Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews season 2 of Showtime’s Yellowjackets.
From its very first episode, Yellowjackets has felt like lightning in a bottle. The award-winning series that revitalized Showtime started strong with two sets of dynamic ensemble casts, plenty of character-driven mysteries, and a plot so good, it’s a wonder it’s never been done before. Jumping back and forth between a supernaturally-tinged teen girl survival plot set in the ‘90s and a modern-day story about resilience and buried secrets, the ten-episode first season of Yellowjackets was far and away one of the best shows of 2021. Incredibly, season two somehow manages to be roughly twice as great as the first go-round.
In the six episodes available for review, Yellowjackets season two manages to be frightening, amusing, horrifying, endearing, surprising, and above all else, satisfying. The show’s second season isn’t particularly preoccupied with leaving its central questions shrouded in mystery, but it also doesn’t dole out its answers too quickly – or slowly. Rather, Yellowjackets simply focuses on telling the best story possible at every turn, deepening the saga of the eponymous girls’ soccer team that crash-landed in the wilderness in 1996 while taking its present-day plot in a thrilling new direction. The result is a tightly plotted, fantastically acted season of television that will leave viewers gasping.
The first season finale teed up a half-dozen compelling plot threads, and the new episodes don’t drop the ball on any of them. The ‘90s timeline smartly fast-forwards a bit to the cold dead of winter, where resources are scarce, and frayed nerves give way to cult-like superstition. Writers wisely weave together two schools of thought; the girls are resourceful and largely practical, but they also entertain potentially mentally ill teammate Lottie’s (Courtney Eaton) mystical rituals with a sort of “just-in-case” mentality. Viewers may have expected the show to lean full-tilt toward the supernatural or debunk it once and for all, but Yellowjackets cleverly leaves some wiggle room on both sides.
As winter rages on, Shauna’s (Sophie Nélisse) pregnancy progresses, and it’s not the only ticking time bomb this season. Decades later, the action picks up right where it last left off, with Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) and her husband (Warren Cole, whose Jeff is still laugh-out-loud funny) are hastily covering up Adam’s murder, while Taissa (Tawny Cypress) deals with a horrifying recurrence of her sleepwalking. Natalie (Juliette Lewis), meanwhile, has been commandeered by a group with ties to Lottie, with actress Simone Kessell joining the cast this season as the adult version of the survivor. Meanwhile, Elijah Wood is on board as a quirky new partner to Christina Ricci’s delightfully deranged Misty, while – as trailers have already revealed – Lauren Ambrose appears as a grown-up Van.
Each of the new castmates fits well into the bigger picture of Yellowjackets, which in season two seems to be a portrait of endurance, guilt, and the ways in which women under pressure can build and break worlds together. At key times, Yellowjackets becomes an almost unendurably grim show, but its bleakness is never without a purpose. The skills the girls learn or neglect in the forest – to provide and fight, to listen and be heard, and to cling to anything that might help them make it – become the skills they need to survive the outside world in the years to come.
Yellowjackets is a coming-of-age story that doesn’t end when its protagonists grow up but keeps charting the course of each woman’s personal evolution. The show makes plenty of effortless transitions in its second season, but its best may be its ability to change from a series about what exactly happened in the woods to a series about how it made everyone feel and react. The new season is grounded in strong, almost contagious emotions that make every episode hit hard. It also deftly balances out most of its upsetting moments with bits of absurd, hilarious dark humor.
The show may be built on steady ground, but it’s also more imaginative and experimental in its second season, prone to fantasy sequences and delusions that can be poignant one moment and harrowing the next. The filmmakers and editors behind Yellowjackets skillfully braid its more fantastical moments with reality, presenting a mythic portrait of the girls’ time in the woods that makes it easy for viewers themselves to be convinced by some of its more surreal moments. While several of the show’s imagined sequences are psychologically self-explanatory, others go unexplained, making them all the more uncanny. The sophomore season also includes more bone-chilling horror imagery than the show’s first chapters.
Yellowjackets is the rare show that takes a nearly-perfect premise and makes it even better off the page. Ensemble cast members – including but absolutely not limited to Nélisse, Lynskey, and Jasmin Savoy Brown – deliver performances that are as subtle as they are powerful and complementary to one another. Mesmerizing visuals lead viewers through half-dreamed scenarios and horrifying realities. The show’s ‘90s soundtrack delivers needle drops that would be too on-the-nose with lesser material but are somehow just right here. And the show’s writers have found the sweet spot between surprising twists and character-driven moments. All in all, Yellowjackets season two is serialized storytelling in rare, excellent form.
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