[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of Yellowjackets. Read at your own risk!]
Since Yellowjackets premiered in November, the Showtime drama has captured the hearts of many with its gripping premise about a high school girls' soccer team fighting to survive in the wilderness after a deadly plane crash, and its twisty plot that follows both the stranded teens in 1996 and their present-day adult counterparts. The thriller has captured the minds of many, too. Over the past nine weeks, social media has been flooded with theories and predictions about the fates of characters and their eventual rescue 19 months later. But one burning question has remained at the core of the discussions: Is Jackie alive?
Played by Ella Purnell, Jackie is the charismatic captain of the soccer team and the most popular girl in high school. She's also the one most glaringly absent from the 2021 timeline. The finale, which aired on Sunday, offers an answer as to why: After an explosive argument with her best friend Shauna (Sophie Nélisse, adult version portrayed by Melanie Lynskey), Jackie storms out of the cabin. The next morning, after realizing that it snowed overnight, Shauna runs out to find what appears to be a frozen Jackie lying outside. We can never be certain about deaths in this show (think of Liv Hewson's Van, who was thought to be dead at the end of Episode 7), so TV Guide caught up with Purnell to get her take on the bleak state of her character. The star also spoke to TV Guide about other scenes in the finale — which she has not seen yet ("I'm on Episode 3," Purnell says. "I'm watching it with friends and they won't let me watch it without them") — as well as Jackie's fall from the social hierarchy and what sets Yellowjackets apart from her past projects.
To start, I must ask: Did Jackie actually die?
Ella Purnell: She's really gone. It's funny, I keep trying to convince the writers like, what if she just temporarily passed out? And they're like, no, she's dead. I'm like, OK, but what if — and they're like, no, she's dead.
Wow, OK. I feel like I'm in denial.
Purnell: I'm still in denial. We have a group chat and they were all talking about where they're going to live on Season 2. And I'm like, guys? I'm going to be there right? It hasn't quite hit me that that's it for me.
That was a brutal scene to watch, with Shauna sprinting outside the cabin and screaming after finding Jackie. What was it like filming that?
Purnell: I don't know because I had my eyes closed the entire time [laughs]. I mean, it sounded very emotional. The fake snow that they used, it expands when it's wet. So when they were blowing it on top of me and making it look like fresh snowfall, I had to close my eyes because none of the fake snow could get in my eyes or my nose or my mouth because it would then expand and be really gross and quite painful. So I basically had my eyes closed for about an hour and a half. I couldn't open them, so for me, it was fine. But for Sophie [Nélisse] it was quite emotional I think.
I knew ever since I signed up for the pilot that I would be dying in the finale. It was just very sad to read the finale and to read the death scene and to then have to come to terms with the fact that that's it. It's not very often that I finish a job and go, I'd love to do that again. Usually, you finish a job and you're like, put me on a beach in a bikini right now. I'm exhausted. But this time I was like, I really would like to do that again. So that's a nice feeling.
What was it about this show that made you have that feeling?
Purnell: Very rarely do you get a whole cast who are all super cool. You always get one person who kind of sucks. We just didn't have that. We got along so well; we were really tight from the get-go. We were filming in Vancouver in the summer, which is gorgeous. And we're filming in a forest, which, it was tough in the mud, it was tough when it was hot, and the dust and the dirt. But we're also in nature surrounded by gorgeous trees, and it was a pretty relaxed schedule so I got to do tons of traveling. From a working standpoint, it was a really enjoyable experience.
On top of that, I just think that the show is really good. We didn't know that people were going to respond this well to it when we filmed it — you never do. I had a feeling when I watched the pilot, I was like, oh sh--, this is cool. And it was just edgier and darker than I thought it was going to be. Actually, sometimes when the script came in, I was like, really? I was a little skeptical that it was going to work because we were only seeing 50% of the show, we're not seeing the modern-day counterparts. We were really in it, and when you're in it, you don't have that kind of perspective that the writers and the producers have.
