The Daily Stream: Yellowjackets Knows How To Build A Mystery

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Yellowjackets"

Where You Can Stream It: Showtime Now

The Pitch: When you see the phrase "multi-timeline cannibal thriller" being used to sum up a series, you know you're in for some Doc Brown-level "serious s**t." 

Even so, when I sat down to watch Showtime's new hit "Yellowjackets," I was still taken aback by just how dread-inducing and gripping the first episode is. It helped that I knew so little about the show's exact tone going in, nor was I aware its pilot was directed by Karyn Kusama of "Jennifer's Body" fame. (Her many other TV credits include "Halt and Catch Fire," a favorite of mine I've gone on about before.) If you're thinking a series mixing horror with a teen girl coming-of-age story sounds like a perfect match for her, then dear reader, you would be correct.

Created by married duo Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, the series hops back and forth between the past and present. In this case, the "past" is the year 1996 and centers on the Yellowjackets, a team of New Jersey high school girls soccer players who are headed to Seattle to compete in a national tournament when their plane crashes deep in the Ontario wilderness. Meanwhile, 2021 acts as the "present," where we learn the Yellowjackets were stranded and left to survive on their own in the Canadian wild for a whole 19 months.

As of the first episode, it's revealed that at least four of the Yellowjackets are still alive in 2021: Shauna (who's played as an adult by Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Natalie (Juliette Lewis), and Misty (Christina Ricci). Are there more? How did these four even stay alive in the woods for so long? I dare not say, not least of all, because we're only a single season into the show's planned five-season story, and there are plenty of mysteries that have yet to be unraveled.

Why it's essential viewing

In a post-"Lost" world, nobody blinks an eye at a TV show that deals in so-called "Mystery Box" plotting, where every question the series answers gives rise to another one or more. It's not an approach every show knows how to pull off, either, as evidenced by the sheer number of would-be "Lost" successors that have come and gone with little fanfare over the years. (That's my cue to pour one out for "Happy Town.") What sets "Yellowjackets" apart is that it recognizes mysteries for their own sake aren't enough. You also need a larger thematic point behind all the smoke and mirrors, as obvious as that sounds when you say it out loud.

As it were, the "Yellowjackets" mystery I find the most captivating so far is the question of whether there's a supernatural element at play in the series. Season 1 is very careful about never revealing its full hand in this regard. Every time it seems like the show is about to take a turn for the explicitly fantastical, it either pulls back to provide a grounded explanation for what's going on or frames things in such a way (like, say, depicting an event from a specific character's POV or filming a scene in a way that deliberately holds back key visual details) so as to leave some room for interpretation.

This isn't just some cheap trick to keep you guessing, either. It puts you in the same frame of mind as the teenaged Yellowjackets as they come to abandon their old ways of doing things and begin to form a new social order. Right vs. wrong, lies vs. truth, the real vs. the imagined — the lines between these ideas grow ever fuzzier for them as time passes in the backwoods of Ontario, and as viewers, we're taken right along for the ride. It's also what makes the show more unique than calling it "'Stephen King meets 'Lord of the Flies,' but with women" might indicate, as valid as that description is.

Buzz buzz!

That's not to suggest gender doesn't matter on "Yellowjackets." Quite the opposite, the series is just as committed to dissecting relationships both platonic and romantic between women as it is in examining how social hierarchies and people's grasp on reality can rapidly crumble under dire circumstances, often in upsetting and frightening ways. Much of the horror of the show likewise speaks directly to women, be it a plot thread involving accidental pregnancy or one that looks at how an unequal friendship between teen girls can become toxic, with terrible and traumatic effects that linger well on into adulthood for the survivors.

If I'm making "Yellowjackets" seem too self-serious or solemn, rest assured, it is neither of those things. The series is full of dark humor, much of which stems from the juxtaposition of the grown-up Yellowjackets' hidden struggles with the banality of their adult lives. Then there's Misty, whom I might best describe as a truly great friend who you'd absolutely want in your corner in spite of her not-so-harmless behavior. I love Misty, in other words, and she's played to perfection by Ricci and Sammi Hanratty in the show's dual timelines.

Indeed, the leads in "Yellowjackets" are flawlessly cast across the board. Just as impressively, the show's teen Yellowjacket actors do a nice job of matching their characters' older selves when it comes to their mannerisms, especially Sophie Thatcher (also seen recently on "The Book of Boba Fett") as Natalie circa 1996. Lynskey, Cypress, Lewis, and Ricci are equally adept at creating a sense of connection between the adult Yellowjackets, making it all the easier to believe that these are people who are deeply bonded by both time and their shared life-altering experiences.

There's more I could go on about, be it the show's exquisite playlist of moody '90s pop songs (plus some tunes from the Broadway musicals "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera?" I swear they make sense in context!) or the way the series' cinematographers present the Canadian forest as an endless, eerie labyrinth of trees and bushes ... but that's enough from me. For those who don't have Showtime yet, you can watch the show's premiere on YouTube for free, and see what all the buzz — sorry, it had to be done — is about for yourselves.