Four women deal with the shared trauma of an event that destroyed their lives. In 1996, as members of a New Jersey female high school soccer team, they were in a plane crash in a remote part of Canada. Left to fend for themselves for nineteen months with sixteen fellow survivors, horrific events took place, the details of which remain unclear. Twenty-five years later, they reunite when they discover that someone is trying to learn the truth of what happened, and is even willing to resort to murder and blackmail to achieve it.
Yellowjackets is two TV series wrapped in one. It is a survival-horror story about the twenty survivors of a plane crash and the struggles as they waited more than a year and a half for rescue. It is also the story of the dysfunctional relationship between four of those survivors a quarter of a century later, as they navigate their own complicated lives and the attempts by an unknown adversary to dredge up the past for their own benefits. If you wanted to find a buzz-phrase, it's basically if Lost and Desperate Housewives were the same show.
The dual structure and the inter-cutting between the two timelines (with roughly a 50-50 split between the two) gives the show an immediate sense of identity and mystery. We know that four of the survivors of the plane crash made it home and we are told that some of the others survived as well, but not who or how many. This gives the flashbacks a sense of tension because almost anyone can die or be seriously injured. There's also a real sense of interlinking between the two stories: what happened to people in their late teens can still have a drastic impact on them as apparently mature adults in their early forties even without a traumatic plane crash, the horrors of surviving starvation and wild animals, and years of being minor celebrities with morbid people constantly asking them what happened.
The show also makes absolutely no bones that the survival story is going to get extremely bleak. Lost fudged its premise a little bit by giving the survivors of Oceanic 815 plentiful food and water and only stranding them for ninety days before being rescued (kind of); Yellowjackets gives no such easy assurances to the stranded survivors and apparently more time passes in Yellowjackets' first season than in Lost's first three. One of the survivors, Taissa, has gone into politics and one of her opponents' most constant attack lines is that she and the other survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive, which they fervently deny, but the flashbacks suggest this might not be entirely true. The shadow of nascent horror lurks over every minute of the show, particularly in the flashback story.
The secret of Yellowjackets' success, without which the show would not be viable, is the casting. In almost every case, the show does a tremendous job in casting the right actress for both the younger and older version of the character. Helped by excellent wig work, Sammi Hanratty and Christina Ricci nail the two versions of Misty Quigley (the team's equipment manager and free-roaming agent of random chaos) so perfectly it's hard to believe they're not the same person and they've not just filmed the two sides of her story 20+ years apart. Sophie Nélisse and Melanie Lynskey are almost as perfect as Shauna (a former sidekick to a homecoming queen who finds her niche in the woods, and now is an apparently quiet housewife), as are Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress as Taissa Turner (the team's most hardcore and dedicated member, now running for State Senate). Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis, playing Natalie Scatorccio (a troubled teen turned troubled adult), are probably the least physically well-matched of the four, but nail the character's attitude perfectly. Of course, casting the four older versions of the characters with well-known teen actresses from the 1990s is another masterstroke.
The rest of the cast is also excellent, particularly high-ish profile actors Ella Purnell (Arcane) as Jackie Taylor and Courtney Eaton (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Lottie Matthews, two prominent members of the soccer team and the survivors. Their apparent absence in the 2021 storyline makes viewers fear the worst for them, so it's an interesting twist when some of the other survivors do show up or are revealed in dialogue to have survived.
Despite the sprawling nature of the cast and the story, the show keeps a tight rein on its pacing and scope. By using the four main characters in both time periods as our POVs and containing its first season in just ten episodes (Lost's first season had a mind-boggling twenty-five episodes, to compare), the show tells a big story with an admirable sense of focus. Surprisingly, the present-day story is as compelling as the story of survival, involving by itself political intrigue, blackmail, scandal and murder, which is where the Desperate Housewives-on-steroids comparison comes into play. In the wrong hands Yellowjackets could be miserable and grim, but the writers also bring compassion and humour (albeit sometimes very dark) into the mix, alleviating some of the darker moments of the series.
The story in both timelines builds through the season and the finale acts as a gamechanger, rewriting the rules of the game and upending what we thought we knew about the characters.
One of the most striking debut seasons of recent years, Yellowjackets (****½) is William Golding's Lord of the Flies where we ask what happens when the survivors get home, and find that their experiences in the wild have followed and defined them for the rest of their lives? The first season is available to watch on Showtime in the United States and on NowTV in the UK. A second season will air later in 2022.