Yellowjackets Review: Showtime's Chilling, Flackback-Filled Thriller

Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci reunite with other members of high school soccer team stranded in the wilderness 25 years ago

The team’s line-up includes Misty (Samantha Hanratty), the bespectacled nerd with no friends and a dangerous personality; Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), the slut-shamed outcast who self-medicates; Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), the sweet overachiever bound for Brown University and Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown), the equally level-handed student who’s also closeted and harboring a mysterious supernatural lineage.

And those are only the core characters. As “Yellowjackets” progresses and the similarly distressing stories of the remaining teammates unfold, the show struggles to balance several genres at once as it stretches into a 10-episode arc. The showrunners clearly opt for a slow burn approach to the mystery, but they also craft a coming-of-age narrative that explores what it was like to be a teenage girl in the ’90s — with a soundtrack complete with Hole, Salt-N-Pepa and PJ Harvey — told through multiple perspectives.

But to the writers’ credit, the characters — including those on the fringes — and the performances are interesting enough to hold your attention. The narrative kicks off in high gear with the 1996 crash in a remote northern wilderness that leaves much of the team terribly injured or killed. The rest, as revealed in increasingly disturbing flashbacks, shows how those survivors did whatever they could to survive. Therein lies the main mystery.

It sounds ominous, but Lyle and Nickerson continue to keep the audience in suspense on exactly how sinister things became in the wilderness, only showing snippets of animalistic brutality that could be a hint at the extremes of their survival instincts — or something else more malevolent. The two most urgent questions are: Why did it take so long for them to be rescued and what exactly happened out there all that time?

The present day — when Misty, Natalie, Shauna and Taissa are played by Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey and Tawny Cypress, respectively — offers no direct answers as each main character attempts to cope with their individual traumas. Not everyone deals with their past the same because these are very different people whose ordeals manifest in various ways throughout their adult lives: toxic relationships, rehab, hallucinations and sociopathy. But one thing is hauntingly true for all of them: Whatever they did back in that wilderness has left a permanent mark on their psyches from which they have yet to fully recover.

Still, the women remain mum about the events in the wilderness, burying it deep in their past even though everyone, including someone (Rekha Sharma) who says she’s working on a story for the local newspaper, keeps hounding them for details. But as “Yellowjackets” progresses and more secrets from both the past and present are spilled in the flashbacks, the women are forced to reunite and confront what happened — especially when faced with an unknown threat. For the audience, something else comes painfully into focus: Not everyone in the flashbacks — when they “scavenged for 19 months,” as Shauna recalls — is seen in present day. What ever happened to those people? Well, that’s another mystery of “Yellowjackets.” Add to that, the increasingly shocking supernatural elements — think seances and rituals — that materialize as more of the past is revealed and how those images don’t magically disappear for our complex protagonists in present day.

“Yellowjackets” can feel tiresome with the sheer frequency of all those flashbacks, and the fact that it dabbles in too many genres when it could settle on its solid mystery thriller elements. But when it commits to its chilling suspense, the show is utterly fascinating to watch. Even more, it finds compelling ways to explore issues like trauma and the façades we build for ourselves that carry from youth through adulthood — elevating what would otherwise be a much flatter genre piece.

Let’s just hope the payoff, and the inevitable reveals to come, are worth the slow-burning effort.

Showtime will debut “Yellowjackets” on November 14.

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