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Some Questions Are Better Left Unanswered in ‘Yellowjackets’ Season 2

The mystery thriller is more interested in illustrating its protagonists’ profound psychic wounds, whether or not they’re paranormal in nature

Showtime/Ringer illustration

For its final two seasons, The Leftovers set its opening credits to “Let the Mystery Be,” an ode to uncertainty by singer Iris DeMent. The song was partly a wink to viewers in search of answers about the Departure, the mass disappearance that drove the events of the show. But it was also a reminder that those answers, even if they arrived, could never be as interesting as the ambiguity around them. If the mystery box offered one model for TV shows to generate suspense, “let the mystery be” was its equal and opposite.

In its first season, a surprise smash hit, Yellowjackets could present as a mystery box. By toggling between a girls’ soccer team stranded in the Canadian wilderness and their middle-aged selves, the series asked us to speculate on what happened and why. A quite literal cold open saw an anonymous figure chased through the snow and killed for their flesh; a cliff-hanger ending teased the latter-day return of Lottie (Courtney Eaton), the Yellowjacket who appeared to lead the ritual sacrifice. In between, the show set up—and sometimes resolved—smaller questions, like who was blackmailing the adult survivors or how team captain Jackie (Ella Purnell) met her demise.

That last reveal was anticlimactic, at least to those expecting anything more lurid than best friends lashing out from a place of wounded pride. It also indicated how Yellowjackets would treat its occult elements going forward. Some teammates, led by Lottie, start to believe their plane didn’t crash entirely by accident; they’re supported by eerie events like the spontaneous combustion of a small aircraft and the docile surrender of a bear to be slaughtered for meat. (Lottie cuts out its heart as an offering to … whatever’s in the air.) But Yellowjackets didn’t confirm or deny the burgeoning cult’s cosmology. Instead, it’s used as an accent to enhance the paranoia and tension among an increasingly desperate group of kids.

In its hotly anticipated second season, premiering Friday, Yellowjackets lets the mystery be. Some shows, like Westworld, have leaned even further into their esoteric side as they’ve gone on; in an effort to stay one step ahead of their most ardent, Reddit-sleuthing fans, such stories can lose touch with their own emotional foundation. But for their follow-up, cocreators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, working with co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco, neither spin their wheels nor dive too far down the rabbit hole. Instead, Yellowjackets keeps its eyes on the prize: illustrating its protagonists’ profound psychic wounds, whether or not they’re paranormal in nature.

After a sublime slow-walk into their high school reunion, the four adult Yellowjackets who anchored Season 1 have scattered, their fragile solidarity broken almost as soon as it’s formed. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) has to cover up her ex-lover’s killing, though at least she’s being helped out by her husband. (He owes her one; it turns out he was the blackmailer, harvesting dirt from her old journals.) Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is now a state senator by day and, apparently, a dog murderer by night, a discovery with dire consequences for her home life. Misty (Christina Ricci), ever the Citizen Detective, has taken it upon herself to track down an MIA Natalie (Juliette Lewis), kidnapped in the final minutes of Season 1 by a group who appear to be Lottie’s goons.

This core quartet is now joined by some new, or rather very old, faces. Given the cleverness of Yellowjackets casting—most of the adults are played by actresses who rose to fame in the 1990s, when they were around the same age as their characters’ younger selves—the show attracted almost as many theories about who would come onboard as what they would do once there. Many thought Lauren Ambrose, best known as Six Feet Under’s Claire Fisher, would make a good grown-up Van (Liv Hewson), the goalie who dates Tai and finds herself buying into Lottie’s informal faith. Apparently, Yellowjackets agrees; Ambrose is now a series regular. In at least one respect, the creative team is listening and responding to its fans, or at least is on the same wavelength as they are.

But while Yellowjackets now has the chance to play into its own hype, it doesn’t always choose to. Starting in the season premiere, Simone Kessell joins as the adult version of Lottie. In the closing stretch of Season 1, it was heavily implied Lottie was involved in the death of Natalie’s ex, Travis (Andres Soto); many viewers took this to mean that she never renounced the role of Antler Queen, the ceremonial position she assumed in the woods. Instead, the Lottie we meet is as uncertain as her peers, though she’s reinvented herself as a guru selling certainty to others. We’re meant to be ambivalent about this relative stranger, who the other women haven’t seen since her family confined her to a mental institution after their rescue. Is her new flock an “intentional community” or a cult? Is her claim that she just witnessed Travis’s death, rather than caused it, meant to be plausible? Still, the six episodes provided to critics suggest Lottie hasn’t held onto her old beliefs, repressing her trauma as fully as Type A Taissa, albeit in different ways.

The choice to introduce Lottie on these terms feels at least partially motivated by the need to maintain suspense in the show’s present timeline, which now lacks a unifying force like the blackmail plot. It’s disappointing, if understandable, to see Yellowjackets back away from making Lottie a full-blown antagonist for reasons not entirely related to character. But Lottie’s portrayal is also in keeping with how the show treats all her former classmates as beholden to larger forces they don’t entirely understand, whether the wilderness or their own desires. Shauna’s impulsive violence continues to escalate, even as she’s faced with how it affects, and influences, her teenage daughter. Misty may be an overzealous meddler, but she’s also endearing because she wears her idiosyncrasy on her sleeve. This season, she’s rewarded with a potential soulmate in the form of Walter (Elijah Wood), a kindred spirit who lurks in the same subreddits.

Back at the cabin, we continue to witness what made the Yellowjackets how they are. The flash-forwards suffer somewhat by the need to withhold information the characters might otherwise organically bring up, omissions that become more glaring as the episodes go on. The flashbacks are freer to unfold at their natural pace, and offer up loads of uncanny imagery: Jackie’s frozen body, which Shauna has taken to having long chats with; a white moose frozen into a lake, its antlers sticking out above the ice; a flock of birds falling dead from the sky. Such scenes give more detail on certain supporting players and the lives they left behind, like the closeted coach who’s lost all authority or the theater kid who can’t censor herself. What they don’t tell us, at least not definitively, is what’s making Tai sleepwalk, or whether Lottie’s prayers really make a difference.

In Season 2, Yellowjackets is committed to keeping its questions open. Sometimes, this instinct can frustrate, especially when applied to its adult protagonists. But turning our focus away from a search for answers keeps it trained on what really matters: the complicated relationships between these girls, and now women, who need each other to survive, yet resent how much they know about what that survival entailed. It’s likely we’ll only understand what happened, and is still happening, to the Yellowjackets when they do. For now, we let the mystery be.