How much of Season 1's plot did you know when you signed on to the project? You knew Jackie was going to die. Did you know all the details in between?
Purnell: No, and actually, I didn't know how I was going to die until I got the episode. And I kept asking. And what's funny is we were theorizing about everything at work at 3 in the morning on a night shoot the exact same way the fans are theorizing on Twitter and on the subreddit... Them talking about, who's the Antler Queen? Yeah, we've been trying to figure that out too for like six months. We didn't know anything — we knew things when we got the episodes. The writers kept everything pretty close to their chests.
It's so interesting to hear about how you and the other cast members have been theorizing. Now the big question is, will there be more than one Antler Queen?
Purnell: That's a good one, I don't know. When Season 2 comes out, I'm going to be deep in the subreddit.
Another scene I wanted to ask about from the finale was when Jackie returns to the cabin and everyone smiles to greet her. Shauna says, "I love you, Jackie," and everyone says, "We all love you, Jackie." What is the significance of this scene?
Purnell: That dream sequence was another one of the things that when I read it, I was a little dubious. And I doubted my ability to pull it off in a way that would feel as impactful as I knew that it should have. So I was a little nervous when we filmed it, but actually, when we did it, it made perfect sense. Because the whole trajectory of Jackie, that's what she's always wanted — for people to love her. All she's ever wanted is just to be accepted and valued and appreciated, but she doesn't know how to express those needs and those wants.
[The scene] is that immediate feeling of, she gets to relax in the warmth of her friends by the fire, and she's physically relieved from the cold, but she's also emotionally relieved. This is so satisfying for her that finally, people are apologizing to her. And it's interesting to play with various levels of Jackie realizing at some point, hang on, something's not right, this can't be real life.
I really enjoyed playing this character, and I really didn't know where she was going to go. When you sign on for any show, you read 50 pages and you sign on up to seven years of your life off those 50 pages, and you have no idea what they're going to do with your character. I remember when I first read it and I thought, I don't know if I want to play this kind of stereotypical, pretty, popular, mean girl. Then I read the logline and it was like, "Women have to survive in the wilderness," and I was like, OK, I'm sold. Immediately, I'm sold. Because I knew that was the most interesting place to start. I knew it was going to turn into a survivalist drama. I knew it was going to get gritty, I knew it was going to get dark. And I thought, what a great trajectory to start as a perfectly poised, put-together thing and then just dismantle that.
The big fight between Jackie and Shauna in the finale is also very emotional. How did you prepare for it?
Purnell: Sometimes it's actually easier when you have another actor to work off of. The scenes I struggle with are ones where you're just on your own and you have to bring the emotion out of yourself. But when you're working with someone like this, and Sophie is so extraordinarily talented, her emotions will bring out my emotions, which will bring out hers.
I always use music to get into emotional scenes. I have a sad playlist on my Spotify account. And they're all songs that are like, me and my ex's song, or a song that I was listening to at a bad time in my life. They're all songs that have memories attached to them. The memory is so gutting that I kind of just have to sit there, close my eyes, listen to the music. It really sucks and I really hate it, to be honest. But you have to get back into that memory. From a psychological standpoint, it's probably not good for you but makes for good performance, and that's what we do. I'll have my headphones in right up until they say action.
One of Shauna's lines in the fight was that high school was "the best your life was ever going to get." Do you agree with the idea that Jackie peaked in high school, or do you think she was onto greater things?
Purnell: I can see it going both ways. I can see her marrying young and being the bored housewife, the soccer mom that has to keep it all together even though she's miserable inside. And I can also see her and Shauna splitting apart and Jackie taking a long hard look at herself, maybe getting into therapy, maybe moving to New York and becoming a designer's assistant. I can see it both ways.
