‘Yellowjackets’ Showrunners Talk Season One Finale and What’s Next
This interview contains full spoilers for the season finale of Yellowjackets. The whole first season is now available on Showtime.
And then there were six.
Throughout its gripping cult phenomenon of a first season, Yellowjackets kept implying that only five characters made it out of the woods a year and a half after the high-school soccer team plane crash that kicked off the plot: frustrated mom Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), volatile addict Natalie (Juliette Lewis), political candidate Taissa (Tawny Cypress), and creepy schemer Misty (Christina Ricci), plus Natalie’s ex-boyfriend Travis (played in flashbacks by Kevin Alves), who either committed suicide or was murdered early in the season. But, knowing how serialized mystery-box shows operate, it wasn’t long before the Yellowjackets hive began speculating on whether there were other survivors. The conclusion to Season One finally answered that question, with Natalie being kidnapped by religious cult members who appear to be working for Lottie, the possibly possessed, possibly just unwell team member played in the flashback sequences by Courtney Eaton.
The Lottie reveal was one of the finale’s many highlights. There was also the four adult leads coming together to reluctantly attend their 25-year high school reunion. And teen Shauna’s best friend Jackie (Ella Purnell) died from exposure, sleeping outside right before the first snowfall of the season because she felt rejected by Shauna and the other girls who were falling under the sway of Lottie’s religious zealotry.
Earlier this week, Rolling Stone spoke with Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, the show’s married creators, about the choices they made for the finale, that fantastic mid-Nineties soundtrack, what assurances they can give fans that they know where this is all going, and a lot more.
How did you decide on Lottie as the next survivor whose identity you were going to reveal?
Nickerson: One of the stories that we’re obviously telling in both the present day and the 1996 story is the emergence of this religiosity. There’s something potentially supernatural, potentially based in a group psychosis that at one point took hold of this team, and we’re seeing it emerge for the first time in ’96. It seemed natural to introduce the person who is the heart of that before moving onto Season Two.
Is it safe to assume she may not be the only other person who made it out of the woods?
Lyle: I think it’s safe to assume that Lottie is not the only other person who made it out of the woods.
Do you have any preliminary casting thoughts on who you want to cast as the adult Lottie, to match what Courtney’s been doing?
Lyle: I feel like casting was such a nightmare undertaking in the beginning, just trying to find all these actresses and doing the whole matching game, and we’re right back into it again. We’ve had some very preliminary discussions. We haven’t cast anybody yet. This one’s a little tricky, because Courtney’s very specific in her onscreen presence, [in] what she brings to the show, in terms of her heritage, and we have a bit of work to do in terms of finding the right person. I know the internet has a lot of ideas! And we are paying attention. It’s sadly not how it works. You can’t just throw that out to us and be like, “I want this person.”
Nickerson: The internet voted, and so now you have to do it their way.
The internet seems very invested in the idea of you casting yet another actress who was a teenager in movies in the Nineties. Melanie and Juliette and Christina are all great performers, but did you realize in the original casting process that you would get added value from the fact that some of the audience would remember what they were like onscreen at that age?
Nickerson: I think that’s the perfect way to put it. It’s an added bonus. It wasn’t necessarily something we said, “Oh, it has to be this.” First and foremost, we just needed great actors. It did start to become this thing that we might want to draw on, because part of this story is about the world we created [where the characters] are known quantities to everyone else because of what they went through. People have a lot of thoughts about who they are and what they did. So that was really fun.
When you were initially casting the pilot, did you always cast the adult version first and then find a younger actor to match them?
Lyle: There was one particular case where we cast the younger version first, and it’s a goddamn miracle, which is that we actually cast Sophie Thatcher in the role of teen Natalie before we got Juliette. She just embodied the role of Natalie to us, and then the gods of television were shining on us a little bit, because then Juliette was interested in that role, and they do have a really strong similarity of spirit. In most other cases, we either cast the adults first or both at the same time.
The show right now has two timelines: the teens in the woods and the adults dealing with the ramifications of what they did. How much thought have you given to what happens in between? And should viewers expect to see some of that period at some point?
Nickerson: We’ve actually joked in the writers room that we’re not breaking a story in two timelines, but in three, and we have definitely talked a lot about what life looks like in between these two storylines. I do think there’s a good chance that we might see some of what bridges those two.
Lyle: I remember watching the movie Cast Away when it first came out, and I really enjoyed it, but I felt like they really glossed over the period of reintroduction to society. I found the idea of that so interesting. Now he’s rescued and he’s back, and that had to be insane for him. So that is a period of these characters we’re very much interested in exploring down the road.
