Television

Yellowjackets’ Creators on the Season Finale’s Shocking Twists

Plus: their favorite (wrong) fan theories.

Sophie Nélisse as Shauna and Ella Purnell as Jackie on Yellowjackets.
Sophie Nélisse as Shauna and Ella Purnell as Jackie on Yellowjackets. Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Is there a TV show that’s more fun to watch right now than Yellowjackets? The Showtime drama about a suburban girls’ soccer team who survive a plane crash in the wilderness, are stranded long enough to start eating each other, and then keep their secret for 25 years, is dark, hilarious, and bloody as hell. The show’s audience, which started out small but has snowballed in the leadup to the season finale, is as passionate as they are creative, cranking out memes and eagerly fancasting the roles of adult Yellowjackets who haven’t shown up in the series’ present-day scenes. (That is, the ones who didn’t die in the crash, or go up in flames, or simply freeze to death.) Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, a married couple, the series is keenly perceptive about the barbed complexities of female friendship and the lingering effect of unprocessed trauma, but it’s also funny as hell and a cracking good mystery with a soundtrack of nonstop 1990s bangers. If you haven’t started watching, do it now, and come back to this extremely spoiler-filled interview in about 10 hours.

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Lyle and Nickerson joined me via Zoom to talk about the finale’s shocking twists, the importance of gore, and their favorite (but wrong) fan theories. (This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Sam Adams: There was a while when it felt like the only people watching Yellowjackets were TV critics. But it felt like that changed dramatically in the new year, to the extent that live viewing for Episode 9 was 35 percent higher than for Episode 8. When did it start feeling like the show was a hit?

Ashley Lyle: Somebody made a joke on Twitter, I don’t know, maybe a month or two ago, that was like, “The official fandom name for people who love Yellowjackets is ‘Entertainment Journalists’.” And I just started laughing. I was like, “That does seem accurate.” But Bart and I went on a little vacation, just trying to get our heads right and relax a little bit before we dive into Season 2. And I, because I could not help myself, was still on Twitter a little bit. And was on Reddit, a little bit. And at one point I said to Bart, “Something’s happening.”

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Assuming you’re not on vacation when an episode is airing, are you tracking the online reaction to it? Or trying to stay away from it?

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Lyle: Oh, to be clear, we’re tracking it while we’re on vacation.

Bart Nickerson: I think the most truthful answer is, trying not to, and failing.

Lyle: I admire anybody who has the actual self-discipline or willpower to not be checking in on these things. But for me personally, I find it impossible to have invested this much of myself, and for Bart to have invested himself—just the sheer tonnage of hours and worries and stress—and to not see what people think? That is not a quality that I possess.

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We’re talking before the finale has aired, but I could practically feel the internet exploding at the end of the episode, when we discover that a) Lottie founded a cult in the wilderness in 1996, and b) that cult still exists, and she’s apparently still alive and running it. It’s like when they opened the hatch at the end of Lost’s first season—it creates so many new possibilities. We know that other people might have survived, and we also know how they might have been able to keep that a secret for 25 years. What did you want people to take away from that ending?

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Lyle: I think that we wanted to answer some questions, and ask some new ones. It was always our intention to expand the world of the survivors a little bit. We tried to plant the seeds of that with Travis and the idea that some people have really gone off the grid—they’ve perhaps assumed new identities. To our minds, that does feel like a natural reaction to the infamy that they would have faced, when they first got back. And I think it hopefully helps our case that, that was in a different time, that was 25 years ago. And at the same time we’re telling a story, even in Season 1, about how the past catches up with you, and as hard as you try to repress it or force it into a corner, or put it in a safe, it’s going to find a way to bubble back up. So we always knew, in terms of having more story and more runway to tell this story, we felt like that was a great way to expand the initial story that we’re telling in Season 1.

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Have you cast adult Lottie yet?

Nickerson: We have not cast her, we have seen a lot of the ideas going around, and some are really kind of great. We keep joking, maybe if enough people vote for someone, there can be some kind of draft situation, where you have no choice. You are legally bound, the internet has decided, you are now Lottie. But we haven’t actually cast anybody.

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You mentioned Reddit, and I’m sure you’ve seen some of the more outrageous speculations, like the one that Jackie is secretly a time-traveler. Do you have a favorite fan theory?

Nickerson: I think we have different ones. One that I really loved was the idea that the girl that we see running in the pilot could actually be [Shauna’s daughter] Callie. And that that wasn’t a flashback, as much as it was a flash-forward. I thought that was so clever. It is not Callie. But it’s still a great idea.

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Lyle: I enjoyed—just because it was so gonzo—the theory that Adam was actually Jackie, post-transition.  That is real outside-the-box thinking. That is not the case, but it’s really fun to see people get so creative. I think that there’s something a little bit frightening sometimes about the proliferation of these theories, because if there are 10 theories about a plot point, by definition, at least nine of them are going to be incorrect. You start to worry that people are going to feel disappointed when their theories, and especially the more outlandish ones, don’t come to pass.