But I do think that [Shauna's statement], at that point, is true. And I think that Jackie knows it. And that's what her biggest fear is; that's what she's afraid of and that's why she controls Shauna so much. Because Jackie is all surface, there's nothing underneath. She doesn't have inner interests or hobbies or musings or thoughts. Whereas I think Jackie sees in Shauna, she has a unique music taste, she doesn't care what people think of her, she dresses in clothes that she likes, not dresses as she sees in magazines. I think that Jackie is threatened by that, jealous of that, and that's why she tries so hard to control her. That particular quote is what always got me, as that brought up a lot of emotion. During the scene I remember that line very well, because it is true.
I think that's what the whole thing comes to. In Episode 1 when we see Jackie, she's thriving. In a high school setting, a social hierarchy, she's at the top. She knows how to get people to like her, she knows how to adhere to that grand illusion of mystery and popularity. But when they're in the wilderness, she loses that completely. She loses her footing and stumbles all the way to the bottom. Even Laura Lee is more helpful than her, and I think for Jackie that's the biggest slap in the face — nothing against Laura Lee; I love her too. The fandom is going to come for me. I didn't mean it! [But Jackie] falls and I think that it completely dismantles Jackie's reality. They have that scene [in Episode 5] where she was like, "I don't know how to do this. I don't know why everyone's getting off on this boring back-to-the-land bullsh--. I hate this and I'm rubbish at it." And I think that maybe that is the first time that Jackie has ever been faced with her thoughts and faced with her true self and had to look inside and realize that there's not that much there. And that all the other losers that she looked down on in the real world, when you take them out of that high school society they kind of flourish, and Jackie's left with nothing.
When you were auditioning for the role, what was it about Jackie that appealed to you?
Purnell: When I did the audition, I was interested in the codependent dynamic between best friends. I went to an all-girls school; I know all about the complicated relationships between females. But I wanted to play it in a way that, even though what Jackie was saying in her words was kind of mean to Shauna, you could see there was a vulnerability, you could see that she was saying it because she was deeply insecure. And that would somehow allow the audience to empathize with her. I don't care if she's likable, but I want her to be human.
I haven't played that many complex, yet easily unlikable characters, and it's a really fine line. Because if you lose the audience early on, it's really hard to get them to give a sh-- when you die. And maybe they don't, who knows?
What was most different about Yellowjackets compared to past projects you've worked on, like Arcane and Army of the Dead?
Purnell: A large portion of it is television. I just wanted to do more TV. I really like not knowing what's going to happen and having to adapt on the fly. You don't get that with film. But also doing something that's so female-focused, female-centric, it completely changes everything. It increases the parameter of what you can do as an actress because, in a film like Army of the Dead, it's going to be seen by a lot of people and not everyone's going to have the same kind of views as the audience who are watching Yellowjackets. It is more important to be likable. As a woman, you have to be careful about not raising your voice too loud or being too annoying or, maybe adding a little flirtatiousness or smiling more, just doing things so that the audience would like you because you're being judged more harshly because you're a woman, and that's the truth. Especially when you're a young woman there's that added pressure of then being sexualized. Whereas in Yellowjackets, we've got queer characters, we've got a female-centric world. You can kind of do whatever the f--- you want. The parameters are just so much wider.
Yellowjackets is renewed for a second season. Will we see more of Jackie?
Purnell: I actually don't know. I hope so, but I don't know.
I saw that you posted on Instagram that you got Nat for the Buzzfeed quiz on which Yellowjacket character you're most like. Is that accurate? Which Yellowjacket are you most similar to in real life?
Purnell: Probably Natalie. There's a little bit of that, does-whatever-the-f--- she wants, that I can't seem to shake as much as I would like to. This like, constant getting into trouble thing that some of us are just born with.
I was sad that I did not get her and got Misty instead.
Purnell: You got Misty? I'm so sorry. What did you do to be Misty? Well I guess she's not all bad.
Yellowjackets Season 1 is now streaming on Showtime.