On Yellowjackets, the present-day material functions like training wheels. Interested in a survival-horror story about cannibalistic ‘90s teenage girls lost in a haunted no-man’s-land, but afraid things might get too spooky and you’ll fall and scrape your psychological knees? Don’t worry! The comedic shenanigans of present-day Shauna, Misty, and Natalie will keep you nice and steady if things get too intense.
Taissa’s present-day material is the exception that proves the rule: Since it centers the one core adult character who isn’t played by a beloved ‘90s icon of troubled teenager-dom, its value as a spoonful of sugar to help the horrific medicine go down is minimal, so they play it mostly straight and mostly scary. To which I can only say:
At any rate, I remain pleasantly surprised by the ratio of good stuff to bad stuff in this week’s episode of Yellowjackets. It’s not the series high point last week’s installment; the whole show was building to that final longpig pig-out, so how could it be? But from concluding the episode with “Bells for Her,” the single creepiest Tori Amos song (cf. last week closing with “Climbing Up the Walls,” the single creepiest Radiohead song) on down, it played primarily in the grim register I enjoy most.
The ‘90s storyline has devolved into a real, real bad situation, to the point where when Natalie tells the dead, devoured Jackie that she’s the lucky one since things are likely to get much worse, you believe her. To sum up:
While planting Jackie’s remains in the crashed plane, both to remove them from the cabin campsite and to hide the evidence, Nat is attacked by an albino moose that disappears.
While sleepwalking with her girlfriend Van in tow, Taissa mutters cryptic shit about “the one with no eyes” and states pretty clearly that she is no longer Taissa at all.
Taissa gravitates directly to a tree engraved with the same cryptic symbol Lottie has become obsessed with and embroiders on the blanket she gives to Shauna as part of their half-assed “baby shower,” a blanket that quickly becomes smeared with blood as Shauna’s nose begins inexplicably bleeding and a flock of birds just as inexplicably crashes into the cabin and dies en masse.
Coach Ben keeps flashing back to memories of his boyfriend Paul breaking up with him over his unwillingness to live life as an out gay man, while starving himself to death rather than eating Jackie’s remains.
Misty befriends a theater kid and learns the value of lying in order to become someone else, a skill she will employ to great effect as an adult.
And everyone, Ben excepted, comes to terms with having eaten a human corpse in their own way.
The present-day stuff is, as you’d expect by this point, a comparatively mixed bag. Taissa has nearly killed her estranged wife thanks to last week’s car accident; in the hospital restroom she’s confronted by her own doppelgänger in the mirror, mouthing what appears to be “Don’t you hurt her.”
Natalie and Lottie commune on Lottie’s commune. There’s a lot of very weak “watched a documentary about Scientology once” writing about being present and telling people how they’ve made you feel, but it ends with Lottie hallucinating the mass death of her beehives which she discovers are full of human blood.
Shauna and Jeff get carjacked; Shauna has a standard present-day Yellowjackets tee-hee adventure when she takes the carjackers gun and uses it to stick up the chop shop to which her minivan has been taken and steals it back.
And then there’s Misty and her new buddy Walter. Don’t get me wrong, Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood are nothing short of delightful in and of themselves, but the tone is just all wrong for this show. We’re not talking Better Call Saul or something here, where the comedy was obviously always a precursor to the vacant moral horror at the heart of the story; this shit, with them doing a Cyrano routine to interrogate Jeff’s buddy Randy while posing as FBI, is just silly, and not the kind of silly that actually makes you laugh.
I’d say something like “Yellowjackets needs to decide what kind of show it wants to be,” but from a practical perspective that’s not true. I may not like the hybrid thing it is, and I’ve seen an increasing amount of anecdata suggesting this is a fairly widely held position — that, and the fact that they’re really overplaying their hand with the ‘90s music cues (“Seether”? Okay, Olivia Rodrigo) — but the fact of the matter is that it’s one of the buzziest shows on television as-is. It has no real reason to change, beyond, perhaps, its creators’ desire to make better work. I’m hoping that prevails.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.