Tuesday 14 February 2023

Yellowjackets – Buzz Buzz Buzz Buzz.

Yellowjackets: 1x01 Pilot. 

“So what do you think really happened down there?”

In 1996, a plane carrying a high school soccer team, their coaches and support staff, goes down in the Canadian Rockies. In the grisly intro the Yellowjackets, we see a girl run through the dark in the woods – she is maybe being chased, as whispering sounds around her turn into a war songs. Around her, there are mysterious symbols carved into trees, dead animals strung up. She falls into a trap and is impaled on the spikes. A hooded figure approaches the pit. 

Years later, a woman pretending to be a journalist (Rekha Sharma) interviews people who knew the girls – teachers, a girl who never made it on the plane. They don’t know what happened exactly in those nineteen months, because nobody ever talked about. There are a lot of blanks to be filled between the horrible story of the crash and the unlikely survival, beating cold and starvation, in the wild. There are a lot of steps between fighting for survival and the brutal hunt of the first scene. Something went wrong beyond the sheer fact of the crash. 

Yellowjackets jumps between timelines. The pilot works its way towards the moment in which the team gets on the plane that will crash in 1996, and shows us glimpses of the survivors 25 years later. Some of the girls we meet won’t appear in 2021, an ominous absence. The first adult to make an appearance is Shauna (back in the day, Sophie Nélisse, now the always great Melanie Lynskey), who is approached by the same fake journalist to give her own story of what happened. Something is already off – she is introduced masturbating on her daughter’s bed, looking at pictures of her daughter’s boyfriend. She is plotting revenge against a rabbit who is eating the lettuce on her verge. In her conversation with Jessica Roberts, she holds back, disinterested in a lucrative book deal, relying that none of the other survivors would talk to her, as if they’ve made a pact. Jessica points out to her that the life she is now living – New Jersey suburban ennui, a small life – isn’t what she wanted when she got straight As in school and got an early admission and full scholarship to Brown. It’s as if she’s living someone else’s life, and if there wasn’t this constant unease about her, like a prickly thorn, you’d maybe think it was the trauma from the crash, but again, that’s not it. And this is before the shows even reveals that she is married to her best friend’s high school boyfriend, a boy she was sleeping with secretly back then. Whose life is Shauna living?

Shauna’s counterpart is Jackie (Ella Purnell), who lives in a mansion, has been dating the same boy on or off, and has been made captain of the high school soccer team not because she is a great player, but because she has influence, and the girls need someone to guide them – a statement that will come to haunt Jackie profoundly once they are in the woods. Much of this first episode focuses on the dynamics between Shauna and Jackie. For example, Shauna waits in her tiny car for Jackie to get ready in the morning, listening to Liz Phair, watches Jeff jump out of the window, and then once Jackie gets in the car she immediately changes the music to what she likes. There’s the way that Shauna watches Jackie and Jeff, and it feels like the person she is really watching isn’t the one she’s having an affair with, it’s her best friend, like this is all an attempt to inhabit her skin. Whatever is going on there, it’s a lot more complex than a friendship, and it’s already messy way before the plane comes down. 

There are glimpses of everyone else. Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown when young, Tawny Cypress later) is maybe the best player on the team, and they are headed for Nationals, but one of the younger players rubs her the wrong way. It’s not just that she isn’t playing well, it’s a certain arrogance, a lack of respect for her older teammates. Taissa feels like Allie is making them weak, and so she takes her out, brutally, on the field – it’s fairly clear that she didn’t intend to break her leg quite as badly, but that’s what happens. It’s also what saves Allie from being on the plane. It’s our first glimpse of a duality – these girls are close, but they are also dangerous when they assign an outsider role to someone. Later on, Taissa will run for politics (like everyone else, she’s not talked about what happened in the woods, but her slogan is to bring “New Jersey out of the wilderness”), she has a seemingly perfect wife and son (cracks will soon appear), and it turns out that Shauna has a secret burner phone in her safe from which she calls Taissa. These two are still talking to each other, if covertly, and they discuss if anyone would talk to the reporter (specifically they talk about if any of the “others” have emerged, which takes on a much darker meaning if you re-watch the season and realise their meaning). 

Natalie (a very great Sophie Thatcher, later Juliette Lewis) is on the team as well, but her friends are outcasts. She appears to have a reputation, and she is drowning some kind of trauma in alcohol and drugs. We pick up with adult Natalie at a rehab, on her last day, where she talks about how everyone needs a purpose and she lost hers once she was rescued from the wilderness (she doesn’t talk about what happened there). Now she knows how to get it back, and it involves getting back to New Jersey, retrieving her sports car from storage, and checking that the gun in the trunk is ready to go. And then she goes to find Misty. 

Misty (Samantha Hanratty and later, Christina Ricci, finding her niche again) is an enigma for now. She is on the outside of the team, the equipment manager, who is always that tiny, worrying bit too enthusiastic, like it’s team spirit veering towards something more dangerous. She doesn’t seem to be friends with anyone. As an adult, she works in a nursing home, where she retaliates against a patient by withholding her pain killers. Misty is also the only person whose face is revealed in the woods, the person who we see partaking in whatever cruel ritual is taking place. 

Towards the end of the episode, the team comes to blow over what Taissa did to Allie. They fight at a party (in the woods – this is after all, suburban New Jersey). Jackie, who has been chosen as a leader for her influence, lines them up and makes them tell each other what they like about each other – a groanworthy group activity that somehow turns into a genuine moment of connection. There’s both here, the potential for cooperation and love, and the potential for violence. The next day, we see glimpses of the home lives that cut through different social classes (Van tries to wake her mother who is sleeping in a stupor, Taissa appears to have a very solid home life, Lottie’s dad is rich enough to charter the plane for them but she also takes a morning dose of some kind of medication). They get on the plane. Jackie gives Shauna some Diazepam and her necklace, for good luck. Shauna will wake up from her drug-induced sleep into the horrible scene of the plane going down. 

Random notes: 

When Taissa breaks Allie’s leg on the field, Misty is there ready to set it so fast – Ben is horrified and tells them to call an ambulance instead, but it’s clear that Misty is ready and prepared for what’s going to happen later. 

There are heaps of moments here where it becomes clear that Shauna is definitely not what you’d expect from a suburban housewife, including her killing the offending rabbit with a spade and serving it up for dinner (a great moment, since she also collects little rabbit ceramics). There are also first hints here that Jeff has something covertly going on, and her daughter seems to think it’s an affair (he’s never home, there’s always an issue with inventory), but none of the answers are expected and clear-cut. 

There is some ambiguity in the cut scenes that show us the wilderness as to whether the girl that fell into the pit is being eaten, but if that’s what’s happening, it goes way beyond survival cannibalism – these girls aren’t eating their dead, they’re hunting prey. 

I love the sense here that the girls and their unbeaten team is soaring in this boring town. They are all on the cusp of their future before they crash, but they are, just before they go off to Nationals, at the height of their power – even if the town appreciates the loser boy baseball team more. There’s a sense of exhilaration here (I’d recommend Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, as a reference point for both aspects of the spectrum, the price it costs but the joy when it works out). 

Apart from Misty, there are also two coaches on the plane, along with Travis and Javi, the two sons of Coach Martinez. 

My favourite music cut in this first episode is PJ Harvey’s Down By the Water, which plays over the party scene in the woods.  

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