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[Read: Yellowjackets Reminds Us How Much Fun It Is to Wait]

It’s interesting in retrospect that the last two episodes fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. The finale ends with this outrageous twist, but in the episode before that, when you reveal who’s been blackmailing the survivors, it’s the most ordinary answer imaginable. It’s just Shauna’s husband, and Adam is just some guy.

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Lyle: We really wanted to put the audience in the point of view of our characters to some extent, and to create that sort of incredibly paranoid, for lack of a better way of putting it, mindset. And it worked better than we had hoped, for better or for worse. We thought there was something really interesting and tragic about Shauna having this sort of false pattern recognition, where she couldn’t get herself to a place to ultimately believe that this could just be a guy who was falling in love with her.

Nickerson: Shauna was not correct, but, if this is the way to say it, she wasn’t wrong. Shauna has been through this tremendous, traumatic experience, and that has a lasting effect on how she sees the world. She is suspicious of Adam, because she has had a life that would make it a possibility that he’s kind of up to something. And so at the moment that we reveal the false pattern recognition of it, we also say, “No, Shauna does live in this world. This is just a false positive.” But positives are possible for her.

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One of the things the show is playing around with in that respect are the supernatural elements, which could be real, or part of a collective psychosis, or somewhere between the two. What’s the balance you’re going for there?

Nickerson: One of the things that we wanted to explore is what it would actually mean for a belief to be real. There are people that have had these kind of experiences that we might call supernatural, and there are interpretations of them that are spiritual, or that are psychological. But one thing that I would submit you can’t really argue is that there is a reality to the experience. Something is happening, there is a phenomenology of the supernatural. Whether possession is a psychotic break, or a sort of demonic entity—is that a distinction without a difference? What does this mean? We do want it to be unclear, because it is unclear to us what these things are, as humans.

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Lyle: Very early on in the writers’ room, we had a fun conversation entitled, Do You Believe In Ghosts? The room was pretty evenly split, I think. Some people very much believed in ghosts, and some people very much don’t. And what to me is the most fascinating part of all of that is that, not a single person in that room can say with absolute, definitive, concrete proof, that they are the ones who are correct. What people believe in has been one of the most defining elements of human behavior, and the way we structure societies. A lot of people look at the show and go, “Oh, it’s Lord of the Flies, but with girls.” And we were like, “What if we took that, and used it to explore the genesis of a religiosity, and how that impacts their society?” I hope that people who like genre, and who like the supernatural, will lean that way. And then there are going to be people who just go, “What supernatural?”

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Nickerson: One of the really fun things about television is that you don’t just reveal the finished product. It’s something that is being made as it’s being created. I personally really hope, by the end of this series, to know what I think about things like ghosts and God and spirituality. So that’s where we’re trying to go. Fingers crossed.

I think it’s safe to say the most emotional moment in the finale is Jackie’s death, which does not seem to be ambiguous, although Reddit may disagree. Was her story always a complete arc in the first season for you?

Nickerson: Yeah, Jackie’s demise was something that was present right in the pitch. Jackie was this character that had been sort of built by the shaping and normative forces of a society. So to have the first season end with that falling away, with her death, was just the thing that we had started for her character. Now, the character grew and expanded. Ella [Purnell] just brought so much life and depth to it, and then that relationship [with Shauna] just really became one of the curtain rods that story was hung on, throughout the season. So it was always the plan, but how powerful it became was something that emerged during the writing and the shooting.

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Lye: We had a lot of discussions, both in the room and earlier between myself and Bart, about Jackie’s death. And a lot of the things that we were inspired by and were referencing were things like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce. [Jack London’s] “To Build a Fire” was another big one. And there’s a great Stephen King short story. I always almost mess up the title. I think it’s called, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.” They’re all about the subjective experience of death. And it was something that we really were excited about taking a crack at. We knew where we were going in terms of Jackie, where she would end up, how she would die. But what was most exciting to us about it was getting to do our version of that. With Shauna’s dream, we tried to not be completely explicit. When she’s waking up, it could be Shauna’s dream, or was this some sort of window into Jackie’s final moments? I think that we all grapple with what the final moments of our lives are going to be like, and to have an opportunity to play with that was just really fun. Fun is probably a weird word to use about that scene, but.

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If we’re in Jackie’s vision, it’s interesting that her fantasy is of her telling Shauna that she loves her and not the other way around—although they’ve just had this fight about how Jackie makes everything about her. The idea that the queen bee loses her status when the structure of the school collapses isn’t a new one, but I don’t think I’ve seen a version where we have so much sympathy for the people on both sides. This isn’t Heathers, where you cheer the death of the popular bitch and then the cool girl takes over. We’ve really grown invested in this relationship, as imperfect as it is.

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Lyle: That’s great to hear. It’s been very interesting to watch people, some people are saying, “I love Jackie.” There’s, “She’s my queen. She can do no wrong. She’s never done anything wrong in her life.” Those kinds of memes. And then there’s people who are like, “I fucking hate Jackie, when are they going to eat her?” I think that she’s sort of a tragic figure, and we wanted to give her the dignity of a tragic death. That’s very much why we didn’t want to go the Heathers route. It speaks to how we care about Jackie, even when she makes a lot of mistakes, and does some things that are arguably really wrong.