When serialized mystery shows like yours turn into a phenomenon, the excitement inevitably gets mixed in with some audience skepticism about long-term planning. How much of this do you have mapped out already, and how much room do you have to adjust based on what’s unfolded as you’ve actually made the show?
Nickerson: I would say the answer is “a lot” to both of those things. We pitched a multiseason plan that is so far, so good. A lot of it’s been retained. But part of what makes the form exciting and so vital is there is an improvisational aspect to it. I think you are giving away a lot of potential magic if you get too focused on the plan and exactly how it was supposed to unfold, versus looking at what the actors and directors and other writers are doing and working off of that.
Lyle: One of the really cool things about the current, for lack of a better phrase, television landscape, is that we’re no longer beholden to the old network, “seven seasons and a movie” approach. We are very much of the mind that this story will tell us how long it wants to be. We have no interest in dragging this show out past its due time. We do have a multiseason arc; we strongly feel we have multiple seasons of story to tell. But at a certain point, we’re going to realize that the story wants to end. And I hope that the audience is reassured that we don’t intend to beat a dead horse.
In the woods, all the stories are tied together in some way, whereas in the present-day timeline, you can have Taissa off dealing with the state senate race for multiple episodes, or Shauna be with Adam, and neither of them hugely connected to the mystery or the other women. Is one type of storytelling easier than the other?
Lyle: I think it’s much easier when you’re working with the wilderness, and it’s one story. You have characters doing different things, but that is just an easier way to tell a story than to have these more compartmentalized stories in the present day. That said, you don’t want to force characters together if it’s not natural. These women have had very different responses to what happened to them. This is not a workplace comedy — though I think it could be a fun workplace comedy. But moving forward, one thing we realized is that Melanie and Tawny and Christina and Juliette have great chemistry together. So it’s really fun to put them in scenes together. But I also think that we have to be authentic to the story. To some extent, that’s going to dictate what we see moving forward. Our favorite show of all time is The Sopranos, and even when Christopher’s off trying to get Cleaver made, I enjoy that but know he’ll eventually go back to the main group. You have to be able to get your characters together.
Nickerson: I agree that breaking the stories of ’96 was a little easier. But I found the single storylines in ’96 tricky to write, because you’re trying to keep so many things alive in small microbeats. And just from a production standpoint, it’s a lot of scenes with a lot of people.
Lyle: The number of times each of the directors would go, “Do they all have to be in this scene? Oh, god!”
Nickerson: The show has the most kinetic excitement when the groups are together, because that’s just what the show is.
So as an example from the adult timeline, the finale has Taissa winning the election. In theory, that’s going to keep her occupied. How much do you plan to be dealing with that in Season Two versus her dealing with all the conspiracy and religious cult stuff?
Nickerson: First and foremost, we’re interested in the character experience. Her political career is a tool and a lens to view her personal story through. I think the percentage of time that we’re going to be seeing her deal with being in office or political stuff, that’s one of those particulars that we’ll feel our way through. Because at the end of the day, this is a story that wants our team to come together, and wants them to be dealing and unpacking in the past. Although there are great political stories to tell, that is not necessarily a focus for this show.
Lyle: We’re not particularly interested in making West Wing: Yellowjackets.
There are a lot of moments throughout the season where things could be supernatural, or they could just be the characters losing their minds because of events in the woods. Do you have any rules for yourselves about how much you want to go there? And do you know what is real and what is in everyone’s heads?
Lyle: We do. I think that our rule for ourselves, and what we’ve discussed in the writers room, is we never want something to happen that cannot possibly have some conceivable natural explanation. We talk about things in these potentially more supernatural moments from both sides, as if each one was absolutely supernatural, and then as if it absolutely was not. We wanted to make sure that, for ourselves, if we’re trying to ride that line, that we understand it from both sides. It’s such an interesting discussion, and we could bore you for hours with our meta conversations about “what does it mean to be ‘real?'” But we’ve talked about how there’s very documented phenomenology of possession. Does that mean demonic entities exist and are actually possessing people? Or is there another explanation? Because there are people who genuinely believe that they are possessed by something.
Nickerson: And that something is happening to them.
Lyle: We’re trying to ground everything in the subjective experience of our characters. Ultimately, belief is a big theme for this show, and will be a bigger one going forward. If somebody truly believes something, that means it has real-world consequences, whether you can categorize it as definitively supernatural or not.
