Politics

‘Yellowjackets’ Is So Much More Than a Female ‘Lord of the Flies’


Attempts to summarize the Showtime series Yellowjackets have mostly had to rely on creaky comparisons: a female Lord of the Flies … a ’90s Stranger Things … a teen Lost, but in Canada. The coming-of-age horror story is indeed tough to categorize, but nonetheless thrillingly addictive. The show follows a championship-bound girls’ soccer team that crashes in the wilderness in 1996, threading their story with that of the surviving members as adults in 2021.

Like Stranger Things, the show uses genre horror as a way to recall what it feels like to be a teenager. After all, with so much in high school seeming life-and-death, a survival narrative is almost too on the nose. But although the anxieties of that age are universal, Yellowjackets also speaks to the very specific trauma of this moment. As they dream about college, crushes, and national championships, the girls have their lives interrupted by an unthinkable disaster. Suddenly grappling with surviving each day, they find themselves in a world without clear rules for how to stay safe and return to normal life.

Yellowjackets isn’t just about the trauma of the team’s 19 months in the wilderness, though. It’s also about how that trauma has stayed with them—how they’ve tried to grow past it and support one another through it.

The comparisons to Lost are mostly quite apt: Yellowjackets’ quasi-supernatural plot has spawned endless online theorizing. (Who are the “pit girl”and the “antler queen”? Who’s blackmailing the adults? What does the cult’s strange symbol mean?) In breaking from Lost’s mold with two timelines, though, the show introduces a fascinating new kind of mystery: How did the teenagers we see in the woods grow into the adults they become back home?

For an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review, Shirley Li, Lenika Cruz, and Megan Garber analyze Season 1 of Yellowjackets. Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Season 1 of Yellowjackets.

Shirley Li: How would you describe Yellowjackets, Megan? Because I’ve struggled with it.

Megan Garber: I also have struggled. I’ve tried to proselytize on this show and often failed because I haven’t been able to adequately describe why it is so good. It’s so many things happening at once. The premise is basically this: In 1996, a plane crash takes down a high-school girls’ soccer team on their way to national championships. They then have to survive what we think is the Canadian wilderness and the many, many things that transpire there. Alongside the 1996 story, there’s also a timeline set in the present day where some of the survivors deal with various mysteries and life after trauma. I also think the show makes clear that we are not seeing all of the people who made it out of the wilderness. But again, that does not really convey the greatness of this show. (Laughs.)

Lenika Cruz: One of the nice things about Yellowjackets is that it’s so hard to describe that you end up listing things, one or two of which is going to catch someone’s attention. And they’ll go and watch the show and they’ll still find plenty of things to be surprised by. That’s how it was for me. I literally edited Shirley’s piece about the finale of Yellowjackets. And she mentioned multiple spoilers, and I still watched the show and had no idea what was going to happen.

One thing I wish I had heard from people recommending the show is: If you liked Lost, watch this show. That was definitely an inspiration—or at least a vibe—that really hooked me. One of the more common descriptions I’ve heard is “female Lord of the Flies,” but the mystery angle was just so engrossing to me, as I think it was for so many who watched this show.

Li: What does a female version of Lord of the Flies look like according to Yellowjackets? The showrunners have said they were kind of inspired by commenters who had scoffed at this idea of there being a female Lord of the Flies. One of the comments the showrunners highlighted read: “What are they going to do? Collaborate to death?”

Cruz: Even though the creators say that’s how the idea came about, I feel like “female Lord of the Flies” is the least interesting way to describe what this show is. Yes, it’s about survival and throwing this high-school team into the wilderness to see what they do, but one of the appeals for me was seeing how long it took for any semblance of the violence from the pilot to appear. And that very slow start is why I think I liked the show so much. It reminded me of a show like Lost or even AMC’s The Terror, which I will never miss an opportunity to hype. I like survival shows where it takes people a really, really, really long time to give up what makes them human.

And I feel like having the show be about a high-school soccer team, you see them clinging to the very specific dynamics and stereotypes that we all cling to when we’re in high school. It just becomes easier to sort people into labels, and I think that’s really hard to give up, especially when this season only shows their first four months in the wilderness.

I didn’t hear the Lost comparisons, but the plane-crash scene did remind me so much of the very first episode of Lost. And then obviously the mystery and the theorizing, the sense that there was something supernatural afoot that you’re trying to puzzle through.

Garber: I also found myself thinking a lot about shows like PEN15 and Big Mouth and Stranger Things. These shows also use horror as a way to get at what it feels like to be this age when so much feels life-and-death. Even though it might be a school dance or something like that, it takes on the dimensions of survivalism. I also think this show fights back against this impulse that it’s very easy to have as adults, to look back on that time of life and roll our eyes: We were so foolish then!

We often look down on that period of life as not full of very much dignity, and I think these shows are actually trying to recapture and remind us how much you feel in that period of life, how much things mean to you. I think they’re trying, in their way, to restore a little bit of respect for that phase.

