Thursday, 23 February 2023

Yellowjackets – What really happened out there?

Yellowjackets: 1x04 Bear Down.

In a way, Yellowjackets is like a psychological study of how people become who they are. It’s a reconstruction on screen throughout the three time-lines – the scenes before the crash we see, the catastrophe unfolding on the ground in the wilderness, the reverberations of trauma 25 years later. For now, we’ve mostly seen Shauna and Taissa’s childhoods, but Bear Down follows Natalie. 

As the stranded begin to run out of food, Coach Ben realises that running out of food means that they have to begin hunting to survive. He himself seems knowledgeable about guns and hunting, but his amputation means he won’t be able to do it. This is the first time that we really see Ben step up as the only remaining adult, the person who feels he should take responsibility for everyone, while negotiating his own disability (and Misty’s increasingly creepy attempts to care for him, which culminate in her tripping him deliberately at the end of the episode, maybe because he is getting too independent). And he seems pretty great at it, creating a series of trials to teach them how to shoot and to see who is the best at it. At the same time, Travis seems to be negotiating his own masculinity, and he is carrying a lot of toxic baggage that mostly comes out as deeply misogynist comments against the girls. It’s not even like anyone asks something of him, or questions his abilities directly – whatever is happening in his head is internalised expectations and profound frustration. The trials reveal that Natalie is the better shot, in spite of the fact that she seems to be having trauma flashbacks to something that happened before the plane crashed. 

We get some insights into her family life, especially her father’s violence against her and her mother. He slut-shames her when he hangs out with her best friend Kevyn, creating an atmosphere of terror in their little trailer. He is a tyrant, and her mother doesn’t, or can’t, protect her. As the timeline of the crash works towards the moment when Natalie makes the first kill, helped by Travis, the flashbacks work up to her moment of trauma – when she resorted to threaten her dad with a gun after he terrorised her mother, again, and he ridiculed her for keeping the safety on, eventually tripping outside the trailer and shooting half his face off. It works in tandem with Natalie, in the current timeline, finally catching up with Kevyn (after Misty’s fake texts) and talking about Travis, and how they kept each other in check, how she feels responsible for his death because maybe there was something she could have done (there is some truth to this story, but also she wants Kevyn to help her prove that it wasn’t a suicide). There is a clear sense here that these two kids, who both maybe didn’t have very happy childhoods, diverged radically after Natalie returned from the wilderness. Somehow, Kevyn managed to build a life for himself (it doesn’t sound like there was much intention behind it, he just happened to become a cop because it’s a job, but still), while Natalie has been in and out of rehab facilities this whole time. Would this still have happened if her dad’s death had been the only terrible thing that had happened to her, if the plane had never crashed? It’s also interesting to consider that young Natalie has always had her closest friendships with boys (who had crushes on her), and that Travis replaced Kevyn after they shared the experience of survival and trauma with each other. It’s an episode in which Taissa spends an entire evening of fund-raising facing questions about “What really happened” and refusing to answer, even when the woman she was targeting for sponsoring her campaign offers her everything in exchange for her secrets. Taissa, deeply frustrated, responds that this story is hers, and that no amount of power and money can take that from her. The sense here is that the very personal story of survival isn’t one that can be owned by anyone except those who lived it, and it has meant the end of Kevyn and Natalie’s friendship but also that all these hyenas at the fundraiser with their hungry, hungry questions (what they want is clearly the rumoured cannibalism, the last resort, without any interest in what it has cost the survivors) seem even more grotesque in their digging. The other thing is that nobody really wants to face the answer, or the idea that the girls, even 25 years later, after having endured the unimaginable, are dangerous in a way – maybe whatever they’ve had to do out there has placed them a step outside society, and maybe that’s a bear you shouldn’t poke unless you’re ready for the rage. 

