Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
The beautiful mountainous landscape in the TV series “Yellowjackets” looks like a place that would be heaven for outdoors enthusiasts like fishermen, skiers, climbers, and hikers.
A great vacation spot, in other words, unless you’re trying to survive 19 months of cold and starvation, fending off predators or even your own friends.
“Yellowjackets,” which recently began its second season on Showtime, is a harrowing story of survival after a plane crash. In that regard, it would be familiar to fans of “Lost,” another popular series about survivors marooned in a hostile, mysterious environment.
“Lost” never explored storylines quite as dark as those in “Yellowjackets,” however. The new series harkens back to “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,” a book recounting the experiences of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1972. As Piers Paul Read’s book recounts, the survivors ate the bodies of the dead to keep from starving.
“Yellowjackets” offers its own take on that worst-case scenario and other comparable stories in the cultural consciousness, including author William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies,” about a group of British boys who must survive on a remote island after a crash.
Like “Lord of the Flies,” “Yellowjackets” depicts what could happen when young people in particular — and remember, the human brain doesn’t finish developing and maturing until the mid-to-late 20s — are solely responsible for their fates.
Woman vs. Wild
It’s a common view among writers that most fiction deploys one (or multiple) of the following types of conflict to drive a story: Man against Man, Man against Self, and Man against Nature. The best tales of survival emphasize one of these but include elements of others.
“Lost” very quickly escalated from Man against Nature to Man against Man and, ultimately, even Man against God and Man against the Unknown, or the Supernatural.
Throughout its first season, “Yellowjackets” has the undercurrent of Man against Nature — or in this case young women and a couple of men, including an assistant coach, against nature. As months pass, the Yellowjackets team tries to find food, water, and shelter, all those things necessary to survive the worst nature can dish out.
There’s a looming dread during these scenes, as the team gathers firewood and seeks food after the supplies and snacks they carried with them on the small plane run out.
The feeling of “something bad is going to happen” is reinforced by the structure of “Yellowjackets,” which flashes back and forth between the 1990s, the time of the crash, and the present day. In the latter, we see some survivors of the crash, now adults, going about their daily lives — at least until someone begins to taunt them, and blackmail them, about what they once did to survive.
There’s a natural curiosity that powers such a story. Many of us know we would be in real trouble during a zombie apocalypse, for example. How would we survive if we ran out of medicine, broke our eyeglasses or – gulp, no pun intended – were bitten by a zombie?
With stories of wilderness survival like this or the Andes crash, we think, what would we do to survive?
“Yellowjackets” teases this question very well and doesn’t make entirely clear what will happen – until the second season and a turning point in the fight to survive.
The series’ structure, divided between the two time periods, also offers a tantalizing guessing game. In the first season, we really only get to know four or five of the crash survivors as adults. Who among those who survived the initial crash will show up in the present-day scenes – and what did they do to get there? And what did those in the present-day scenes, characters we’ve come to know and like and sympathize with as adults, do back then?
“Yellowjackets” moves deftly from wilderness scenes to modern-day, small-city scenes, and the latter feel as real as the former. The Yellowjackets team is from a fictional city in New Jersey that has a very small-town feel, from a pep rally in the high school gym to the signboard outside a local business proclaiming support after the boys’ team’s latest loss. The sign prompts some members of the girls’ team to curse and note that they’re the ones soon flying to Seattle for a national soccer tournament.
Like the fictional town the team is from, exactly where the plane crashes on the way to Seattle is hard to suss out. At some point during the flight, it’s announced they’re flying far off plan, which would put them somewhere in Canada and, of course, harder to find for the vagueness of their flight path. Complicating matters of rescue is that one of the teenagers destroys the “black box” that might have led a rescue party to them.
The producers did a remarkable job in matching young actors and adult actors in the same role, a task not unlike finding actors of differing ages to carry the two-timeline action of a sprawling film like Stephen King’s “It.”
We get to know Shauna (Sophie Nélisse as a teen and Melanie Lynskey as an adult), probably the most sympathetic character — at least at first. Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress are outstanding as the younger and older versions of Taissa, who is a hard-charging player as a teen and a candidate for Congress as an adult. Sammi Hanratty and Christina Ricci bring just the right amount of capable and chaotic energy to the young and older versions of Misty. Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis are Nat as teen and adult and might be the writers’ most successful “teen to adult” transformation storyline in terms of seeing what happened to make the girl the woman she’d become.
The cast is expansive and really is an ensemble, with some young characters who, so far, are notable for the absence of their adult counterparts. We find out, in a few instances, why certain young characters don’t make it out of the wilderness.
In Bill Bryson’s hilarious book “A Walk in the Woods,” about the author and a friend preparing for a hike along the Appalachian Trail, there’s a brief realization that they could encounter a bear. Being able to identify the type of bear and how to survive such an encounter — a point that’s explored in many recent movies, including the farcical “Cocaine Bear” — was given a surprising twist in the early episodes of “Lost,” when a polar bear showed up on the Pacific island where the survivors lived. I won’t spoil the details, but yes, there is also a bear in “Yellowjackets.”
As in “Lord of the Flies” and a lot of zombie apocalypse stories, from “The Last of Us” to “The Walking Dead,” the characters of “Yellowjackets” learn that while nature might kill you in benign, random fashion, the most persistent and personal danger is not the elements or the wildlife. It’s the people around you.
You can watch Yellowjackets on Showtime, through a cable television package or streaming subscription.
Keith Roysdon is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who moved from Indiana to Tennessee and works as a freelance writer. He’s co-authored four true crime books, including “The Westside Park Murders,” which was named Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists. He writes news and pop culture commentary as well as fiction. His Tennessee-set crime novel “Seven Angels” was awarded the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from Mystery Writers of America Midwest.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.