clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In the ‘Yellowjackets’ Season Finale, the Real Violence Is Emotional

Despite the threat of harsh winters, hungry animals, and maybe even the supernatural, the Season 1 finale underscores that the players themselves are the most urgent menace of all

Showtime/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Plenty of questions drive the plot of Yellowjackets, the most entrancing mystery box to set the internet abuzz—pun intended—since the early seasons of Westworld. Who else survived the plane crash that stranded a girls’ soccer team in the Canadian wilderness? What’s the deal with the symbol carved into the trees? Why would someone send the teammates postcards with that symbol 25 years later? But there’s one central enigma that eclipses all the rest. For 10 weeks, viewers speculated with increasing intensity: Who do they eat first?

Cannibalism is a hell of a hook, which is why creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson sprinkled the pilot with haunting flash-forwards, imbued with menace by director Karyn Kusama. When the Yellowjackets first leave for nationals, they’re a relatively average group of New Jersey teens, give or take a few skeletons in their closets. But at some point during the 19 months they spend in the woods, the girls start fashioning robes from animal skins, staging occult rituals, and hunting each other for sport. Yellowjackets is far more than its mysteries, layering in humor, romance, and a clinically precise portrait of lingering trauma. Still, when a show begins with an unidentified figure impaled, bled out, and butchered for meat, it’s going to remain at the front of fans’ minds.

Given that suspense, one takeaway from Sunday’s finale is that no one ends up on the menu. There’s a major death: Jackie (Ella Purnell), the confident and once-popular team captain. But even though the victim from the show’s cold open is wearing her necklace, Jackie doesn’t die at the hands of her teammates—or at least, not directly. Instead, the long-brewing tensions between Jackie and her best friend, Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), explode into a fight, with the rest of the team taking Shauna’s side. Jackie self-exiles and camps outside, only for a sudden snowstorm to arrive in the night. Earlier in the season, the practical Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) warned that freezing to death in the harsh northern winter would feel like drifting off to sleep. With Jackie, that’s quite literally the case. Her final thoughts are a dream where Shauna echoes Jackie’s own words from the pilot back at her: “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You know that, right?”

To keep the hype going for a swiftly ordered Season 2, it makes sense that Yellowjackets wouldn’t cut to the cult ceremonies so quickly. (Lyle and Nickerson have said they pitched the show with a five-season road map.) But Jackie’s fate isn’t a misdirect or bait-and-switch. Yellowjackets’ latest fatality underscores one of the show’s central themes, and follows through on the enticing appeal of its premise. Harsh winters, hungry animals, and maybe even magic threaten the Yellowjackets as they struggle to survive; the pilot implies that the players themselves are the most urgent threat of all. For teen girls, though, it’s never taken knives or traps to devour each other whole.

Yellowjackets is a gruesomely violent show, a fact that itself feels transgressive given the demographics of its cast. (Rare is the story that lets women and girls be the victims and perpetrators of visceral horror.) Throughout Season 1, we witness team members break a freshman’s leg so severely it exposes the bone; sever and cauterize an assistant coach’s crushed limb with an ax; attempt an ad hoc abortion with a bra underwire; survive a wolf attack that turns half a face into hamburger meat; behead a beloved pet; and dismember a human body, a process adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) likens to “riding a really gross, fucked-up bike.” To borrow a phrase from the characters’ ’90s lexicon, it’s all pretty gnarly.

All the blood and guts partially obscure a quieter kind of brutality. Even before the team gets on that fateful flight bound for nationals, Shauna is already sleeping with Jackie’s boyfriend. Neither of them actually like him that much, an ambivalence that extends to Shauna’s present-day marriage. (How she ended up with sweet, simple, book-club-believing Jeff after the rescue is one of Yellowjackets’ many open threads.) The affair is more like a proxy battle between a self-centered queen bee and her less glamorous best friend who’s tired of having her own needs ignored. Shauna got into Brown early decision, but Jackie simply assumes they’ll go to Rutgers together.

