Having old friends for dinner – YELLOWJACKETS (episode 1, 2021)

This new Showtime series (this first episode aired November 14 2021) crosses many genres. There’s the whole Mean Girls range of stories about the angst of going through puberty and surviving high school, where everyone else seems desperate to drag you down in order to lift themselves up. There’s the Lost genre of survival stories that started with Robinson Crusoe (first published in 1719) and its bastard child, Gilligan’s Island. There’s psychological thrillers and murder mysteries with a twist like Psycho. And, of course, there is cannibalism, the subject of this humble blog. Yellowjackets is all the above, with an ensemble cast.

Yellowjackets jumps between eras, with the main characters portrayed by teenage (or close) actors in 1996, and adult actors as them 25 years later – now. The pilot episode shows a terrified girl running barefoot through the snow before she plunges into a bear pit. Then we’re back in grungy 1996, surrounded by teenage angst and jealousy, following the girls in a champion New Jersey soccer team called the “Yellowjackets” as they prepare to fly from New Jersey to Seattle for a championship match. A yellowjacket is a predatory wasp who attends picnics and can get very antisocial very quickly. It’s a nice metaphor.

The plane crashes in a frozen Canadian wilderness; it’s one of those stories where our pretensions of human supremacy are stripped away by the fragility of our technology and the awesome and indifferent might of nature. Right away, we are thinking Alive, the story of the Uruguayan footballers who crashed in the Andes in 1972 and survived on the flesh of their dead teammates. The action moves back and forth from the pre-crash period to the present, as the survivors interact and relive their guilt and PTSD, which have been festering for 25 years. There is a deep, dark secret which is not fully revealed in the first episode (although it’s mentioned prominently in every review). We see that girl falling into the trap and being impaled on stakes, her bloody body being dragged through the snow then strung from a tree and sliced open.

We see her meat being cooked and served to a group of girls in animal furs and full savage garb, including the horned headdress that is the symbol of primitive cannibals in so many movies.

Later episodes will show that the girls didn’t sit about and discuss divinity like the Uruguayan footballers in Alive. We viewers are in on the secret – they split into warring, cannibalistic tribes and survived on human flesh, but not necessarily already dead bodies like Alive. These girls go hunting girls. And like many cannibal narratives, including most of the “evidence” presented by missionaries and explorers to demonstrate the savage nature of the people they were invading, the evidence is often more to do with the detritus left from the feast than the feast itself.

This is Alive meets Lord of the Flies, but with girls. Although the movies of Lord of the Flies did not offer any explicit cannibalism, Golding’s book made it pretty clear that the other boys intended to do to Ralph what they did to the pig they captured, i.e. a barbecue. This post-war (well justified) pessimism about the way our thin veneer of civilisation can so easily be stripped from us was the origin of both the misanthropic 1960s view of society and, later, reality TV; and the two are profoundly related.

Lord of the Flies showed us that boys will be boys (AKA vicious cannibals). Mean Girls showed us the hidden savagery in teenage girls. Yellowjackets puts these together and shows girls as cannibals, which makes it that much more sensational. We’ve seen cannibal girls in films like, well, Cannibal Girls, where the cannibalism derives from supernatural sources, and The Lure, which shows us the dangers of hooking up with human/fish hybrids, but this may be different, unless the producers decide to introduce some sort of entities driving the cannibal mayhem (please don’t). So far, Yellowjackets seems to be much more interesting than just another Wendigo story; it’s what Freud (in The Future of an Illusion) warned about when he spoke of the “instinctual wishes” for cannibalism, incest and murder that live in each of us, and are “born afresh with every child.” We are barely capable of civilised interactions in high school, so how are we going to relate to each other in a disaster? We are animals who deny our animality, and we normally consume each other in such polite, socially acceptable ways. Until we don’t.

The series was created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (Narcos and Dispatches from Elsewhere), who were inspired to do the show when they saw the scorn social media keyboard warriors poured on the idea of a female Lord of the Flies. In a New York Times interview, Lyle recalls an on-line comment she read that inspired her to conceive Yellowjackets:

One man’s comment read, “What are they going to do? Collaborate to death?”
Lyle recalled what she immediately thought in response: “You were never a teenage girl, sir.”

The first episode is directed by Karyn Kusama, who seems to specialise in movies about female rage, including the wonderful Jennifer’s Body.

With 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this is one to watch, and maybe keep watching.

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