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'Yellowjackets' season finale teases cannibalism — but delivers on much more

“Yellowjackets” has largely been sold on its most salacious detail. But I found myself far more gripped by its exploration of trauma and friendship.
Image: A still from the series,\"Yellowjackets\" showing a group of girls in a forest.
The stars of "Yellowjacket" learn quickly that trauma collapses the space between the past and the present. Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

In the first episode of “Yellowjackets,” Showtime’s unnerving, darkly comic horror-survival drama, teenage best friends Shauna (Sophie Nelisse) and Jackie (Ella Purnell) face each other at a debaucherous bonfire.

Jackie, captain of the soccer team and general teen queen, has just stopped her teammates from verbally and physically ripping one another apart the night before they head to nationals. Enraged teammate Shauna softens as Jackie asks whether they’re cool.

“You’re the only one who’s always been there for me,” says Jackie, suddenly serious and earnest, as she holds Shauna’s gaze. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You know that, right?”

All four women find themselves drawn back together despite their best efforts to separate — after all, no one else can ever really understand what happened to them 25 years ago.

“Yellowjackets,” which toggles back and forth between 1996 and 2021, follows an elite girls soccer team from New Jersey that ends up stranded after a plane crash in northwestern Ontario. We learn upfront that not all of the girls survived the accident and that those who did were forced to do some ... bad things during their 19 months in the wilderness.

The 2021 timeline focuses on four of the survivors: Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) has become a low-grade miserable housewife and is married to Jackie’s high school boyfriend Jeff, whom she used to secretly hook up with; Taissa (Tawny Cypress) channeled her rage and leadership skills into a career as a lawyer and would-be politician but struggles to maintain healthy relationships with her wife and young son; Natalie (Juliette Lewis), a perpetual rebel with a soft side who has hardened (somewhat) into a woman struggling with addiction; and Misty (Christina Ricci), the awkward Yellowjackets team manager-turned-mildly sociopathic nurse, who perhaps never felt so alive and useful as she did in teenage wilderness crisis mode. All four women find themselves drawn back together despite their best efforts to separate — after all, no one else can ever really understand what happened to them 25 years ago.

(Spoilers from the season finale ahead.)

In the pilot, we see a girl run through the snowy woods to a soundtrack of haunting howls, eventually falling into a makeshift trap where she is impaled on spikes. The camera lingers on the gore, capturing the contrast between the snow and our anonymous victim’s pooling blood. Later on, we see the body dragged out, drained and cooked. The meat is ravenously devoured, and the camera zooms in on their teeth as they rip the offering apart. They are both hunted and hunters, victims and perpetrators, harmed and harmful.

It is also suggested early on that Jackie is not one of the “lucky” few who ultimately made it out of the woods. Was Jackie the spiked and devoured girl? Many of the fans who have turned this drama into a cult favorite certainly thought so. But in Sunday’s season finale we learn once and for all that she is not.

“Yellowjackets” has largely been sold on its most salacious detail — cannibalism — but by the time I reached the end of its first season, I found myself far more gripped by its exploration of trauma and friendship and the ways these two common markers of growing up in a female body often commingle.

Most adult women can point to a handful of female friendships from childhood that left marks, the relationships that helped us define who we were and who we one day hoped to be. Sometimes those relationships last a lifetime; sometimes they flame out in a blaze of spectacular emotional pain. Either way, we take their lessons and we move forward. We grow up and we move on.

But what happens when you can’t do either? What would it do to a person if their most formative adolescent relationship became the site of their most acute trauma?

It’s these questions that the gripping season finale of “Yellowjackets” poses, and it’s these questions (and answers) that molded a sleeper smash hit. The violence and brutal yet beautiful setting are certainly part of what kept viewers hooked, but they’re not what makes it special.

(We’re serious — big spoilers coming.)

Jackie’s death was not, in fact, a ritual sacrifice but a far more banal tragedy precipitated by a far more realistic event: a vicious exchange of barbs between two teenage girls who love each other so much that they just might hate each other, leading Jackie to stubbornly insist on sleeping outside — and freezing to death. These facts do not lessen the horror of Jackie’s death, though. If anything, they make adult Shauna’s exchange with a vision of young Jackie earlier on in the season all the more heartbreaking.

“It’s not your fault what happened,” says Jackie, sitting on the bed her aging parents have preserved for 25 years, pigtails in her hair.

“I know,” says Shauna, now in her 40s.

“Um, what? Actually you don’t know. It’s totally your fault,” the apparition retorts. “But we were kids. And it was awful.”

Friendships between teenage girls can feel all-consuming, intoxicating, feverish in nature. The intensity of a teenage best friendship can be so strong that you want to be around the other person all the time, want to be in their head, even as you get older and are increasingly desperate to enter the adult world as a differentiated being.

My childhood best friend and I got into a vicious screaming match in my bedroom as young teenagers. I have no idea what we fought about — it was probably stupid, something I’d find inconsequential as a 34-year-old — but the memory of that full-body anger has stayed with me. And so has the stunning moment when she slapped me right across the face. Hard.

We both cried. We both apologized. By the end of that day or maybe the morning after, we were back to being best friends.

That catharsis and resolution after a violent outburst are not something that Shauna ever gets a chance to have with Jackie. The next morning, she wakes with a start and realizes that she can see her own breath. She runs to the window and sees that it has snowed. Nelisse is masterly as Shauna in this scene, her eyes widening as she realizes what must have happened, only to find Jackie buried under a layer of snow, as beautiful as ever.

The memory of trying to shake her friend awake is just as seared into Shauna’s traumatized adult brain as images of draining bodies, gutted animals, creepy symbols and the plane crash itself.

Because that’s what trauma does — it collapses the space between the past and the present. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in his 2014 book “The Body Keeps the Score,” for traumatized people, the body is almost never a site of safety, in large part because “the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes ... [t]hey learn to hide from their selves.”

A lazy critic might describe “Yellowjackets” as a gender-flipped “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s 1954 novel.

A lazy critic might describe “Yellowjackets” as a gender-flipped “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s 1954 novel in which a group of adolescent boys are stranded on a remote island after a plane crash. As the novel goes on, the boys’ social ties predictably devolve. Violence ensues. As Doreen St. Felix pointed out in The New Yorker, the name “Yellowjackets” feels like a wink to this easy comparison: “Flies may have been a fine analogue for boys, but girls require the ferocity of wasps, with their venom and their stingers. And their intelligence.”

But whereas “Lord of the Flies” ends with the boys’ rescue, effectively suspending the characters forever in adolescence, “Yellowjackets” does something smarter and more interesting. “Yellowjackets” is not just the story of a collective trauma; it’s about the ways trauma metastasizes and calcifies over time. The way it can leave us both connected forever to people we might not even want to be tied to and disconnected from people we yearn to be close to.

Jackie’s final moments come to us in the form of a dream, framed in a way that makes it hazy and unclear where her visions begin and where Shauna’s end.

It’s still night. And it’s cold. And her best friend has come outside to make things right.

“Hey, this is stupid. I’m sorry, OK?” says Shauna.

“Shauna,” Jackie begins to say as they walk inside the survivors' cabin, this time together.

But Shauna cuts her off. “It’s fine. It’s all gonna be fine. I love you, Jackie. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You know that, right?”

She knows.