Spoilers for Yellowjackets, Season 2, Episode 6 below.
The last few years of television have provided us with quite a few traumatic birth scenes—House of the Dragon’s non-consensual c-section; Dead Ringers’ maternal death and stillbirth, in the pilot alone—but Yellowjackets’ “Qui” has to take the cake. The delivering mother, who has eaten nothing in the past few months but some bear meat and the remains of her best friend, lies on her back atop a dirty crocheted throw, surrounded by her teenage teammates, who are armed only with their memories of a health-class film strip and the ineffective rituals of their emergent forest religion. The mother’s doula, a teammate, is terrified, and can do very little for her friend except for waving away another teammate who tries to talk woo to her, and shushing a third who blurts out “I hope Shauna doesn’t die!” The only adult in the room, Coach Ben, taps out, unable to step up in any way, shape, or form. The gynecologist on duty—a junior-varsity soccer player who keeps touching the pet mouse in her pocket, and whose sole qualification for the job is that her older sister has had a baby—looks, confused, at the placenta, which comes out first. “I don’t think this was supposed to happen,” she says.
Yes, Shauna—played in the show’s 1996 timeline by Sophie Nélisse—is giving birth to her dead best friend’s boyfriend’s baby, a child she has had to carry to term because she has been stranded in the wilderness. Also because of that fact, she has had no medical care, and seems to have an case of placenta previa, a condition where the organ is located at the bottom of the uterus, blocking or partially blocking the cervix, and one that would surely have been handled with a c-section if her team’s plane to Nationals had never crashed, and she had given birth in civilization. (Well, given that she was a suburban middle-class teenager living in New Jersey when Roe was the law of the land, she would have probably gotten an abortion if that plane had never crashed, but I digress.) “Women have been giving birth for millions of years,” one of her friends says to her when her labor starts, parroting a line quite familiar to viewers who’ve gotten the natural-birth spiel, and a line that becomes absolutely hilarious when juxtaposed with what actually happens in this awful scene.
This kind of body trauma is par for the course on Yellowjackets, and at the beginning of the episode I wondered whether everything might not turn out okay. Remember when half of Van’s face got ripped off by a wolf, and then miraculously healed up almost perfectly after the girls stitched up the wound with a dirty needle and thread? Of course, Shauna could survive a case of untreated placenta previa! The show has always had a little bit of a hand-wavy relationship to the details of the team’s survival. By my math, they really haven’t had enough food available to them in the past few months to still be alive. And how is it that they always have enough dry wood to keep the fire in their fireplace going, when the outside world is absolutely covered with snow, and has been for months? It’s a mystery, but because the woods around them are also oddly devoid of game, and strange things keep happening, you can kind of chalk up a lot of these details to the deus ex machina magic at work in the Yellowjackets universe.
But the extended dream Shauna has when she passes out during the pushing phase in this birth is something else—something much more poignant than Yellowjackets’ standard your coach had his leg crushed by an airplane and you watched Misty Quigley hack the smashed part off with an ax trauma. Shauna blacks out, and imagines she wakes up to find her friends arrayed around her, their faces beaming. She has done it—given birth to a healthy baby boy. Then, she dreams about trying to get him to breastfeed. Because she has had only parts of a bear and a Jackie to eat in the past few months—or maybe because this baby, like certain other infants I’ve had the pleasure of raising, simply would not latch—they can’t figure it out, and he cries and cries.
Still in the dream, Shauna’s isolation grows as she paces the back bedroom of the cabin with the wailing baby. She wakes from a nap to find Lottie, the show’s ambiguously threatening cult-leader-in-the-making, holding the baby against her body. For a minute you think—is Lottie, somehow, feeding him? But Shauna pulls the baby away, in a fit of anger, and you see that she was not. (This dream-in-a-dream is so exactly what a new mother who’s struggling with breastfeeding might imagine, I have to think that someone, or more than one person, in this writers’ room has experienced this unique purgatory, and has imagined how much worse everything would be if latching were the baby’s only option for survival.) Finally, blessedly, the baby latches, and Shauna looks down at the curve of his head against the curve of her breast, relieved and at peace for the first time in months. Then—psych! She falls asleep, imagines she sees her friends eating her baby, then wakes up again, and it turns out none of the events of the dream happened, at all. The baby was stillborn, and her friends are devastated.
The birth is going to give Yellowjackets fans a whole new set of questions. Primary among mine is—why wouldn’t they just stick that placenta right into a pot and make a stew? Maybe their health-class filmstrip didn’t address that. Or maybe this is Chekhov’s placenta, and it’s going to return in the coming episodes. But this episode also re-grounded the 1996 timeline in physical reality—no, a starving teen mom probably could not successfully deliver a baby in the middle of the woods with no medical attention—and explained quite a bit about why Shauna is the way she is. “Why can’t you hear him crying?” she screams over and over again, as the episode ends. It’s sometimes hard to emotionally connect with the events of the 1996 timeline in Yellowjackets, which get increasingly extreme, and increasingly hallucinatory, as the show progresses. But watching this episode, I had no trouble at all.