Two Sundays ago, I skipped church for the first time in a while. And, by that I mean that I skipped the new episode of Succession. I didn’t feel guilty for my lapsed devotion. I caught up later in the week, and I was still able to enjoy a belated holy communion with friends online, as I tagged myself in Tom Wambsgans’ sad, sagging suspenders or a plate of uneaten Bosnian food. But this season, I’ve increasingly felt that I’m tuning into Succession—a show that’s intentionally, ingeniously, about the impossibility of change—promptly at 9 p.m. EST more out of empty ritual than deep spiritual need.
Fortunately—praise Showtime—I found another show that has filled me with the zeal of a new convert. I’m here to proselytize the cult of Yellowjackets. Telling a grisly, split-timeline story about a girls’ soccer team stranded in a frozen wilderness in the 1990s, and the survivors of that catastrophe 25 years later, Yellowjackets moves with ferocious speed. It’s built on the recognizable architecture of bloody puzzle-box ancestors like Lost and The OA, but, starting with a breathless pilot directed by home-run hitter Karyn Kusama, the show cultivates an aesthetic rooted in particularities. From the teen-mixtape soundtrack to the Gen-X icon casting to the hellacious moments of semi-comic ultraviolence, Yellowjackets is a messy, horny ode to a very specific suburban punk vision of the ’90s. When you see Juliette Lewis pointing a loaded rifle at Christina Ricci and Hole and Liz Phair are prominently featured on the soundtrack, you know what kind of party you’re at.
Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, Yellowjackets is full of mysteries, but it’s by no means breaking new ground. In fact, notwithstanding its Clinton-era nostalgia, the show feels like a throwback to a much more recent time—a time when all the citizens of the discourse would plop down on their couches every Sunday night because they had no earthly idea what was going to happen in the fictional land of Westeros. But nights like those are long gone.
HBO’s hallowed Sunday-night block currently includes Succession, followed by the final episodes of Issa Rae’s Insecure, followed by Curb Your Enthusiasm—three great shows that are all, more or less, going nowhere. I mean that less as a judgment than a description. There’s a stunning commonality to the way they revisit the same scenes, replay the same interactions, return,on purpose or by accident, to the same kinds of moments again and again. Succession’s circularity is arguably the point, a sitcom-like stasis that underlines the ultra-rich characters’ insulation from the consequences of their actions, and over five seasons, the frustrating repetition and circularity of adulthood has become Insecure’s central subject. Issa tries desperately to change her romantic and professional fortunes, but every season finds her circling back to the same lovers out of passion or inertia or both, gripped with the same crisis of confidence on every step of the professional ladder. And then there’s Curb. What is the nature of being Larry David if not pulling the same shit over and over again? These are beloved series that rely on their recognizable vibes, their quickly meme-able moments of cringe or inspiration. It’s precisely their familiarity that makes them appointment TV. Tag yourself!
It’s in this homeostatic weekly ecosystem—which also includes serial vibe-checks like Dickinson and American Crime Story: Impeachment, a show for which there can be no spoilers—that Yellowjackets stands out. Questions unanswered three episodes into this first season include: Who are the girls eating in the first episode? (You read that right.) Were all of the present-day main characters cannibal huntresses wearing ghoulish animal masks when they were teenagers, or just some of them? Who carved the enigmatic symbols on various surfaces in the remote forest where the plane crashed? Who are the people with no eyes? Is the girl impaled in the tiger trap in the cold open Jackie (one of the central characters in the ’90s plotline)? Or does Jackie survive? If Jackie survived, why haven’t we met her in the present day-plotline? Further, if we will meet her, which legend of the late 1990s will play her? (All I’m saying is that Sarah Michelle Gellar would be age-appropriate.)
These questions exist within a narrative frame that initially seems straightforward—past, present—but slowly reveals itself to be both more complex and more muddled. Each episode, so far, has seen the series transform its own genre in ways that produce plenty of uneasiness and narrative tension on their own. Sometimes it’s a haunted-house, political thriller; sometimes it’s a cabin-in-the-woods slasher; sometimes it’s a semi-satirical feminist suburban revenge comedy; sometimes it’s an odd couple, buddy cop, road trip adventure. Whether the show’s baseline understanding of itself is in constant, generative flux or in tailspin, Yellowjackets’ instability is precisely what makes it so fun to watch week in and week out.
