Yellowjackets review: A savage survival drama with thought-provoking supernatural mystery and psychological tale
Yellowjackets, streaming in India on Voot Select, is a mix of blood, spleen, guts and hormones that manages to serve it up with wry humour.
It’s gory, horrific and disturbing. It’s also gritty, terrific and engaging. Look at it any which way, Yellowjackets is a spread won’t you forget in a rush if you have the stomach to sit through the entire course.
Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson set the chilling note right at the outset, with a sequence that captures a high-school girl running barefoot on thick snow. She falls into a pit of spikes and is impaled. In a strange way, the brutal scene resonates many of the themes Lyle and Nickerson adeptly juggle in the episodes that follow. Shifting between timelines of the nineties and presentday, Yellowjackets is at the same time a savage survival drama, a thought-provoking supernatural mystery and an intensely psychological coming-of-age story. Elements of violence and horror— as well as sex and substance abuse — are unflinchingly used for plot progression, with at least one sequence built around ritualistic cannibalism.
Briefly, the series is about a soccer team of high school girls in 1996 who, on an air trip to Seattle for a national tournament, encounter a plane crash somewhere in remote wilderness. The show chronicles the harrowing aftermath of the accident for the survivors over 19 months, and balances that narrative with how their lives end up in 2021. More than two decades later, as the group tries to forget the past, what happened back then threatens to come back and haunt them. The storytelling process, besides regaling with shock and drama, also aims at understanding the impact of trauma on the impressionable teen psyche, underlining the adage that the past never really buries itself.
It’s a creepy show, though not as creepy as the synopsis may sound. Lyle and Nickerson have assembled a group of able directors for the 10 episodes (including Deepa Mehta and Karyn Kusama of the cult horror comedy hit Jennifer’s Body). Each filmmaker adds an individual touch to the show without losing out on generic appeal.
For, thematically and genre-wise, Yellowjackets isn’t the first fiction attempt woven around such an idea. William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies has seen multiple film versions (including an all-female adaptation in 2018). More specifically, stories around plane crash victims resorting to extreme measures for survival have been attempted, too, on screen. In India last year, Srijit Mukherji’s Bengali thriller series Rabindranath Ekhane Kawkhono Khete Aashenni used plane crash survival and cannibalism as vital plot points. The popular TV show Lost and the 1993 Hollywood film Alive, accounting the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team that survived an air crash in the Andes, are other random recalls.
Yellowjackets renders freshness to the idea in the way it moves beyond the grisly survival adventure. Almost everything that goes on finds a subtext layer in the way the narrative explores how the lives of the protagonists shaped up in the wake of all that they went through during those fateful 19 months. The storytelling is dark in mood yet intriguing in impact all through, and never sombre enough to rest too heavy on the show’s thriller quotient.
The triumph lies in writing. As the tale of a pack of girls cruelly forced to grow out of teenage blends with what they have grown up into, Lyle and Nickerson’s storytelling remains all too realistic while unfolding a saga that could seem to border on the absurd. The creator duo has assembled a battery of co-writers — seven of them, in fact (Katherine Kearns, Liz Phang, Ameni Rozsa, Sarah L. Thompson, Jonathan Lisco, Chantelle Wells, Cameron Brent Johnson). It is an assemblage of minds that successfully sets up one of the most complete screenplays for contemporary American small screen and, once you get over the shock factor, you actually begin to look forward to this peculiar mix of blood, spleen, guts and hormones that unfolds in each episode, and that is served with a wry sense of humour.
It is a narrative that makes for a wholesome 10 hours of watching, and is meticulous in the way it lays out its plot, characters, the play of emotions and suspense drama. The pace of the thriller is suitably adjusted, at times tweaked to drive home the urgency of a plot spin and at other times relaxed in order to focus on uneasy slow-burn. MacGuffins in the plot are intelligently used to heighten suspense around the twists, and there’s also a sense of enigma that the story acquires through introduction of the supernatural elements.
What sets Yellowjackets apart from most teenybopper thrillers is the fact that there are no quickfix gimmicks here to garner a jumpy impact.
This is the reason the catchier elements of the show including the physical violence, gore and suspense mix seamlessly with the deeper study of the psyche. If the parallel timelines seem to exist in worlds that can never meet, the success of the show lies in the way it creates a storyline where they indeed do.
The script focusses primarily on five girls played by two sets of actresses. The younger sets (Sophie Nélisse, Sophie Thatcher, Samantha Hanratty, Jasmin Savoy Brown and Ella Purnell) understandably get more of the physical action and terror-driven drama to play out in the flashback portions. They’re excellent as the psyched-out but ruthless teenagers on the verge of sanity breakdown. The demand from the senior cast (Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress) was more on bringing out the psychological essence of each character. It is a cast that impresses in well-penned roles, with outstanding acts coming from Lynskey, Lewis and Ricci.
Yellowjackets starts off with one of the most riveting pilots for any series in recent times, and ends on a note celebrating the essential dark tone that defines it all through. A final twist and a few cleverly untied loose ends leave you hungering for season two. This may not seem like a show for all given its extreme content, though one is tempted to recommend it to anyone among the mature audience who enjoys quality viewing.
Yellowjackets is streaming in India on Voot Select.
Vinayak Chakravorty is a senior film critic, columnist, and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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