Once they’re in the wild, the emotional warfare continues. Shauna realizes she’s pregnant, a secret Jackie discloses to the group in another thoughtless choice made on Shauna’s behalf. Correctly guessing Shauna’s keeping something from her, Jackie reads Shauna’s journal without her consent. Enraged at what she finds, Jackie acts out, intentionally driving a wedge between the hard-edged Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) and Travis (Kevin Alves), the coach’s son with whom Nat shares a nascent, prickly bond. Jackie seduces Travis, a supremely selfish act of curiosity—she and Jeff never did the deed—and misdirected revenge.

The argument that follows may be the most gruesome scene in all of Yellowjackets, though neither side so much as throws a punch. “You’re such a cliché,” Jackie hisses. “Is the sad little sidekick mad? Did I force you to live in my shadow?” Without hesitating, Shauna fires right back: “I’m sure everyone at home is so fucking sad to lose their perfect little princess, but they’ll never know how tragic and boring and insecure you really are,” she growls. “Or how high school was the best your life was ever gonna get.” These are the kind of darts only best friends can throw: the ones precision-targeted to hit soft spots the assailant knows all too well.

While Shauna and Jackie drift apart, the social landscape shifts steadily around them. Yellowjackets is clear from the start that those with the most to gain from the crash’s upheaval are those who benefit least from the “real” world’s established order. The team stays lost for as long as it does because Misty (Sammi Hanratty), the awkward, intense equipment manager with a surprising reserve of practical know-how, overhears two teammates begrudgingly admit they’d be “fucked” if she weren’t around. Elated by the ego boost and hardly eager to return to life as an outcast, Misty destroys the plane’s black box, clinging to this conditional form of power. If the Yellowjackets don’t want her there, then at least they can need her.

In the closing scene of the finale, Misty forms one-third of a triad. The episode’s title, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” derives from the Latin phrase—direct translation: “thus passes the glory of the world”—that marks the coronation of a new pope. The name alludes to a disturbing development: the rise of Lottie (Courtney Eaton) as a quasi shaman, the apparent leader of what will eventually become the cannibal cult. Back in New Jersey, Lottie is the lonely child of a wealthy family and has a prescription for an antipsychotic. (The plane that crashes is a private flight chartered by her dad.) But in the woods, the very episodes that she takes medication to block make her a seeming conduit to the supernatural forces that may or may not be keeping the girls in captivity. It’s Lottie who kills a strangely docile bear, giving the team their first proper meal in weeks; it’s Lottie who leads a prayer of thanks “to the ancient gods of the sky and the dirt,” assuming authority with disconcerting ease. When she places the bear’s heart on a makeshift altar, Lottie is flanked by Misty and Van (Liv Hewson), a goalie with a troubled home life.

Jackie, of course, is the inverse of her peers. When you flip the social totem pole that organizes high school life, those once at the bottom—the Mistys, the Lotties, the Vans—shoot to the top; those at the top fall precipitously down. Reminding her why she’s captain, Jackie’s coach tells her, “You have something no one else on this team has: influence. When things get tough out there, those girls are gonna need someone to guide them.” But Jackie, it turns out, isn’t that someone. She doesn’t take the helm of, or even pitch in on, practical tasks, a reticence Shauna warns is leading her to lose her clout; she’s also resistant to Lottie’s brand of mysticism, a disagreement that erupts into outright hostility when the group accidentally takes magic mushrooms. “Don’t you understand?” Lottie asks Jackie, confronting her over the encounter with Travis. “You don’t matter anymore.” Then she locks her in a pantry.

By the time Jackie and Shauna have it out, it’s not just Shauna who’s had enough of Jackie bossing them around. All that influence has evaporated in the face of the group’s radically altered circumstances; all that admiration has transferred over to figures like Lottie. But deposing a figurehead like Jackie doesn’t mean a more egalitarian setup emerges in her wake. When the group turns on her, resentful of her judgment, they quite literally freeze Jackie out. They don’t need to kill their captain, let alone trap her in a pit, for petty politics to cost Jackie her life.

These kinds of conflicts are not unique to teenage girls. But unlike in Lord of the Flies, one of Yellowjackets’ obvious inspirations, the disputes tend to play out among women in ways more subtle than open warfare. Yellowjackets understands not all gore comes from flesh and bone. There’s physical violence, and then there’s psychological violence; this is a show that uses each to enforce the other, and expertly so. The Yellowjackets have yet to acquire a taste for long pig. (Who knows—they may even start with Jackie’s corpse!) They’ve still managed to savage one of their own.