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‘Yellowjackets’ Caps Off the Most Disturbing TV Season in Years — and One of the Best

Disturbing isn't even the right word. "Yellowjackets" is totally, completely, unforgettably fucked up.

Ella Purnell as Teen Jackie in YELLOWJACKETS, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”. Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME.

Ella Purnell in “Yellowjackets”

Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers through “Yellowjackets” Season 1, Episode 10, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.”]

In a memorable scene from the classic sitcom “Seinfeld,” Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) is explaining a teenage bullying technique once suffered by George (Jason Alexander): the wedgie. First clarifying how the underpants-yanking attack gets its name, Jerry then notes there’s also the “very rare” atomic wedgie, which involves pulling the waistband above the unfortunate young man’s head.

Elaine, played by the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is left with a simple conclusion: “Boys are sick.”

“Well,” Jerry says, “what do girls do?”

“We just tease someone until they develop an eating disorder.”

Now, comparing cannibalism to an eating disorder may seem a bit crass, but from the very first scene of Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson’s dramatic thriller, “Yellowjackets” (when an unidentified young woman falls into a trap before, presumably, being devoured by her pursuers) to its ending shot of a bloody Lottie (Courtney Eaton) placing a freshly carved-out bear heart in front of a makeshift alter, Jerry and Elaine’s coffee-house comments stuck in my brain. The Showtime drama isn’t a mere counterpoint to the boy-centric “Lord of the Flies,” or a premium cable version of ABC’s “Lost”; this is a story of escalation and clarity; of moving beyond blunt aggression to deeper psychological truths. Over its first 10 episodes, “Yellowjackets” rattled something loose in viewers, as evidenced by the growing viewership, intensifying fan theories, and sworn insight into teenage friendships between girls.

And, as I’ve been screaming at colleagues for a good six weeks now, it’s also the most fucked up show on television. It may be the most fucked up show ever.

Setting aside the first nine episodes (because forgetting some of their gnarlier moments is, I fear, never going to happen), just look at what transpires in the finale: One of the season’s towering question marks centered on Jackie’s (Ella Purnell) fate. With her death all-but-confirmed by her absence in the present timeline (plus Shauna’s awkward brunch with Jackie’s parents), the focus shifted to how she died. The aforementioned opening chase sequence, paired with the girls’ slow but steady about-face to their one-time leader, gave the impression that Jackie could end up hunted, trapped, and, yes, eaten.

Instead, her fate was much sadder: an accident, but one born from those same lingering grudges. Near the end of “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” Jackie confronts Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) over nearly killing Travis (Kevin Alves) while hopped up on ‘shrooms during Doomcoming, but (as if that’s not enough to be mad about) their dispute soon escalates to include pre-crash issues, like Shauna sleeping with Jeff (Jack Depew). Absent further context, Jackie should be seen as the wronged party here and earn her teammates’ sympathy. But Lyle and Nickerson (co-writers on this episode as well as co-creators of the series), as well as showrunner Jonathan Lisco, cleverly held this dispute until the Yellowjackets had fully turned against the girl who used to bring them together. No matter what came out about Shauna in that setting, the Yellowjackets were going to back her over Jackie.

And they did. Kicked out of the house on the same night of the first snow, Jackie freezes to death. It’s a more passive death than whoever gets chased into that trap, but as we can see in Shauna’s anguished reaction, nonetheless haunting. The regret Shauna expresses in her dream is exactly the kind of festering shame people can feel about various cruelties that came about in their confusing teenage years. “Yellowjackets” just amplifies the consequences to an eleven — it’s a deeply fucked up way to die, a deeply fucked up way to lose your best friend, and yet it still carries a relatable emotional tether.

Then there’s Taissa. Played in the present by Tawny Cypress, Taissa and her campaign staff are the only people surprised to hear she won the election (can you imagine how big of a dramatic waste that would be if she’d lost?), but I think it’s safe to say everyone shared in her wife’s shock upon finding the secret basement shrine complete with Biscuit’s decapitated head and their son’s one-eyed doll. Did we know Taissa’s been up to some off-screen shenanigans? You bet. As soon as she’s shown munching on dirt, it’s a short jump to guessing who’s responsible for the missing dog and mysterious woman watching from the trees. But Taissa’s scars run further down than the roots caught between her teeth. Is this pure trauma? Are there supernatural elements in the mix? And did she… eat the dog? While Shauna is ashamed of her past and fighting to preserve her present, Taissa is living in fear of who she is now and what she’s capable of doing next. She’s as curious as we are to find out what’s really going on, which makes for a weighty bond between the character and viewers.

