TV hit Yellowjackets is a thrilling, chilling tale of female survivalism

TV hit Yellowjackets is a thrilling, chilling tale of female survivalism

Not many hit TV shows are inspired by the comments section of news articles.

Showtime's Yellowjackets was conceived in 2017 when its creator saw that an all-girls remake of Lord of the Flies was being roundly mocked on the internet, with many doubting that girls would devolve into barbarism like the schoolboy characters of William Golding's 1954 novel.

The new series — a kind of cross between the aforementioned book and the popular ABC show Lost — tells the story of an all-girls high school soccer team from New Jersey whose plane crashes en route to their national championships, leaving the survivors stranded in the Ontario wilderness for 19 months.

Their slow descent into madness — which is hinted at in the pilot episode's gruesome first scene — shows that not everyone will starve, but many won't make it out alive. With its ensemble cast of female stars, Yellowjackets offers a refreshing look at what a woman-led society might look like, and it's probably not the utopia you were expecting.

For Yellowjackets star Sophie Nélisse, who was born in Windsor, Ont., the story's dark examination of femininity was part of the appeal. Nélisse plays Shauna, a shy teenager overshadowed by her charming best friend, Jackie.

"I love that it embraces the darker sides and the not-so-pretty sides [of] women," said Nélisse, who was raised in Montreal. "We're always supposed to be put in this box where we're pretty and we're nice and kind, but we can be sort of assholes, too, you know — and that's OK, because we're human."

WATCH | Canadian Yellowjackets star tells CBC News about her lead role:

The show, which wraps its first season on Sunday, subverts stereotypical ideas of what women are capable of, because gender "falls to the wayside" in a society where people have to perform labour equally in the name of survival, said Roxana Hadadi, a TV critic at the U.S. pop culture site Vulture.

"I think that the show does a very good job pushing back against this idea of, you know, 'If all women got together, then everything would just be fine,' by showing us honestly how infantilizing that argument can be," said Hadadi.

Split timeline shows 2 sides of womanhood

Hadadi said part of why Yellowjackets succeeds in this is because it is split into two timelines. Out in the wilderness, without the rigid social constructs of modern society, the girls are simply human beings trying to survive.

Paul Sarkis/Showtime
Paul Sarkis/Showtime

When we catch up with them as adults, they've fallen in line with conventional ideas of what a woman should be, which they find unsatisfying.

The first timeline, set in 1996, covers the year and a half the girls spent in the wilderness. Here, the show teeters between psychological mindbender and survivalist horror — we don't know if the more far-fetched elements hint at supernatural forces or are a symptom of the girls' insanity.

The second timeline takes place in 2021, as the 25th anniversary of the crash looms over four known survivors: Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Natalie (Juliette Lewis) and Misty (Christina Ricci). Each of them has repressed their bleak history and rebuilt their lives, with varying shades of success.

Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME
Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

If others came out of the initial ordeal alive, we haven't discovered it yet.

"We starved, scavenged and prayed for 19 months" — that's the survivors' official line, for anyone who asks. But they soon discover they're being blackmailed by an unknown individual who is threatening to tell the world what really happened in the woods.

The women reluctantly band together again to protect the truth.

Surviving high school hierarchies

The show's creators have a five-season vision, which will presumably end with the team's rescue.

As brutal as the series has set itself up to be, Yellowjackets is equally committed to the interior lives of its female ensemble, demonstrating how the social hierarchy of high school is itself something to be survived.

Kailey Schwerman/Showtime
Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

After the crash in the woods, it's not a stretch to figure out which characters will cling to the pecking order (queen bee Jackie squeals at the sight of a dead animal, for example) and who will be more than happy to abandon it (certified loner Misty, who is treated like a pest until she breaks out her Girl Scout skills). The fact that the head coach's teenage son is among the few male survivors also spells trouble.

But something has to replace the disrupted hierarchy, Hadadi said.

"It's sort of that thing you see in Lord of the Flies: if hierarchy is gone, then what new patterns or behaviours do you create for yourselves to re-establish some kind of order?"

Intense following

Fans of the show are propelled by the suspense of that question, and have taken to Reddit, Twitter and TikTok to share their own theories about the story's trajectory.

That the series has aired using a weekly storytelling model — and not the binge format — has helped generate conversation, Hadadi said.

What we do know is that many of the Yellowjackets girls have dark sides that are forced out by the desperation of their circumstances, which Nélisse compares to having a second personality.

"The only thing you know you have to deal with is your true self and your values," she said.

"I think Shauna is sort of scared, almost, of this other person. It's like she doesn't like this version of her, but it still needs to come out at some point."