and stick figures dangling from trees and, when she eventually falls into a pit and skewers herself on the spikes lining the bottom of it, gold pendants and furs and masks. You’d be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with a 1996 girls’ soccer game in New Jersey, but then you realize that the name of the winning team is the Yellowjackets, and you start putting the pieces together.
These early sequences, that introduce us first to Jackie (Ella Purnell, a striking-looking star in the making) and Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), and Jackie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Jeff (Jack DePew), feel more like Bridge and Tunnel than they do anything resembling the cold open. We’re dealing with students on the cusp of graduation – Jackie intends to share a dorm with Shauna at Rutgers University – who care primarily about their relationships, their soccer chances at nationals, and the next stage of their lives, not realizing that they’re about to spend the next 19 months in the Ontario wilderness and still be suffering from their experiences there 25 years later.
But there are flashes of nastiness early. When the hyper-competitive Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) worries that new player Allie (Pearl Amanda Dickson) might threaten their success, she breaks her leg on the field. But that moment of unnecessary brutality aside, most of the other girls are classic high-school “types”; Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) is the rocky rebel, Laura Lee (Jane Widdop) is the conservative Christian, Van (Liv Hewson) has a troubled home life, Lottie (Courtney Eaton) is privileged, and Misty (Samantha Hanratty), the equipment manager, is shy and awkward. You know, the usual. And they do usual things, like party in the woods, have sex with their own and their friend’s boyfriends, and keep their university acceptance letters secret.
But Yellowjackets is obviously about how all these types fare when they’re thrust suddenly into extreme circumstances. When they all board a private plane – paid for by Lottie’s father – to the championships, the plane quickly goes down over the Rocky Mountains, and the girls, along with their coach and his sons, are left stranded.
A lot of the pilot is about putting pieces together. Because all the flashback scenes set in the mountains obscure the girls’ faces in masks and furs, we’re forced to make some assumptions about who’s who based on the scant information we have – who’s wearing the pendant that Jackie gives to Shauna, say. Some things are clearer. A meat feast that we must assume is human remains is clearly presided over by Misty. In the meantime – the pilot jumps back and forth from the flashbacks to the present day – we can make some inferences based on the adult versions of the characters. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) is married to Jeff (Warren Kole) and is happy to maintain a relatively miserable existence if it means never talking about what happened in those mountains, a story which a supposed reporter is willing to offer her a seven-figure book deal in order to tell. But Shauna isn’t the timid housewife she’s masquerading as. She stoves rabbits to death in the garden and has a burner phone in a safe. She’s still in contact with Tai (Tawny Cypress), who’s now running for state senator. Both clearly have things to hide and suspect the reporter might not be entirely who she says she is.
The adult versions of both Natalie (Juliette Lewis) and Misty (Christina Ricci) aren’t exactly displaying signs of stability either. Whatever happened during those 19 months in the mountains has irreparably damaged all of these women. Now, their past seems determined to catch up with them, and the things they did out there, whatever secrets they left buried, are about to be unearthed. If that isn’t a great hook for a drama, then I don’t know what is.