Biweekly Binge: Trapped in a riddle
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Yellowjackets
In the first episode of Yellowjackets (streaming on Voot Select), the 2021 Shauna played by Melanie Lynskey masturbates to the picture of her daughter’s boyfriend. On her daughter’s bed. She hides away the dildo and gets back to her daily routine—collecting the clothes, doing laundry, and chores around the house. In high school, Shauna (Sophie Nelisse playing the teenager) was a member of Yellowjackets, New Jersey state championship-winning soccer team made of massively competitive bunch of teenagers touching every corner of the behavioural spectrum. But inadvertently they become notorious for something else. Their private plane—thanks to an affluent parent—crashes in Canadian wilderness on the way to the Nationals and the whole team with coaches and two boys—for some extra suspense and romance—go missing for 19 months only to return to civilian life with incomplete but satisfying alibis. They go from state champions Yellowjackets to those 1996 Yellowjackets who survived a plane crash and almost two years worth of disconnect from civilization. Nobody knows what happened in those 19 months except for those who made it alive. At heart, all of them are still nursing the trauma and therefore this opening scene for adult Shauna, stuck in a high schooler’s bedroom gaping at a high school boy’s prom photograph.
Trauma and adolescence, and how that influential time informs the future adults are now American TV staples. Shows like Euphoria, Unbelievable, Sex Education and countless more stay in the present and create drama, debate and equations within the timeline. These shows deal with sex, abuse, assault, rape, drugs, abortion and navigating experiences beyond just age. Even a seemingly light show like Ted Lasso buries its eponymous character under the weight of a life changing event that transpired during his teenage years. These are characters in the middle of formation and transformation or in flux, broken and twisted long before they can legally drink in the United States (Yes, I am aware how naïve that sentence sounds if you’ve watched all the shows mentioned). Yellowjackets, created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, doesn’t deal directly with what is rite of passage in the formative years but designs it as something more feral and brutish. The ingredients remain the same – there is curiosity, jealousy, bullying, gaslighting and hierarchy. They play as a team on the soccer field, but the show’s intentions are to give us a long account of their training regimen in the boondocks, an arena where the divide between them is starker and they face opponents in nature and come in conflict with the fauna that makes their decorum designed as passivity disappear inside a hat only to pull out a skinned rabbit as the symbol of latent aggression.
Yellowjackets makes this a self-reflexive exercise on part of the audience by casting teenage stars for the adult versions. Christina Ricci plays a deliriously slimy Misty. Juliette Lewis plays the adult Natalie, a character seemingly lost but the only one aware of the zip code of her bearings. Tawny Cypress plays adult Taissa whose origins and destinations leave us in complete tatters. As the show drifts back and forth between 1996 and 2021 while also staying lose with 90s pop culture, the question remains not as much as how their experience and what they did changed them forever but how much of that remains trapped in the bodies and minds of their 1996 counterparts. The pilot closes with an obvious if startling revelation only for Shauna to joke to her husband Jeff and daughter Callie that she caught another rabbit in their garden and skinned it from chin to anus for dinner. In another scene, on the verge of committing manslaughter, the images switch between a teenage and adult Shauna until we cannot tell the difference anymore.
Karyn Kusama directed the pilot and is also an executive producer. It’s no wonder that a subject like this attracted the filmmaker who made Jennifer’s Body. In some ways, Yellowjackets could be slotted as body horror—the characters change not only mentally but also physically, they deal with body image issues while having emotionally scarring experiences. But like Jennifer’s Body, Yellowjackets can be unapologetic too. It defies genres, a B-movie that shape shifts to stage a commentary on anti-heroines who are simply being themselves without even getting into any PTSD conversation. Violence attracts Shauna and a generation of bullying has pushed Misty into a world of nihilism. Mystery and hurting others give her a rush. Natalie seemingly emerged unscathed but that’s also why her vices pale in comparison to others. Through all of it, Yellowjackets remains everything at once—coming of age, thriller, B movie, body horror and a riddle trapped in a maze of reddit theories.