Li: Yeah, if it only stuck to the ’90s plane-crash timeline and the whole female Lord of the Flies, it would only be exploring that liminal space between girlhood and adulthood. But instead, the present-day story really helps emphasize that what happens to you in that time—I mean, most of us haven’t gone through 19 months in the wilderness—really affects who you fully are as an adult.

Cruz: Right. The show’s mysteries are about murder and this strange symbol, but there’s the other mystery of connecting who they were to who they become. I’ll watch a certain scene and be like, Oh, that’s why she’s this way, or That’s why she reacted this way. And this is a very pulpy show. It’s really fun to watch. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. And so you kind of simplify both the teenagers and their adult counterparts to these archetypes: She’s the disaffected suburban mom … She’s the uptight high-achieving politician … She’s the burnout teen …

And you realize how that functions both in fiction but then also in how we look at real people, and what a disservice that is to both teenage girls and middle-aged women. And once I realized I was doing that—making these assumptions about who these people were—it started becoming more interesting, because the show subverted my expectations. They proved to be so much more complex, more humane.

Garber: Another element to the mystery is just: What kind of world is this, even? Are there supernatural elements at play? And I think what ultimately drew me in is the ambiguity of the answers. There are so many fundamental elemental things that we don’t know yet. And this is a little bit navel-gazey but, to me, so many of the questions we’re dealing with in life outside of this show—in politics, in culture, etc.—really do come down to: Why do people believe what they believe? Why do people see the world as they do? Who gets to decide what is true? Who gets to decide what is art? What is history? And I think this show feels so resonant right now because it’s actually trying to get at some of those questions.

Cruz: The length of time they’re there is 19 months, which makes me think about how long the pandemic has lasted. Their time in the wilderness came out of nowhere. They were on their way to nationals. They had college. They had boyfriends, girlfriends, all these different things in mind for themselves. And all of a sudden that was interrupted. They’re thrown into this space that nobody really knows how to navigate. There are more questions than answers. And they’re trying to make the best of the situation but have no idea when it’s going to end.

Li: One of my favorite scenes is from the present timeline when Shauna rests in bed with Taissa.

Cruz: Love that scene.

Li: They’re just talking about what they had wanted their lives to look like. It’s a really beautiful, sweet friendship. As a viewer, you wonder how they got to this point. And you learn about what happened in the woods, how they empathized with each other about the secrets they couldn’t share with their closest partners or friends. That’s the power of the show.

Garber: Yeah. The Taissa-Shauna relationship is one of my favorites in the show, particularly because there’s so much pressure for young women to sort of commodify their relationships and treat them as capital. Your friendships are not just friendships on their own terms. Often they define where you are in the hierarchy, and there can be something a little bit transactional about them. The book that Yellowjackets slyly alludes to is Queen Bees and Wannabes, the sociological treatment of girls at this time of life, which then became the inspiration for Mean Girls.

It’s all about those dynamics. And one of the things that I really love about the Taissa-Shauna relationship is that it sort of elides definition. There’s a quiet, beautiful understanding between them. These two people just get each other, and they’re going to get each other regardless of the context, regardless of the social hierarchy at play. And most important, they’re going to be there for each other. Taissa is the first to realize that Shauna’s pregnant, and she makes sure Shauna has everything she needs for it in the wilderness. Conversely, Shauna is the person that Taissa goes to when she can’t sleep. It’s the one thing she desperately needs in the world, and she knows she can get it from Shauna. There’s just something so great about that: this very quiet, very unremarkable and yet totally remarkable reliability between them, even though they’re not technically best friends. They’re not technically anything. They’re just there for each other.

Li: Yeah, and we don’t have to put a label on it.

To continue the comparisons to Lost, part of what I loved about that show was how you could really put yourself in the character’s shoes. What would I be doing in this situation? Would I be screaming my head off for Walt? Would I go on the raft and try to leave the island? And in Yellowjackets, too, you wonder, Would I join Taissa’s group and try to hike out of the wilderness?

Cruz: Lost is a useful point of comparison because of their obvious parallels as stranded survival stories, but also because of the way both shows encourage theorizing. And I wasn’t watching while people were actively theorizing. As soon as one episode ended, I could just watch the next one without checking the subreddit in between to look up who fans thought Adam might be or who the ”pit girl” and ”antler queen” were.

Those more granular questions were not as much on my mind. And I think it’s helpful to know that the creators shot the pilot well in advance of shooting the rest of the show, before even breaking down the beats of the show. And so yes, that’s a very provocative way to begin a season and to tease the questions of the series, but I almost feel like I was expecting something else from the show than what it delivered—and I kind of like the other stuff it started to deliver. I appreciated that it was less focused on how these young women find themselves in a cannibalistic cult and more on questions about what parts of themselves from that time they kept to the present.

