Yellowjackets Is Art for the Age of the Hive Mind

The Atlantic - Fri Jan 14 18:00

The feminist update of Lord of the Flies is a meditation on survival—and a timely exploration of what vulnerability looks like when it’s shared.

Characters in "Yellowjackets" standing in the woods

Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

This article contains spoilers through the ninth episode of Yellowjackets Season 1.

The Ouija board brands itself as a “mystifying oracle,” an ornately silk-screened conduit to the past and the future. I know it mostly from childhood sleepovers. Huddled around the board, aware of the low probability that an object procured from an impulse aisle would serve as a portal to another realm, my friends and I would nonetheless arrange our fingers lightly on the board’s plastic dial and give ourselves over to the soft thrill of the maybe. Someone would ask a question. And then … the dial would glide—sometimes hesitantly, from letter to letter, sometimes shooting straight to the YES or the NO. For kids who had yet to learn about unconscious minds and suggestible bodies, the device really seemed to move the fingers, rather than the other way around.

The stranded soccer players of Yellowjackets, the remarkable series about to wrap its first season on Showtime, improvise their own version of a Ouija seance. In the cabin they shelter in after their small plane has crashed in the wilderness, the teenagers—wanting insight about their circumstances, or at least distraction from them—light candles. They tie a knife to a rope. Shauna, the outwardly unassuming senior, holds the improvised pendulum: a “mystifying oracle,” incarnate. They sit in a circle. They ask questions that start as silly (about school gossip, crushes) until Javi, the coach’s son, asks the only one that matters: “Are we all gonna die out here?” The pendulum twists into an 8—or, maybe, an infinity symbol. A gust of wind, seeming to carry the show’s camera, hurtles toward the cabin’s interior. And then: Lottie, who is prone to visions, begins speaking fluent French, her eyes expressionless, her mouth chattering about “it” wanting “blood.” She bangs her forehead robotically against a window. The viewer, at this point, might be asking the same question the survivors of Flight 2525 so often ask themselves as they consider the world they’ve crashed into: What is happening?

Yellowjackets is a potent fusion of a show, Lost meets Alive meets Heathers meets Lord of the Flies meets many, many others. The series, which toggles between 1996, the year of the crash, and 2021, is a fusion of genres as well: A little bit pyschodrama, a little bit satire, a little bit horror, its wonderfully hectic plots feature murder, kidnapping, blackmail, betrayals. But above all, they feature mysteries. Some, as the season nears completion, have been explained. But the show’s most foundational question remains unanswered: Are the humans moving the dial? Or is something moving the humans? Yellowjackets, in that sense, is a show about extreme circumstances that channels urgently prosaic concerns. In a moment when many people are reconsidering basic questions of trust—in government, in other people, in their own perceptions—the show establishes a world in which belief itself is a matter of life and death.

A character in "Yellowjackets" standing in front of a house holding a lantern
(Michael Courtney / Showtime)

Among the mysteries at play in Yellowjackets (and I’ll warn here again that spoilers abound below): Who is blackmailing Shauna, Taissa, and Natalie in the present day? Who killed Travis, the coach’s other son—Travis himself, or someone else? Who, or what, is “the man with no eyes” Taissa sees? Who is Taissa’s son, Sammy, talking about when he speaks of “the bad one”? Who is Adam, the artist-mechanic who keeps appearing in Shauna’s life? (Is he a grown-up Javi?) Which member of the Wiskayok High School Yellowjackets was murdered by her teammates and then, presumably, eaten by them? Who might be alive, still, but as yet unacknowledged by the show’s selective gaze?

And on and on and on. Yellowjackets embraces the generalized suspicions of the classic mystery story and the true-crime documentary: Everyone is a suspect. Anything could be responsible for what happens in the show’s frenetic timelines. But the series also leaves open the possibility that some of its events—the seemingly spontaneous combustion of Laura Lee’s teddy bear, say, or the compass that spins out of control when it’s next to a river that flows red—cannot, and will not, be fully explained. Yellowjackets entertains the prospect of magic.

The unsteady terms of the show’s cosmology neatly serve one of its operating interests: Why do people believe what they believe? How do those beliefs impose themselves on other people’s lives? Survival is not a singular event but an ongoing act of endurance. And for characters battling to live, separated from home and in some sense abandoned by it, the lines between the “normal” and the paranormal understandably become porous. It makes sense that reality might begin to feel, for them, like one option among many.

Yellowjackets is full of coincidences, big and small. Those convergences are crucial elements of the show, precisely because they can be read as both meaningful and meaningless. Shauna runs into an old classmate at the motel where Natalie is staying. She runs into her daughter, Callie, at a party in New York City, on Halloween. She runs into Adam’s car with her minivan. “Why are you here?” Shauna asks Adam another time, when she encounters him at the hotel where she is surveilling her husband, Jeff. “I was just getting a drink,” he replies. “But I don’t know now. I’m starting to think maybe something out there has other ideas.”

Is Adam deluded? Is he lying? Is he attuned to life’s possibilities in a way that Shauna is not? We don’t yet know for sure, but Yellowjackets allows for many different ways of understanding the world and its workings. Arriving into a culture shaped by delusions and beset by mistrust, the show complicates the question of whom, and what, to believe. It channels the imperative, made popular on the show that some of the girls were fans of back in 1996, to “trust no one.” The show destabilizes the audience’s trust, too. Yellowjackets sets Taissa up as an avowed empiricist, a stark contrast to Laura Lee and her faith, and to Lottie and her visions. But soon enough the show suggests that Taissa, perhaps more than any other survivor, now struggles with reality-skewing delusions. Lottie, for her part, embodies a certain mysticism; we also see her, early on in the show, taking a version of loxapine—a medication typically used as a treatment for schizophrenia.

These complexities might be understood as part of the show’s satire: an ongoing mockery of mysteries that come with tidy solutions. Yellowjackets turns its gimlet gaze on the true-crime industrial complex, on the narrative conveniences of the trauma plot, on a culture that looks down on women who have the temerity to age out of girlhood. It gives weekly offerings to Reddit threads even as it pokes light fun at Misty and her fellow “citizen detectives.” Yellowjackets arrives a year after The Wilds, the 2020 series about a group of teenage girls fighting for survival in the wilderness. The earlier series is neither as subtle nor as brash as Yellowjackets; its explanation for “what is happening” reads, often, more as a gimmick than as an insight. But it shares with Yellowjackets a keen interest in what happens when the ferocity of adolescence contends with a different kind of Darwinism. The lost-in-nature story endures, in literature and pop culture, because it has such stark stakes: survival, yes, but also the blunt revelations of what people become outside of the infrastructures and influences of civilization.

The horror story abides for similar reasons. Fear strips away everything else. And fear, like every other emotion that lives in the electric impulses of the human mind, can shape the world even as it responds to it. Yellowjackets and their insect relatives are by now a cliché of high-school girlhood: queen bees, wannabes. But the creatures also make fitting metaphors for a world of influencers and propaganda and conspiracism—a world where gossip, if it’s repeated enough, is perceived as truth, and where popularity equates to power. Hive minds can shape any environment. Hallucinations, shared at scale, can soon take possession of reality. Does it matter, in the end, whether the woods the Yellowjackets inhabit are haunted? Or does it matter only that some members of the team come to believe they are? This is another element of Yellowjackets’ timely horror: When survival itself is teamwork, the delusion of one can mean danger for everyone else.