Other things happen at the sidelines, but the themes still connect. Shauna is disinterested in trying to learn how to shoot, instead she is keeping a diary of what is happening, and how she feels about it. Her processing mostly happens by herself, and she doesn’t share these thoughts, not even with Jackie. She does connect a bit with Javi in this episode, who refuses to forgive his brother for his outbursts until he gives him their dad’s ring (which Natalie has had to dig up for him in a gruesome scene), but again, this might just be the show having a bit of fun at misleading the viewers about Adam’s identity. In the present, Shauna is on the first of her “book club meetings”, joyfully reliving the adolescence she missed out on without ever telling Adam why exactly she didn’t have a regular teenage experience during high school. She asks a man at a liquor store to buy them some cheap vodka, which they drink, mixed with orange juice, in a car. They go minigolfing in the dark and Shauna dares Adam to agree to do whatever she asks of him (she turns out to be better than expected at minigolf, just as she’s better than she would have believed at dressing Natalie’s kill). They jump from a bridge. It seems like some of the joy, for Shauna, lies in the fact that Adam doesn’t seem to know anything about her story (in a way, Shauna has to believe that for the experience to work, like she’s erasing the worst thing that ever happened to her – its naiveté, because obviously the internet exists). 

Later the same night, as if it’s punishment for her transgressions, Misty calls Shauna and tells her about Travis – she’s about to be pulled back in, right after she thought she found a way to pretend it never happened. 

Random notes:

Just wanted to say here that Yellowjackets has one of the best intros of all times, one of the few that I consistently don’t skip, with perfect music (No Return by Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker), and clips that hint at what will happen on the show, filmed in a 90s camcorder aesthetic that fits the show so well. 

I really like the moment between young Kevyn and Nat in the trailer when they talk about Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr., and Kevyn doesn't really mind so much that Nirvana are now more pop, or sell-outs, but that it feels like something that was once theirs is now everyone's. It's clear how identity-shaping music is for them (and that feels so deeply emotionally true). I wonder how this version of Kevyn would feel if he met himself as an adult - or how it feels to explain himself to Natalie and make sense of how he ended up where he is now, which feels like it kind of just happened, as it does. 

While scavenging in the woods, an activity that only former girl scout Akilah is any good it, the girls stumble over an abandoned plane, and Laura Lee knows enough about planes (foreshadowing!) that she manages to start it – but she almost kills Van in the process, who is narrowly saved by Jackie. Later on, Jackie asks Van if that makes them even for her abandonment in the plane fire, but there’s no answer because it’s when Nat and Travis bring back the deer. Again, Van survives against all odds! 

There’s a hilarious moment right after Ben asks who is willing to slaughter the deer for meat where Misty is just a little bit too enthusiastic to give it a try, and also completely overlooked, like Ben is deliberately cutting her out of it – for which she later takes revenge, when the trips him. 

Lottie is having some moments out there. She sees the mysterious cuttings on the trees (doesn’t tell anyone about it though), and when they find the plane, she interprets the roots that have grown around the wheels as “it didn’t want him to leave”, as if she’s ascribing intent to the wilderness itself. Everything that has happened so far can be explained rationally, but maybe, like Lottie’s mind, things are about to veer off into something else. 

Misty, hilariously goes on a Nat-Kevyn stakeout with one of the nursing home residents, and spies that Jessica Roberts appears to be following them. She threatens Jessica (“I know when you look at me you don’t see someone you should be afraid of, but you’re wrong”). And the thing is, maybe Misty would have turned out the exact same if the crash had never happened! Of all the returnees, it feels like her path diverged the least from what was already there before. The lady she’s brought along for the date, who is enthusiastically chugging whiskey, says that “You remind me of my granddaughter. Noone really likes her either.”, which summarises Misty to a tee. 

After reading so much about arctic exploration and listening to the You’re Wrong About episode about the Argentinian rugby team that crashed in the Andes in the 1970s, I’ve been thinking a lot about the civilisational horror that survival cannibalism evokes in the public, and how it erodes any other concern or consideration of what it takes to survive a horrible situation as a group. Obviously, maybe Yellowjackets doesn’t exactly fit in, because what we’ve seen in the opening scenes looked a lot like ritualistic murder – but there is a clear sense here, especially in this episode, how hungry the public is for the sheer horror of those survivor stories, without seeing the humanity. 

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