Vanessa Palmer should almost certainly be dead by now. Known by the charmingly butch moniker Van, the redheaded soccer player on Yellowjackets has crashed, been attacked by wolves, and almost burned alive (twice). But she hasn’t cowered in the face of her multiple near-demises. Instead, she smirks.
The Showtime survival drama, which follows a suburban girls’ soccer team stranded in the woods after a plane crash, and the adult versions of its few survivors 25 years later, is full of gory injuries and grievous bodily harm. In the show’s first scene, one of the girls is chased into a spiked pit by her stranded teammates and apparently eaten; even before the crash, one underperforming player has her leg broken so the bone pokes through. But Van has been especially abused, to the extent that her continued survival makes her seem almost invincible.
Played with verve and humor by Australian Liv Hewson, Van has balanced being the team’s resident jester and a queer romantic hero, opposite Jasmin Savoy Brown’s much more stoic Taissa. During a séance in which the spooked girls hope to contact the spirit world, Van asks a ghost if O.J. did it. She’ll sneak off for a moonlight skinny dip with her girlfriend, and make a boob joke while snuggling up. She’ll support a teammate who’s bullied for her Cassandra-style visions by claiming the bully is just motivated by wilderness-onset constipation. Van’s crass sense of humor shapes the way she approaches intimacy, friendship, and survival. She also brings this sardonic sensibility to her multiple brushes with death.
While none of the Yellowjackets on that plane have been having a good time in the nine episodes released thus far, it’s safe to say that Van has had the worst go of it. Let’s start with the crash. As their plane plunges into the forest, Van’s oxygen mask fails to deploy. It’s not the absolute worst thing that could happen in this grim situation—one teammate gets skewered by a metal beam through the neck—but it’s an omen of the savagery to come.
Once the plane makes contact with the ground, the team clamors to escape, dodging a pilot engulfed in flames, to open one of the emergency doors. But Van can’t help with their collective push, since she’s stuck in a collapsed seat near the tail of the plane, as a tenacious fire inches closer and closer. (I guess that oxygen mask wouldn’t have helped that much.)
Her panicked pleas manage to catch the attention of her teammates Jackie and Shauna as they stumble out of the fuselage. But after a feeble rescue attempt, team captain Jackie’s survival instinct kicks in, and they leave Van in the plane with the rest of the corpses. The electrical fire triggers an ominous explosion, and as a hysterical Taissa staggers through the wreckage hollering for Van, our spunky ginger appears to be toast. But as Jackie and Shauna bicker over the friend they left for dead, Van emerges. Her ponytail, team hoodie, and a solid half of her face are covered in ash. She looks Jackie in the eye before wryly spitting, “Surprise.”
Van’s brushes with death have just begun. After the team discovers a dilapidated two-seater plane in the forest, one teammate almost drives its whirring propeller into her face. And when Taissa decides to break camp and search for a way back to civilization, their small party is attacked by a vicious pack of wolves on the first night. Three of the girls keep the wolves at bay with torches, but Van gets mauled, her face ripped open so that you can see her teeth. Go ahead and feel how thick your cheeks are right now with one finger inside your mouth and your thumb on your cheek. That skin, muscle tissue, and fat is thick … and again, I can’t stress enough: You can see her molars.
The deep gashes seem fatal—so fatal, in fact, that her friends build a makeshift pyre to burn her body. Taissa sobs as the twigs catch fire, and the flames spread to her pants. But then, a somber teammate notices movement in her mangled face. (Did these traumatized girls not check for a pulse?) She’s alive! They shimmy the maimed girl off the inferno just before she’s engulfed. Though barely conscious, Van is still Van. Through saliva and blood, her weak voice asks, “Really? Fire?”
A plane crash, a wolf attack, multiple fires—and yet still, it gets worse. After Van flounders back to the team’s home base, another teammate puts fishing wire—and her Girl Scout stitching training—to surgical use. In a season with no shortage of brutal moments, this scene is probably the worst; the camera stays fixed on Van’s face as a child sews the lacerations closed, obviously without anesthetic. Other teammates have to restrain all four of Van’s limbs as she writhes in agony.
A weaker Yellowjacket might have begged for death or succumbed to infection. Van doesn’t. She’s still got wisecracks to dish out, not to mention a girlfriend who’s finally ready to come out at their ad hoc homecoming dance in the woods, aptly renamed “Doomcoming” to reflect the cohort’s proximity to starvation. With a miraculous recovery and a stylish Phantom of the Opera-esque facial bandage, Van arrives to the Doomcoming and fiercely kisses Taissa, to the rapturous applause of their stranded friends. I would be lying if I said that this corniness didn’t make me just a bit weepy. It’s the kind of sweetness that almost makes you forget how positively fucked they all are.
I worry about what will happen to my beloved Van in the show’s season finale, which airs this Sunday. But no matter what horrors my enemies in the Yellowjackets writers’ room have cooked up for her, the odds of Van’s survival seem high. It’ll take a lot of imagination to come up with a threat big enough to kill her.