This article contains spoilers for Yellowjackets’ Season 2 finale, “Storytelling.”
Ever since the series opened by showing a group of howling teen girls chasing a fellow teen to her death, Yellowjackets has hooked viewers with a simple question: How did a soccer team of angsty, standard-issue teen girls turn into a cannibalistic cult led by a girl wearing an antler mask? This was the central mystery, and it made the present-day timeline following the surviving Wiskayok Yellowjackets—the ones who were rescued from the Canadian wilderness in the late ’90s, more than a year and a half after their plane crash—crackle. But when it came to its big reveal, the moment the girls go from grisly scavengers to actually hunting their own, Yellowjackets choked.
Puzzle-box shows are notoriously hard to sustain. Alias, Lost, and Damages all deflated at different points, losing the propelling force of their original mystery. Twin Peaks, which arguably invented the genre and did it better than any other, delivered on its central hook—who killed Laura Palmer?—but then found itself with nowhere else left to go. The slow burn of Yellowjackets’ first season was a masterful mix of horror, suspense, and dark comedy that recalled Gen X touchstones like Reality Bites and The Daytrippers, and it dripped out information at just the right pace, allowing wild fan theories to kindle online. Season 2 had the tough job of filling in the gaps while continuing to crank up the sense of dread, but instead of showing how the group wound up embracing the idea of sacrificing one of their own, the writers made the baffling decision to keep that pivotal choice off screen.
The second season’s penultimate episode, “It Chooses,” cuts from young Tai in the cabin, insisting they have to find a way to stay alive, to the group standing in a circle, playing Russian roulette with a deck of cards in order to pick a sacrifice. (As always, Coach Ben is off somewhere, taking himself out of the equation.) But it matters what was said between those cuts. Who came up with the idea? Tai? Misty? Would Travis, Javi, and Nat—the moral core of the group—have gone along with it? If Yellowjackets is about pushing the brutal social dynamics of teen girls to an extreme, we deserved to see that fateful conversation take place.
What we do see instead is its aftermath. The finale, “Storytelling,” opens with the girls carrying Javi’s body back to the cabin as the Cranberries’ “Zombie” blasts. If you went to high school in the ’90s, you’ve been wondering when Yellowjackets would play this song, an absolutely haunting anthem of grief and discontent written after the IRA bombing in Warrington, England, that killed two children. Now another child, Javi, is dead, his life traded for Natalie’s after the girls chased them across the ice like a group of ravening jackals. As they face his brother Travis, the girls feel remorse, the bloodlust on their faces carefully folded away, reminding us how the swing between terrifying cruelty and humanity is one of the central themes of the show. But for the first time, I felt totally disgusted by them. Maybe that’s the point.
In the present-day timeline, the surviving Yellowjackets gather around a bonfire, putting on masks that look like DIY versions of the ones in Eyes Wide Shut, getting ready to hunt. This wasn’t the plan: They were supposed to just string Lottie, who’s decided it’s time for another human sacrifice, along until her mental health crisis team could come collect her from the hospital. But Van, always the first to fall for Lottie’s mystical mumbo-jumbo, tanks it. And suddenly, these women in their 40s are caught in a classic teenage conundrum: Things are going too far, but no one knows how to stop it. Melanie Lynskey should earn another Emmy nod for her are you f’ing kidding me? look as she briskly jogs away from this group of middle-aged women hunting her down. (Lottie and Van, at the very least, mean business.)
The brilliance of Yellowjackets is how it presented the 1990s plane crash timeline as a backstory, only to reveal that it was actually the story. None of the survivors, whether they seemed totally together—like the successful lawyer-turned-state-senator Tai—or completely broken—like Natalie, who tried to take her own life at the end of Season 1—ever really left those woods. It was an extended metaphor for the way trauma unfolds in a life, but also for the way we experience adolescence. Yes, the girls went through hell, but those woods are also where they felt most alive.
Now, they’re back in the woods again, but as riveting as those final scenes were, I also felt a sense of letdown, the feeling that the sense of mystery and possibility from the first season cliffhanger when the girls gathered around Jackie’s frozen body was already leaking out of a series I love. Even Natalie’s death, while shocking, was also totally unsurprising. She was the character most set up for a traditional redemption arc, numbing her guilt (which we now know came from letting Javi die) with drugs, but also, in the cabin flashbacks, trying hardest to hang onto her goodness and sense of self while the others descended into darkness. Natalie always questioned if they even deserved to survive, so it makes sense that she trades her life for the life of Lottie’s young disciple Lisa, who Nat clearly sees as an innocent—maybe even a little like she was before the plane crash. It’s a fitting end for a great character, but Yellowjackets hasn’t felt like a show that’s meant to tie up loose ends with tidy bows.
The finale also sets up another twist—we learn that it’s Natalie, not Lottie, who is the one placed in charge of the wilderness hunting. I’ll admit I thought things were going to go another way, with Natalie going off to live in the cave with Coach Ben. That could have been an interesting dynamic, potentially peeling off some of the girls who don’t want to eat their former teammates. Instead Coach Ben finally gets off the sidelines and acts, by locking the girls in the cabin and setting it on fire. Maybe this is what he meant when he dreamed of “being the person I know I am.”
As the girls watch the cabin burn, the horrified looks on their faces are supposed to call back that moment of terror when they look at Jackie’s frozen body, the sense that nothing will be the same. But instead, the feeling I had was captured by another ’90s anthem, “Street Spirit” by Radiohead, which plays as Natalie dies. As Season 2 ends, it just feels like the start of a slow fade.