‘Yellowjackets’ Season 2 Has New Faces and the Same Old Problems
Among the fundamental questions of Yellowjackets is how much trauma does or doesn’t change a person. The Showtime drama largely takes place in two timelines: one showing the immediate aftermath of a plane crash that stranded a high school girls’ soccer team in the remote Canadian wilderness, the other catching up to the survivors in the present day. Some of them, like overeager Misty (Samantha Hanratty in the Nineties, Christina Ricci in the present), seem more or less the same in both eras. Then there are the ones like Shauna (Sophie Nélisse as a teen, Melanie Lynskey as an adult) who have perhaps changed dramatically — from meek wallflower to a badass capable of scaring a gun-wielding carjacker by calmly describing what it’s like to peel the skin off a corpse — or perhaps have just embraced what the ordeal revealed about her younger self.
But how does the opposite of trauma — unexpected word-of-mouth success, Emmy nominations, critical raves, and more — transform Yellowjackets itself? Less than you might think, in ways both good and bad.
As much fun as that first season was, Yellowjackets was very much a hot mess of a show. It often seemed to be trying to do 17 different things at once, somehow succeeding at a dozen of them, but stumbling loudly with the other five. There was, for instance, the interminable subplot where Taissa (Tawny Cypress) got involved in an improbably heated race for the New Jersey state senate. Or there was the oddity of Lynskey delivering the star performance she’s clearly had in her going all the way back to Heavenly Creatures, but in a storyline that had almost nothing to do with what everyone else was up to in both the past and the present. The best pieces — the ferocity of Lynskey, the odd-couple comedy of Ricci and Juliette Lewis (as recovering addict Natalie, who’s played as a teen by Sophie Thatcher), and the mesmerizing weirdness of seeing the girls struggle to cope with the physical and emotional challenge of surviving in such hostile territory — were so lively as to paper over the show’s faults. But it was hard not to notice how mismatched so many of the pieces seemed.
At the end of that season, co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson talked about the challenges of writing a show with so many moving parts, and about some of the lessons they had learned while making those first 10 episodes. In success, though, they have more or less made the same show, with the same strengths and weaknesses.
The adult survivors are once again largely separated from one another, and it takes until the end of the season’s sixth installment for all of them to be in the same place at the same time. This means Lynskey is once again acting her face off on a darkly amusing show-within-the-show, as Shauna, bored husband Jeff (Warren Kole), and their embittered daughter Callie (Sarah Desjardins) have to cover up the murder Shauna committed at the end of last season. When Jeff fields a call from Taissa informing him of what’s going on in the main storyline, it’s perhaps funnier than intended to be reminded of just how disconnected he and Shauna are from it.
Lyle and Nickerson at least do away with Taissa’s political angle, other than a couple of brief conversations with one of her staffers. But there’s still a sense of repetitiveness to her material, at least until she leaves New Jersey for a while and reunites with ex-girlfriend Van (Lauren Ambrose as an adult, Liv Hewson as a teen). And with Natalie beginning the season in the custody of religious leader Charlotte (Simone Kessell) — who went by Lottie (Courtney Eaton) in the woods — Christina Ricci is paired with her The Ice Storm co-star Elijah Wood for a series of comic vignettes about the limits and dangers of citizen detective work. On the whole, the tonal shifts between the drama and comedy are much more jarring in the adult half of the show than in the woods, where the humor is pitched at a more peculiar frequency that fits in with the overall nightmare vibe. Ricci and Wood are very funny together, but like Lynskey, they seem to be operating on a Yellowjackets spin-off that remains embedded in the main series.
Mainly, though, the adult scenes suffer from the fact that Charlotte seems so much less charismatic and dangerous than she does as Lottie, who has convinced most of the girls that she is channeling some kind of dark forest spirit that can protect them all. This is intentional, as Charlotte spends much of her time trying to convince Natalie that she is not the person she used to be. But what she has become isn’t nearly interesting enough — or, perhaps, Simone Kessell simply isn’t the best match for her new co-stars — to occupy the narrative center of the season.
Because the girls — plus a few surviving guys like amputee Coach Ben (Steven Krueger) and Natalie’s hunting partner Travis (Kevin Alves) — are all going through the same problems at the same time and in the same place, the Canadian half of the show remains much more consistent than what’s happening back in Jersey. Things get even darker, weirder, and more disgusting out there, but it never feels as if the creative team is straining for viral moments at the expense of where the story has been bringing us.
The show has mixed success with trying to expand our view of the group beyond the four main girls, Lottie, and Van. It’s important to establish the others for when the writers inevitably want to reveal that additional people made it out of the woods alive, but several of these supporting players remain indistinguishable from one another. And attempts to deepen our understanding of the closeted Ben mainly play as distractions from what’s exciting in that timeline.
Your mileage will vary on how much patience you have for the question of whether the girls are experiencing dark magic or mass psychosis, and/or which answer you find more interesting. (To me, the show is much better if it’s mental illness rather than demons.) But there’s a unity to those Nineties scenes that tilts the emotional scales in their favor, even if the adult half features most of the best performances.
On the whole, far more of it continues to work than doesn’t, including the soundtrack remaining a Gen X dream. The adult Shauna frequently laments winding up with a life she never wanted, mainly because of the crash. But we often see her tapping into the things she learned up on the mountain, and it’s obvious that she is most vibrant and happy in those moments. With both her life and Yellowjackets at this point, you may have to accept that the bad parts sometimes make the great parts possible.
Season Two of Yellowjackets premieres March 26 on Showtime, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the season’s first six episodes.
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