As any “Yellowjackets” fan will tell you, cannibalism isn’t a spoiler.
That the titular high school soccer team winds up hunting and eating each other to survive is built into the first episode; the journey is finding out how they get there. Yellowjackets taste flesh for the first time in Season 2, Episode 2, when Jackie’s (Ella Purnell) cremation is cut short and leaves her body… cooked.
“For us, it’s never been about if cannibalism,” creator and showrunner Ashley Lyle told IndieWire. “It has always been why and how, and then what happens after that.”
Lyle and her writing team decided not to overextend the tease and approach cannibalism early in the series. Fans have been (ahem) salivating for the cannibalism reveal since Season 1, but Lyle believed that was too soon to authentically break the story.
“It sounds like a weird thing to say, but you’ve got to earn cannibalism,” she said.
The writers also wanted the opportunity to move beyond the inherent shock value. Fellow showrunner Jonathan Lisco described the reveal as a “muscular, bold move” that the writers wanted to deploy with high emotional resonance. “Once we saw that we could tell the story through the prism of Shauna’s (Sophie Nélisse) relationship to Jackie and really make it an emotional story for our characters… it started to fall into place that would be a great thing to do early in the season,” he said.
It’s the final, twisted beat in a tumultuous friendship between Jackie and Shauna, who spoke to Jackie’s corpse as a way to process her grief and guilt right until that very day. Though there’s tension between them as early as the pilot episode, Lyle noted that the characters were childhood friends. Shauna’s resentment and the distance between them was still new and difficult.
“There was a real competitiveness, a deep love, and so many emotions and feelings packed into that relationship,” co-creator Bart Nickerson said. “And as a result of a fight where some of that hostility was expressed, the other person died. Expressing that kind of emotion and that rage is something that people just aren’t supposed to do, and then to have the result of that be so catastrophic — the guilt is tremendous.”
It ties back to a key scene in Season 1 when adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) visits Jackie’s house on her birthday. The bedroom has remained untouched since 1996, and Shauna has a vision of teen Jackie telling her first “It’s not your fault what happened,” and then “It’s totally your fault. But we were kids, and it was awful.” Lisco said the scene is Shauna reframing her relationship to Jackie in light of everything that happened not only after the crash but also leading up to it.
“In Episode 2, it’s all in her head,” he said. “Jackie’s dead, but Shauna is playing it all out and they’re still arguing. She’s continuing to distance herself and redefine the relationship and in a way to self preserve, so she can figure out a way to escape the shackles of all that guilt that she’s feeling.”
The Jackie vision from Season 1 could have been referring to a number of things — Shauna sleeping with her boyfriend, pulling away from her in the wilderness, fighting with her, letting her spend the night outside, and eventually eating her — but even in its deliberate ambiguity, Lyle says the writers knew the full arc of the relationship.
“To my mind, that Jackie — the Jackie that is haunting adult Shauna — is really Shauna’s conscience,” she said. “I don’t even think that that was about eating Jackie… Those friendships when you’re that age, there’s an intensity to them where it’s about love. It’s about admiration. It’s about kind of wanting to be that other person, and wanting to consume that other person is a really interesting metaphor for how those friendships feel.”
Lyle said the writers were fascinated by cultures that ate their dead as a show of love and respect. Applying that specifically to Shauna and Jackie, and the borderline consumptive nature of their relationship, made sense “as a form of honoring somebody in a in a very strange, dark and morbid way.”
“We didn’t want to dwell in Shauna’s grief for the entire season,” she added. “It just felt like a very natural way to to build into Season 2 and the place that our characters are going to find themselves emotionally and spiritually.”
And where do they find themselves after devouring Jackie in the middle of the night?
“Once flesh has been tasted, it’s a slippery slope,” Lisco said. “When they wake up with the Jackie hangover, the next episode, are they so filled with guilt and shame that they actually would do anything not to do it again?”
In the coming episodes, he said: “We’re going to make the choices that they make much more ambiguous and much more morally fraught than just the eating of a person to survive.”
New episodes of “Yellowjackets” premiere Fridays on streaming and Sundays on-air.