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The show is still an unhinged good time, even when it feels like it's treading water
Uneasy lies the head that wears the antler crown — the crown, in this case, being the unimaginable hype Showtime's thriller Yellowjackets has going into its second season. A premise like "a plane carrying a high school girls' soccer team crash lands in the wilderness, where they have to survive the elements, something supernatural, and one another for 19 months, only to still be carrying a harrowing amount of trauma with them 25 years later, and oh yeah, they probably became cannibals" doesn't seem like the most likely massive hit, and yet when Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson's drama premiered last year, it was a word-of-mouth phenom.
Yellowjackets gained a huge fan base, a bevy of award nominations, and early renewals for both Seasons 2 and 3. The first season was unlike anything else. It was so confident in its ability to go demented and dark without turning off viewers, and to seamlessly toss in some dark comedy to boot. It was a refreshing, if not terrifying, look at teenage girls. And, thanks to its dual timelines in 1996 and the present day, the series boasted a murderers' row of great actors, including Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress, and Juliette Lewis, playing the survivors as adults. So, yeah, that's a lot of pressure coming into Season 2. Thankfully, the confidence and risk-taking that made Season 1 such a hit are still very much intact in the second installment of Yellowjackets, and the cast just can't be beat. All these elements more than make up for the areas where the new episodes lag.
Season 1 ended with the 1996 Yellowjackets reeling after the tragic death of former queen bee Jackie (Ella Purnell) following a particularly vicious fight with best friend Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) and a long winter setting in. In the present-day timeline, Misty (Ricci), Taissa (Cypress), and Nat (Lewis) had just helped Shauna (Lynskey) dispose of a body from an affair gone wrong, and Nat was kidnapped by — surprise — another surviving member of their ill-fated soccer team, Lottie Matthews (Simone Kessell).
As Season 2 takes off, it's been two months since Jackie died, and morale and food supplies are basically nonexistent thanks to the relentless winter. Tai (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is sleepwalking more and more, Lottie (Courtney Eaton) and her mystic connection to the wilderness is gaining some traction in the group, and Shauna, well, Shauna's having some trouble letting go of her friend. The younger cast has only gotten better in the new season. It's perfect timing, too. Not only are they asked to dive into some complicated new sources of tension — winter doesn't just mean bitter cold and no food; it also means the team is stuck on top of each other inside the cabin — but they're also handed some of Yellowjackets' wildest, darkest moments yet.
If you thought there was no way this show could take bigger swings or get more demented, you are in for a shock. Yellowjackets has never been afraid to go for it, and that definitely hasn't changed — there were two scenes early on in the season that I honestly couldn't even believe I was watching. The show remains as unhinged as ever, in all the best ways. And it's the audacity of those big swings that carries you through when the plot begins to feel a little aimless. There's certainly a lot to explore in the 1996 timeline, and it's a smart move for the show to finally build up some of the other surviving girls on the team, but throughout the first six episodes provided to critics, I couldn't help but feel that the show was almost biding its time before it revealed where it was going next.
This aimlessness is felt in the present-day timeline, too. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this group of actors are on top of their game, but part of the magic last season came from all four women interacting with one another. In Season 2, each is off on her own adventure for the bulk of the first six episodes. Tai's blackouts are becoming more severe, with increasingly intense consequences, and she reaches out to Van (Lauren Ambrose, who immediately feels like part of the group) for help. Nat's busy dealing with Lottie's cult. Misty is on the hunt for Nat and winds up teaming up with another citizen detective she meets online, Walter, played by Elijah Wood, who makes the perfect scene partner for Ricci — they're a delight together.
Shauna, meanwhile, is trying to keep the police off her trail after they (correctly) connect her to a still missing Adam Martin (Peter Gadiot), and she winds up dragging her husband, Jeff (Warren Kole), and daughter, Callie (Sarah Desjardins), further into her mess. Lynskey's performance as Shauna remains incredible. Even though we know what she's capable of, she somehow manages to surprise again and again with how dark and demented Shauna is willing to get in the name of feeling something. On top of that, some of the biggest laughs of the season come from this dysfunctional family; the three actors have a great on-screen chemistry, and the writing for them, in particular, really stands out this season.
Still, like in the 1996 timeline, it feels like we're treading water in some ways, even though these storylines aren't necessarily bad or uninteresting. When our main characters all come together late in these six episodes, that's when it feels like Yellowjackets is really about to take off. You can feel the spark between them, and this new level of energy jumps off the screen. Maybe it's all part of the plan. Lyle and Nickerson, along with co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco, didn't lead us astray in Season 1, which really knew how to build on itself. Perhaps with that Season 3 renewal in the bag, they're giving things room to breathe, and it will all make sense in the end. Only time will tell if some of these detours will pay off, but I'm eager to find out. It's pretty telling that even when Yellowjackets begs you to cover your eyes, it remains almost impossible to look away.
Premieres: Sunday, March 26 at 9/8c on Showtime (available March 24 on streaming and on demand)
Who's in it: Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, Sophie Nélisse, Samantha Hanratty, Sophie Thatcher, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Liv Hewson, Courtney Eaton, Lauren Ambrose, Simone Kessell
Who's behind it: Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, Jonathan Lisco (showrunners)
For fans of: Great acting, intense twists, teen cannibals
How many episodes we watched: 6