Yellowjackets is, objectively, disgusting. (Spoilers ahead, both for the show and your appetite.) In my house, we’ve established rules for watching it. These include: never during a meal—one early viewing paired with a bowl of meatballs was enough to learn that lesson—and preferably on an empty stomach; not too close to bedtime and ideally chased by an episode of something extremely light and cheery. It’s important to establish the most comfortable environment for diving into the show because, while you never know quite what you’re in for in a given episode of Yellowjackets, you can bank on it being gross. A makeshift amputation surgery via ax, wolves gnawing off half of someone’s face, maggots for breakfast—these and more are all on the table.
Put briefly, Yellowjackets is a show about a girls high school soccer team stranded in the wilderness for over a year after a grisly plane crash on the way to nationals in 1996. Left to fend for themselves in a harsh mountain climate, the girls become increasingly feral. The show plays fast and loose with the occult, leaving it unclear if some otherworldly force is behind much of their misery in those woods. (Another fan theory posits there is nothing sinister among the trees. But rather that reality is scarier than fiction and the combination of exhaustion, hunger, and fear has both the team and the viewers jumping at the snap of every branch.) Half of the show is set in the present day, with the surviving members—Shauna, Nat, Misty, and Taissa—of the soccer team struggling to settle into normal lives, twenty years after their collective trauma. The quartet, played by Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress, respectively, is a rich tapestry of hot mess. Shauna is secretly filleting the rabbits that chew up her garden and then feeding them to her family in stew. (She’s also filleted at least one human being!) Misty is torturing the seniors in her medical care at a retirement home and keeping a journalist imprisoned in her basement. Nat is struggling with substance abuse, and Taissa’s violent insomnia has driven a wedge between her and her wife and young son, Sammy.
What’s most compelling about Yellowjackets, though, amid all the gruesome mysteries, is the treatment of the cast’s younger iterations. It’s not surprising in 2022 to see the elder versions of the soccer team as multi-dimensional, flawed humans. But it is still refreshing to see teenage girls depicted on screen in all their awful, hormonal glory—teenage girls as I remember them being back when I was one. Every summer growing up, I’d spend a month at a Girl Scout camp in the Adirondack mountains. It was on an island, and we slept in tents without electricity or running water. (That was nearby, though, my mother would want me to point out here.) It was rustic. It was fun. It was also an emotional roller coaster. Every summer I’d become part of this small community, isolated from the rest of the world without internet or cell phones, where suddenly a random assemblage of two dozen girls was my entire universe. This is not to say that my sweet summer camp was in any way the same as being stranded in the Canadian wilderness with an impending winter and no snow boots, but rather that I find myself watching Yellowjackets and feeling a strange, subtle familiarity.
There’s a moment early on in the season where Misty destroys the plane’s black box, smashing with it the team’s best hope of being rescued. Misty isn’t actually on the team; she’s the student manager. A dork in glasses with a crush on the coach, she is overlooked and dismissed until they all crash land in chaos. Suddenly, she’s a hero: Misty was apparently raised by doomsday preppers back in New Jersey and knows how to splint a broken bone and cauterize a wound and forage for food. She is needed for seemingly,the first time ever. That emotional high, the rush of finally being appreciated and included, that hit me hard. It’s so easy to cast Misty as a villain as she ruins the one thing that could help save her and her team; I quite literally screamed “Oh my god, you psycho” at my TV screen watching it happen. But it’s also a great crystallization of just how hard it is to be a teenage girl, how all-consuming those feelings of isolation can be, and how far you—and the ever fluctuating hormones taking over your brain—would be willing to go to feel even a little bit a part of the In Crowd.
My campmates were, on any given day, my very best friends and the loves of my life. (It was an all-girls camp, after all; statistically some of us had to be gay.) They were my mortal enemies, my sistren in secret late-night rituals, my compatriots in mutiny, and my allies in brokering peace treaties. It was a whole tiny, unshowered society, where we talked about our bodies candidly in ways I’d never experienced back in the real world. We gossiped about our collective crush on the maintenance guy, the single 20-something man on the island trying to suss out who he liked best based on the duration of glances during the morning flag ceremony. (In Yellowjackets, Misty is similarly convinced she and the coach are in a secret relationship.) We shared the things we feared most in the whole world. There was something about the total stillness and complete darkness of those woods that offered the sort of mental clarity one can only have at that age. Everything mattered to us so strongly in the way that makes adults—including myself—chuckle knowingly, because time makes it easy to forget how not being included in something feels like it just might kill you at that age. When you’re young and your friends turn on you … well, you’d rather be dead.
In the opening scenes of the Yellowjackets pilot, the girls hunt down one of their teammates, running her into a punji stick-filled hole, where she falls and is impaled to death. And then they appear to eat her by the fistful. I tip my hat at the foley artist who manufactured the sounds of bare, starving hands digging into a pile of charred human flesh; it’s vivid and impossible to forget. Here’s where the analogy to me and my fellow Girl Scouts stops, naturally. But that dramatic lens, the impossibility of the scenario these girls are in, is what makes all their otherwise commonplace emotions pop. The sadness, anger, and obsession they feel is not dissimilar to the ways any regular, not-stranded-after-a-plane-crash teen might feel.
Yellowjackets makes plain the fears and desires so many of us held at that age. But instead of being presented as the kind of behavior that might make somebody’s mom say calm down, it’s not the end of the world, you’ll live, you get to see those feelings and respect them as real and serious. Perhaps because they are inarguably both of those things; most of these girls, in all likelihood—based on how things are going for them thus far this season—will not live. Inside this frame, their interpersonal relationships get to be taken seriously, something that other media too often fails to do. And even though the average teen won’t face those same circumstances, Yellowjackets understands that being a teenager sometimes feels like life or death, and it smartly (and brutally) plays on that sentiment. This is the rare show that puts teenage girls on screen as they truly are: Disgusting, sweaty, loving, smart, funny, resourceful, and feeling everything like they don’t have skin, just raw nerve endings. Literally.