The soundtrack on the show is so good. I’ve heard from other showrunners who are incredulous about how big your music budget must be.
Lyle: It’s interesting, because we had to be very careful with our music budget. We blew it out in the pilot a little bit, and then had to make up some money with our episodes moving forward. There are a couple of episodes in the middle where it’s like, “This week, we added only one song to the Spotify playlist.” There were a couple of songs that were out of reach monetarily, but for the most part, it was an interesting puzzle to just use the resources we had. In a couple of instances, we had to write letters and plead our case to the artists and say, “Please, please, please, this song is perfect. An here’s exactly why.” I have no idea if they read them in full.
Nickerson: I like to believe they read them and wept! Because of the beautiful articulateness of them!
I almost jumped out of my chair when the women strutted into the reunion to “Come Out and Play (Keep ’Em Separated).” How many songs did you try for that sequence, and how did you wind up choosing that one?
Nickerson: It had to be more than a dozen. That is the fun part of music and images. Our process can be very long-winded. We would try a lot of songs, and watch them. You don’t always know exactly what the moment wants to be until you see it. And that’s one where, if we were taking odds beforehand, there wouldn’t have been a ton of cash on that song. But then just seeing it was just like, “This is perfect.”
Lyle: We were on a video feed for post-production, and I had to mute myself when that started playing, because I started laughing so hard. I mean, we had to use it.
Why do you think the show has so obviously struck a chord with viewers?
Lyle: Man, I wish I knew, because then I could do more of it. I have to say, you can never anticipate anything like this. When you’re working, you’re just hoping that it isn’t a steaming pile of garbage. You lose all perspective. You’re working 100 hours a week, and you just hope it’s OK. Once we started seeing cuts halfway through, we felt at least we could be really proud of it, but had no idea anybody was going to like it. One of the things I hope people are responding to is we tried to thread a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously with this show. There’s this strange dichotomy, where, even as the world of one-hours and half-hours and dramas and comedies are merging more, there are still serious shows that feel like they have to be very serious. I like a lot of serious shows. But my favorite shows, like Sopranos and Breaking Bad, they can be very funny. To my mind, that was one of those things that in writing and making the show, it seemed as though people are responding to that, and it’s a good way to mitigate the darker qualities of the show.
Nickerson: I do also think that there’s a hazard, for me at least, and for us as a show, of trying to figure that out to a certain extent. At the end of the day, the way that we’re gonna be able to deliver something that honors that continued excitement is by letting the story unfold for us in a way where it’s almost pulling us along with it. It’s not something that we would have ever dared hope for, to have this kind of reception. It does make you feel a certain responsibility, because you’ve asked people to spend 10 hours with you, and that 10-hour experience has to continue. But I don’t think a person who enjoys the show is going to get to Episode 10 and be like, “That was fun, but I’ve had enough Yellowjackets.” If the show tanks or becomes terrible, there is a feeling of betrayal of sorts for the audience. So if we want to re-earn all of the passion and the engagement that we’re getting, we have to almost not think too hard about what it was that worked in terms of the final product, but try to get back to the places that we went to to create that thing.
After all the teasing throughout the season regarding what happened to Jackie, how did you decide that this was when and how she was going to die?
Lyle: This was something that was in the original pitch for the show. We always knew how and when she was going to die. We had a word-for-word, scripted, and memorized pitch that we made a lot of people sit through. The final phrase was, “And as the first snow begins to fall, we end Season One.” We knew that Jackie was going to die. In the most straightforward way, our show is operating on that Lord of the Flies level. She was symbolic of society and the home that they had known, and the ways of thinking and behaving, and all of those structures. It felt important to us. She just didn’t seem like a character who was going to make it. That said, we wanted to give her the dignity of an emotionally moving death and not just a shocking death. We were interested in playing out her friendship with Shauna, because teenage girl friendships can be volatile. It’s always this push and pull and ebb and flow, and you get into a fight and then you make up. I think had they been at home, this fight and this fissure in their relationship was inevitable, but we were interested in the ways that the consequences would just be so different out in the wilderness. We hope that people are moved and satisfied by Jackie’s death, and that they aren’t disappointed that she’s not murdered and eaten and eaten in the last episode! We’ll get to that stuff eventually. This just felt right to us in terms of what needed to happen.
Finally, as a former Star-Ledger writer, I have to ask: Where in New Jersey are these kids supposed to be from?
Lyle: Bart and I are both from Monmouth County — I’m from Belmar, Bart’s from Middletown/Keansburg — so we can’t help but picture Wiskayok somewhere in that vicinity.