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The other big reveal in the finale is that Tai has been practicing some sort of black magic, down to severing her dog’s head and cutting out its heart so she can win the election. What’s up with that?

Lye: This show at large is kind of an exploration of how you get from point A to point B with all of these girls. From the girls in the pilot to the feast, as we’ve been calling it, those flash-forwards in the pilot and the cannibalistic ritual. We felt like it was also a really interesting journey to take someone on, essentially, the ride from pure, determined atheism to some sort of genuine belief in something. And in this case, something quite dark. We will obviously be exploring more of that and the ramifications in Season 2.

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Tai is the adult who seems to be the most together, the one who’s actually achieved all the goals she set out for herself pre-crash. But it turns out she’s just the best at compartmentalizing her trauma.

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Nickerson: A hundred percent. That’s one of the things we’re trying to play with. It does seem like you can do that for a while, but there is a reckoning. Right? Each of the main characters has, in one way or another, a coping strategy that is an attempt to leave something behind, as opposed to actually navigating it. And those strategies are starting to fail. Our show in some sense, is that.

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I wanted to ask about the reunion scene, which is my favorite depiction of murderers going to their high school reunion since Grosse Pointe Blank. You stage the adult survivors’ entry as a real moment of power; they stride in as a group, in slow motion, with the music blaring. It’s badass. I’ve never been so happy to hear the Offspring’s “Come Out and Play.”

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Lyle: It’s funny, we tried a lot of different songs over that sequence. Our editors and our music supervisor, they had a whole list. And they cut a bunch of different things to picture, and they almost didn’t show us that one. But we knew that it was the right one when we saw it, I had to mute myself, because I started laughing so hard. We had tried a couple other things that were more, like, genuinely badass. But it felt like we were taking ourselves too seriously, and that’s just not the show to us. There was something hilarious to me about these women, who were cannibals who have just covered up a murder, having this badass reunion moment. It just, it delighted us, and sometimes that’s our North Star—what delights us.

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[Read: What Yellowjackets Does Better Than Any Other Show]

I love that you managed to bring back Allie, the girl whose leg Tai breaks in the pilot. She’s practically drooling over getting the surviving Yellowjackets to show up, and you can tell she’s been dining out on the story of how she was almost on that plane for 25 years.

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Nickerson: Yes, but also—could you imagine how fucking weird that would be? There is something kind of absurd about that being such a big deal to her, in contrast to what’s actually happening in this world. Part of what makes her compelling, at least to me, is that, that would be such a huge thing to you. But nobody gives a shit.

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Lyle: The way she delivered that “Shut the fuck up” is just hilarious.

Music is such a big part of Yellowjackets. The moment I knew the show was on the ball was in the pilot, where you have Shauna listening to a Liz Phair song from Whip-Smart, which came out in 1994, and not Exile in Guyville, which is the album anyone else would have used. Was there a song that was particularly important for you to get? Or one that was particularly hard to get?

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Lyle: PJ Harvey and Liz Phair were both scripted into the pilot, so those were really important to us to get. One that was actually really hard to get was the Enya [“Only Time”], that we used in the finale. That involved some letter writing to Enya herself, and we were just so happy when we got word back, that she was going to let us use it. It felt so perfect for that moment to us. We had a backup plan, but oh my God, what a relief when we got that email, it was just spectacular.

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Another element that’s really key to the show is the level of gore, which can be pretty intense. Was that something you had to push the network for?

Lyle: Oh, we did not have to push for it. Showtime does like their gore. But luckily, this is just a natural agreement on all of our parts. We knew going in that we wanted to have a visceral quality to the show. Our intention is never to be shocking or provocative for the sake of it, but to pick our moments where the frailty of the human body is on full display, and we’re not turning away from it.

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Nickerson: Allie’s leg getting broken in the pilot was part of our initial pitch, and we talked about that as a sort of tone-defining moment.

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Lyle: Gore is very much defined, I think, by horror. But one thing that was really interesting was when we were preparing for Episode 2, the Ben Scott leg moment. We talked about it at length with our production designer and our special effects department and makeup, and we got this email, it was essentially a trigger warning, like, “really explicit images contained therein.” I’m looking at all these mangled legs, and at a certain point I was like, “Oh man, I think they went too far. This doesn’t look real.” And then I realized that they were all real. That’s why it had the trigger warning. I will never be able to erase those images from my memory. But that really hammered home that we needed to have a few moments like that, because the reality of what can happen to the human body is really, really awful.

And speaking of the reality of the human body, you have 20 teenage girls in the wilderness for a year and a half. You’re going to have to deal with blood.

Lyle: You’ve never seen a more delighted group of people than all the women in the writers’ room when we were talking about [the period scenes in] Episode 5. We were like, “It’s our moment.”

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