Yellowjackets Finale Christina Ricci as Misty, Juliette Lewis as Natalie, Tawny Cypress as Taissa and Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in YELLOWJACKETS, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”. Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME.

Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, and Melanie Lynskey in “Yellowjackets”

Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

But well before the distressing events at episode’s end, our four main characters (in modern times) embark on a mission that’s just as messed up. They carve up a dead body and dispose of the bloody stumps. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa, Natalie (Juliette Lewis), and Misty (Christina Ricci) split into teams of two in order to dismember Adam (Peter Gadiot) in a bathtub and mop up the stains on the carpet left by his decaying corpse. Misty, always the true embodiment of the series’ twisted tone, is the only one chipper enough to crack jokes, but as Shauna says as she starts up the electric saw, they’ve done this before. It’s just like riding a bike.

Audiences would be forgiven for feeling the same way during that scene — at least, compared to other grisly undertakings — especially given what Showtime series “Yellowjackets” has been paired with up until this week. “Dexter” made chopping up bodies and touting the parts around in trash bags all but routine when it first premiered in 2006. “New Blood,” the limited revival series that ended last week, didn’t so much push the envelope in the gore department as it did repeat the same maneuvers it’s known for. (Nostalgia! You don’t have to love it!) But right after “Dexter,” “Yellowjackets” did just that. Its bathtub butcher shop felt like a direct allusion to the horror shows that preceded it; from “Dexter” to “Breaking Bad” (which is more action-thriller than horror, but still had its own very special bathtub scene) to “Hannibal,” which is not only linked to “Yellowjackets” by cannibalism, but is often ranked among the greatest horror shows ever made.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: “Hannibal” is the only TV program that’s ever given me nightmares. Bryan Fuller’s blend of evocative atmospherics, unsettling implications, and artful violence results in a potent concoction that lingers to this day. But I think “Yellowjackets” is even more disturbing. Shows like “Hannibal” and “Dexter” introduce a separation between their audience and central characters. Most viewers are not professional psychiatrists of Dr. Lecter’s stature, and fewer still (I hope) extend their interest in fine cuisine to include the consumption of human livers (among other organs). Will Graham is closer to the audience proxy — a tortured everyman trying to do good — and it takes time for his dark nature to emerge, just as it takes time for the audience to process their own complicated attachments to Dr. Lecter. You’re asked to go along on their journey, but you’re not required to put yourself in their shoes — these are characters that exist in a whole other universe.

“Yellowjackets” is about you, and me, and everyone else shaped in some way by the good and bad of the high school experience. While pushing those painful memories to twisted extremes, the series consistently forces the viewer to see themselves in its leads: “What would you do if a plane filled with your classmates crashed?” “What would you do if you were starving, or if your coach’s leg was wrecked, or if you knew your best friend only ever thought of you as a sidekick?” “What would you do if you experienced unimaginable trauma in high school, and then you started sleepwalking at night, beheading dogs and shit?!” “Yellowjackets” watched “Hannibal” and thought, “This could be darker.”

Courtney Eaton as Teen Lottie in YELLOWJACKETS, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”. Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME.

Courtney Eaton in “Yellowjackets”

Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

Each week, the amount of violence, emotional violence, is startling. How much trauma is thrust upon these teens combined with how relatable their reckoning can be is what makes the series such a fucked up viewing experience. But as easy as it is to note the show’s horrors, it’s even more important to recognize its humanity. Beyond the well-paced twists and turns, the excellent performances, and the audacity of its storytelling, “Yellowjackets” keeps us hooked because the creators clearly care about these women. Jackie’s death isn’t a shockfest; it’s a tragedy. You’re moved more than you’re horrified, and these first 10 episodes are filled with moments of pure joy to match the times of utter terror. What the Yellowjackets have gone through in just one season is incredible, and they’re not out of the woods yet (literally — there’s so much more to cover in the past timeline). As for the present, I didn’t even get to Natalie’s kidnapping or whatever weird cult Lottie has started (let the fantasy casting begin!), so there’s plenty of ground left to cover there, too.

I’ll be with them every step of the way. When it comes to how the first season mimics teenage female friendships, I’m not going to dissect or interpret an experience I never had. But if the relationships depicted in this brilliant, upsetting first season reflect anywhere near the kind of experiences being shared by high school girls across the nation, one thing is certainly clear:

George got off easy.

“Yellowjackets” Season 1 is available to stream on Showtime. Season 2 has already been renewed.

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