Technically, yes. Showtime’s grungy, hilarious, horrifying, nostalgic drama about a girls’ soccer team trying to survive in the wilderness after their plane crashes in 1996 — and dealing with the consequences years later — made a splash by showing us a person get eaten.
The 2021 pilot’s opening scene, drenched in cultish signifiers of feminine innocence going to slaughter, follows a barefoot and bleeding girl in a white nightie running through the snow. The trees she runs past (of course) have weird figures carved into them. She falls into a pit that is (of course) filled with spikes. Later in the episode we see her hanging upside down as the blood drains out and then — a feast! A group of hooded figures, led by one wearing antlers, dines on pieces of her.
If you’re anything like me, this worried you. Not because of the cannibalism, but because ambitious television that starts with creepy bilge like this — especially when there’s a supernatural sheen to it all (hello, “Game of Thrones”) — almost never manages to reconcile its spooky atmospherics, chicken-scratch symbols and grotesque dioramas with anything remotely logical or substantive (greetings, first season of “True Detective”).
“Yellowjackets” mercifully exited this mode to split into two timelines, one covering the aftermath of the crash and another following the survivors, now in their 40s, in the present.
The latter storyline takes a dark and funny stab at articulating what a group of traumatized ex-cannibals — played by ’90s icons, including Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci — might want after surviving, only to process their guilt over all that happened. Their goals vary, but what’s clear is that the “normalcy” many of them thought they wanted cannot satisfy. And so, in a twist, a series laden with carnivorous metaphors (the team is even named for a meat-eating insect) also takes on the comparatively mundane concerns that attend midlife crises.
As for the former timeline, it has rightly been praised for how well it doubles as a time capsule of the ’90s. The pilot ends by returning to the cannibal scene with a reveal reminiscent of a ’90s record-scratch freeze frame — the ol’ “I bet you’re wondering how I got here.”
When one figure shows her face, it’s Misty (Samantha Hanratty), a geeky but cunning misfit so hungry for acceptance she’ll do anything to achieve it (including destroy evidence that could get the girls rescued if it means finally belonging to the team). Imagine Screech or Urkel without guardrails, filters or punchlines. Now imagine that version of Screech gorging on one of his friends as part of his service to an Antler Queen.
If that feels like a stretch, you can appreciate the difficulty of what this show is trying to do. And why it’s almost impossible to look away.
“Yellowjackets” has plenty of flaws, but I’m stunned, six episodes into the nine-episode second season, at the skill with which, without sacrificing the thrill of a good plot, it manages to bend genres, juggle wildly different tones and invert familiar tropes.
Whether it will succeed at fully melding this wide range of registers into a coherent story remains to be seen. It won’t be easy. The show is in obvious dialogue with Dead Girls and Mean Girls and Magical Girls tropes — all the versions of girlhood around which we’ve built genres. It also manages to spare its teenagers from collapsing into them.
I don’t want to credit this show with restraint. “What if teen girls ate the popular one” is about as juicy a genre premise as you can wring out of our collective id, but it’s simply true, and fascinating, that it traffics in virtually every metaphor about teenage girls without ever quite succumbing to any of them.
It is bold to make a group of high school girls (the demographic to which most TV Dead Girls belong) literal consumers of Dead Girls. We could chase the significance of that choice forever: Maybe it’s about how teen girls are their own worst enemies. Or about how society turns girls against themselves. Or about how women are the main consumers of true crime. Etc.
Our soccer players aren’t Mean Girls, even though a plot twist that fits the form pretty darn well — one slept with another’s boyfriend — is the catalyst that eventually leads them to eat their leader. Neither are they innocent victims in white nighties. At least, not yet. Nor, of course, do they make sense as hooded witches or hunters who trap innocent girls and slaughter them. At least, not yet.
These approaches to teen girlhood clash. They don’t make sense! How can the girls be all these things? Hunters and hunted? Eaters and eaten?
In other words: We are indeed wondering how Misty got there!
That’s the show’s real mystery, and it’s a good one. For it to deliver an arc that turns smelly suburban athletes with Caboodles full of makeup into cannibals obsessed with human sacrifice with any psychological plausibility would be a triumph akin to “Better Call Saul” transforming kindly Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman.
From a genre point of view, this would require characters with personalities and defects to shed all their specificity to occupy mystical tropes about girlhood that can’t help but flatten them. We don’t want this! Especially those of us who can’t take any more Dead Girl TV in which the deceased is a beautiful cipher whose function it is to spur disillusioned sleuths into cliched epiphanies about other bad men. A narrative universe without men to play the villains and the saviors makes this wide range of registers possible.
That’s why it felt like this was the first time someone finally got eaten: The pilot scene was so in thrall to mystic horror that we couldn’t square it with the humbler, tangled reality that the actual Yellowjackets inhabit.
As a significant step toward merging all these apparently incompatible modes, “Edible Complex” was a triumph. Popular girl Jackie (Ella Purnell) is simultaneously the eerily beautiful girl the tropes require, kind of an annoying Little Miss Perfect, and a perfectly ordinary person hurt by her best friend’s betrayal. Her death was horrifying and accidental and unnecessary, but every subsequent step leading the team to eat her made psychological sense.
Cause and effect stack like morbid dominoes: Shauna’s guilt and grief leads the pregnant, starving teen to keep Jackie’s frozen corpse in the meat shed, where she talks to her, braids her hair, does her makeup. The girls’ horror when they realize this is understandable. So is their decision to cremate Jackie’s body since the ground is frozen. And so — when snow falls on the pyre, effectively smoking Jackie’s corpse — is the fact that they all wake up, literally starving, in the middle of winter, with no food, to the smell of cooked meat.
Ah, you think to yourself. This is how they’re going to get there. And then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll note that you’re in full sympathy with the cannibals. This should spark a belated but startling realization: This is an antihero show.
Most antihero shows feature a lonely man’s doomed but compelling struggle with his own guilt, ambition and complicity. “Yellowjackets” takes that popular, hypermasculine (and hyperpopular) mini-genre about agency and conducts some pretty interesting experiments. What if a normie teenage girl was the antihero? What if there were several antiheroes, in fact? What if their criminality wasn’t celebrated as vaguely feminist (we’re all a little tired of that) but the show kept you on their side anyway, even having shown you, in detail, the monstrous things they have done (and will do)? What would any of that change?
There are several answers to this, but the most interesting, to my mind, is that the older Yellowjackets harbor none of the anxieties that compel our male antiheroes to prove that they’re powerful. Quite the contrary: The Yellowjackets’ goal isn’t to conquer, or to inspire fear or admiration, but rather to conceal from the public how dangerous they once were.
Yellowjackets (nine episodes) returned March 24. New episodes stream Fridays at 3 a.m. Eastern on the Showtime app and air Sundays at 9 p.m. on cable.