From the opening scene of its premiere, Yellowjackets has been gleefully stoking the flames of its core mystery. Centering on a high school girls’ soccer team that is stranded in the Canadian wilderness for 19 months after a plane crash, the show splits its time between the events after the crash and the survivors reckoning with their trauma 25 years later. But the premiere’s scenes of one of the girls being hunted, killed, and ritualistically eaten, all under the rule of someone wearing an antler crown, make it clear that there are a lot of blanks to be filled in between those two timelines. And the show’s weekly release has given rise to a fervently theorizing community of viewers trying to figure out what, exactly, happened in the woods—and how a close-knit group of teenagers ultimately resorted to cannibalism.
It’s a juicy premise, not least of all because the show’s Lord of the Flies–esque setup happens to a group primarily made up of young women. And for anyone who participated in high school sports—or something similar, like band or choir—the camaraderie and occasional friction between the Yellowjackets feels familiar. (Hopefully, the whole “I could eat my teammate” element of the series is a bit harder to fathom.) Yet the character on Yellowjackets who seems most relatable, and who might have it the worst of anyone, isn’t one of the teenagers. Instead, it’s the only adult in the room—er, the woods.
Yellowjackets’ plane crash led to several casualties, including some of the players, both pilots, a flight attendant, and the head coach. But assistant coach Ben Scott (played by Steven Krueger) can count himself lucky for surviving the crash, with one major drawback. One of his legs is crushed by plane debris—the way it’s barely hanging onto the rest of his body is one of the gnarliest things you’ll see on the small screen—and has to be chopped off and cauterized. It’s unfathomably awful, but for poor Coach Ben, the worst is still to come.
Just think about what this guy is up against: He’s lost his leg in a plane crash, he’s stranded in the middle of nowhere, and he has to supervise a bunch of teenagers scared out of their minds. But it’s not just being the only authority figure in an unprecedented crisis that Ben has to contend with, as he also becomes an object of unrequited affection for Misty Quigley (played by Sammi Hanratty in the earlier timeline), Yellowjackets’ bespectacled chaos agent.
Written off by the other girls as the team’s dorky equipment manager, Misty proves surprisingly resourceful for life in the wilderness—thanks to a babysitting health course she took (twice), she’s the only one smart enough to cut off Ben’s mangled leg and cauterize it to prevent a fatal infection. But as the other girls give Misty the type of validation she’s long craved, it goes to her head in all the wrong ways. (See: destroying the plane’s black box that could’ve had the group rescued very early into their ordeal.) But Misty also has a bit of Annie Wilkes in her. Her crush on Ben, and the fact that he isn’t reciprocating those feelings, leads Misty to purposefully trip him and poison his tea: a vicious cycle that allows her to continue caring for him. Somehow, that’s only slightly more tortuous than when Misty tries to help Ben pass a bowel movement by singing.
Whether she’s just being clingy or legitimately harming him, Ben is completely at Misty’s mercy. (Her behavior with Ben makes for a fascinating and disturbing through line in the present day, when she works at a nursing home and torments patients she believes aren’t thankful enough for her care—the older version of the character is played by the great Christina Ricci.) It’s in these exchanges with Misty that Krueger shows off his comedic chops, as Ben barely succeeds in hiding his contempt and fear for her. Just picture being terrified of the teenage girl who used to pick up cones at soccer practice.
As a series that demonstrates what can happen to people when they’re cut off from civilization, Yellowjackets doesn’t make for easy viewing. But it’s a testament to Ben’s character that he’s not just maintaining his sanity while being tormented by Misty, but learning how to live with one leg on the fly, advising the girls on survival practices, and giving the only teenage boy in the group, Travis, a handful of condoms to practice safe sex because teens will be teens. They don’t give out Teacher of the Year awards for this kind of stuff, but Ben deserves credit for his patience, leadership, and uncanny ability to thread the needle between charming Misty and preventing her from acting on her cloying affections.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Misty that Ben has to worry about: The more time that the group spends in the wilderness, the more he loses a sense of authority. That’s made especially apparent in the eighth episode, “Flight of the Bumblebee,” when Laura Lee (Jane Widdop) decides that she’s going to try and fly the small, beat-up propeller plane the group discovered in the woods. When Ben tries to interject and Laura openly questions what he can do to stop her, he receives an intimidating amount of unnerving death glares:
And therein lies the problem: In this micro-society of mostly teenage girls, the adult male Ben is the odd one out. Even taking his struggles with a new disability in the wilderness out of the equation, it’s hard to imagine that poor Ben will be alive on Yellowjackets for much longer. It’s only a matter of time before the group—or at least some of the girls—turn to cannibalism to survive, and there’s little reason to believe that their level-headed assistant coach is going to be along for the ride. From the little we’ve seen of the Antler Queen in a future timeline, it’s safe to say that Ben isn’t among her followers.
This adds a tragic layer to a character who’s tried to be the voice of reason in a situation where survival may require unreasonable compromises. (Winter is coming, Laura Lee’s flight burst into flames, the group is hungry, and the animals that the Yellowjackets were hunting are migrating further south.) But for as long as Coach Ben remains on the series, he’ll be its most relatable character, the lone adult who knows that the only thing more nightmarish than being a teen is being on the outside looking in.