I’m more interested in how they retain their humanity. It’s not just about the brutality they can show to one another. It’s also about the ways in which they care for one another, despite the ways they’ve hurt each other. This show is so good at tracking the ever-evolving teen dynamics, the ways centers of power shift just like they could have back in New Jersey.

Being almost setting-agnostic was really refreshing to see and made the show for me. Its ambitions are so much more than just, “What happens when teenage girls are at each other’s throats?” Because that itself can be a tired trope. Seeing the forms of care was also important.

Li: For me, the fun of the show is in looking at the theories week to week and going into the subreddit. Sometimes you find some theory being like, ”Caligula is the name of Misty’s bird. Caligula is the name of a Roman emperor who performed a C-section, and ate the baby. This must mean that Misty ate Shauna’s baby.”

Cruz: I hadn’t heard that. And that’s probably not true, but I love it.

Li: Yeah, same, but that’s the power of the show. But what keeps you watching is not to find out whether Caligula was named specifically to refer to something about Misty; it’s to find out whether, like, Shauna and Jackie can repair their relationship.

But since we’ve mentioned Caligula, I don’t think we’ve talked enough about a really particular character: the one and only Misty Quigley. She’s the best character, right?

Garber: Second only to Caligula, who is definitely the best character. (Laughs.)

Cruz: I love grown-up Misty. I’m terrified of, and sort of hate, young Misty.

Li: How can you hate young Misty?

Cruz: Every time I see young Misty, I’m like, Please go away. Stop trying to get with the coach. Like, she commits the original sin of the show in destroying the transmitter. And for what? She overhears some of the other girls talking about what they would have done without Misty’s medical knowledge. And then Misty, who’s more of an outcast back in their high school, hears that and thinks this is her chance to be somebody. So she destroys the transmitter because social currency is more important than food and shelter, we’re led to believe.

Li: I feel for her though! I can’t hate her for it. (Laughs.)

Cruz: And she probably thought that they would still get rescued eventually. She just wasn’t thinking about what that meant. And there is something about both high-school and adult Misty. She’s a terrible person, but also someone who has this well-meaning innocence about her. And she’s so funny. Christina Ricci’s incredible. She is this almost campy villain. And no matter what she does, no matter how betrayed you feel by her actions, it’s still just, ”Oh, that’s Misty being Misty!”

Li: I can’t hate that character, but I get what you’re saying about her being annoying. Like, let go of your crush on the coach! You’re making this guy uncomfortable.

Cruz: She definitely goes around the world thinking she’s the main character. ”I’m Misty Quigley, main character of my story. I’m about to kidnap this woman. And so I’m going to play Phantom of the Opera as a soundtrack to this cool crime I’m about to commit.” (Laughs.)

Li: (Laughs.) Yeah, she definitely has Main Character Syndrome. She’s unbearable in many ways, but she’s efficient. When you need to get rid of a body, you call Misty Quigley.

Garber: (Laughs.) Yeah, totally. I mean, as a person, I detest her. She is a monster. But as a character, she’s one of the all-time greats. Christina Ricci is so good and so compelling. And returning to this idea of a women-focused Lord of the Flies, she does embody these stereotypical feminine traits, right? She’s physically small. She presents as meek and weak. She happily fades into the background and wants to serve others. Even on the team, she’s the equipment manager. If we’re just trafficking in stereotypes, she’s sort of the homemaker for the team, right? And even into adulthood, she goes on into a caring profession, which I think the show argues is to sort of reclaim the power she had in the wilderness. The show puts the stereotypically feminine stuff and her capacity for mayhem alongside one another in this interplay.

Li: Megan, I also want to hear your thoughts about Shauna, because I know you like modern-day Shauna’s dynamic with Jeff, her lovable doofus husband.

Garber: I would love to defend Jeff. Yes, he’s a bit of a doofus. I think the show’s very much trying to imply that he’s someone who peaked in high school. But I really do appreciate the relationship he has with Shauna. I came to love and respect that character by the end of the first season. The show primed us at the beginning to not give him much credit and dismiss him as a stereotype. But throughout the season, he just proved again and again his loyalty to Shauna.

I’m always interested in nuanced portrayals of marriage in pop culture. And, to my mind, the Shauna-Jeff relationship is one of the better ones out there. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Shauna finds out it’s Jeff who’s been blackmailing the Yellowjackets. I love the scene, first of all, for “There’s no book club?,” which is just an all-time great line. It’s so good.

Li: (Laughs.) So good! His voice cracking. I love it.

Cruz: Poor, sweet Jeff.

Garber: But my actual favorite part of that scene is when Shauna realizes that Jeff read her diaries a long time. And so he’s known everything that happened in the wilderness all along—everything that she did, everything she’s been feeling so guilty about for all these years. And she realizes he loved her anyway. I just love the way Melanie Lynskey plays that moment. She’s filled with shock and gratitude at once.

This show has all these different genres at play—satire, horror, psychodrama—but I think the moments I ended up loving most are of these relationships being deeply explored and lovingly treated on the screen.




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