The singularity of a show like Yellowjackets at this moment isn’t solely due to its style. It’s due to its distribution model. There have been, in fact, plenty of other series this year as invested in episode-by-episode puzzlements as Yellowjackets; they just haven’t aired weekly. Squid Game, Underground Railroad, Maid, Midnight Mass—these are shows wholly animated by deep mysteries, games-within-games, shocking revelations, fates in peril. But they all dropped at once. For a 10-hour alternative history of American slavery, Underground Railroad’s single-season drop felt like a burial rather than the unveiling of a televisual masterpiece, but for pulpy genre romps like Squid Game and Midnight Mass, the open-the-floodgates approach was a huge rush. If a full season of Yellowjackets had dropped last weekend on Netflix, it’s all anybody would be talking about right now.
This is not, of course, the whole picture. The MCU has increasingly come to rely on the weekly drops of their Disney+ series to hold viewers over between features; the daffy shouts-and-murmurs mystery series Only Murders in the Building gained a cult following releasing weekly on Hulu; and Netflix uncharacteristically dribbling out Great British Bake-Off episodes week by week feels like a light form of edging . But despite these show’s appeal to the pleasures of serial storytelling, they trade more on the comfortable familiarity of their worlds than the unknown machinations of their plots. Everybody just wants to hang out in that Bake-Off tent, no matter what happens.
What’s thrilling about Yellowjackets, then, is its unfamiliarity . Beneath all the rhythmic puzzle-box flashbacks and flashforwards, and behind its recognizable faces and tunes, the world of the show is opaque, forbidding, unknown. Both present and past are shadowed by looming violence—and scored with the same terrifying soundtrack—and all we know of the secrets beneath both timelines is what we can see revealed in moments of unexpected brutality. For Shauna—played, as an astonishingly textured multi-generational duet by Sophie Nélisse in the past and Melanie Lynskey in the present—this multi-directional tension manifests as a kind of simmering repression. When we see Lynskey suddenly kill, skin, dress, and cook a rabbit that’s been bedeviling her neat suburban garden, it’s shocking for how equally motivated it seems to be by fear and rage and frustrated desire. We simply don’t know her, and that lack of intimacy and closeness—even as her secrets are patiently, partially uncovered—is absolutely gripping.
Some of this, of course, is simply because the show is new. Shauna, presumably, won’t remain remote to us forever—we’ve only just met! And the strategic withholding of information is simply how serial TV works. But, where a show like Succession gains energy by having characters we know well behave against type, or by giving us charged spaces of anticipation to make educated guesses about characters’ next moves, Yellowjackets gains energy from our ignorance. The more it reveals, the less we seem to really know. I noticed, for instance, early in this week’s third episode, that the cross-cuts between timelines felt unusually quick. And this was exacerbated by the introduction of a third timeline, a flashback to Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown in the ’90s, Tawny Cypress now) witnessing her grandmother’s death as a small child. Rather than letting us settle into scenes in one timeline or another, director Eva Sørhaug was routinely yanking us away early, before we were ready. The show was working to frustrate us at a formal level, leaving us without even the satisfaction of scenes having the space to end. Soon, it became clear that these quick cuts were building, speeding up, until Sørhaug was able to hit us with a three-level jump scare spanning several genres—cabin-in-the-woods, haunted house, coming-of-age film—across three separate timelines. I felt like I’d been incepted.
Earlier in that episode, we follow adult Shauna as she stalks around a hotel, trying to catch her adulterous husband in the act. Her attempts are foiled, and she ends up spending the evening drinking with a potential paramour of her own. He asks what she’s doing at the hotel, and she says that she’s “confirming a suspicion.” He replies, “And once you do, will it make you happier?” The danger of a show like this—as it was for Game of Thrones and Lost before it—is that, when the show finally confirms (or confounds) our suspicions, we’ll be unhappy with what we find out. Taissa’s jump scare doesn’t answer any questions or confirm any suspicions; it just gives us scarier questions, more hair-raising existential suspicions. Dwelling in that unknowing for a full week after each episode can be frustrating, but I can’t say it isn’t making me happier to live without the auto-play.
We know Logan Roy and Issa Dee and Larry David. We know who they are, what they’ve done and, broadly, what they’re going to do. In the Yellowjackets pilot, Juliette Lewis’ character Natalie attends a group therapy session on her last day of rehab. Natalie makes an enigmatic reference to her past trauma, to all the things she saw and did in order to survive, when a teenager in the group exasperatedly shouts, “Oh my God, what did you do? You literally never told us!” I felt her impatience in that moment, her desire to find out what’s going on. There’s something coy, even a little maddening, about a show that withholds so much, stretching our attention by making us wait. I love watching the Roys play games with each other, but it’s a rare pleasure, at least right now to watch a show that plays games with us instead.