There is one question at the center of Yellowjackets, Showtime’s time-jumping horror-drama-mystery series about a group of high school girls who survive almost two years trapped in the wilderness: What, exactly, is going on?
Seriously. Is this the story of a bunch of kids who drive themselves a little crazy in their formative years and suffer the psychological repercussions long into adulthood? Or is there something else—something more metaphysical—that these girls have stumbled into?
With Friday’s Season Two premiere of Yellowjackets, titled “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” hopefully we’re closer to an answer. The episode doesn’t open with any of our established main characters, but with Lottie. Finally, we see a glimpse of what happened when the survivors of the crashed soccer team come home—they were hounded by reporters and bewildered by their reintegration into society. Young Lottie (played by Courtney Eaton) suffers from schizophrenia, and is long off of her medication by the time she returns to her parents. She’s weird and listless, and her family sends her to a ward where she receives electroshock therapy (during which she has more flashes of that pesky vision with all the candles on the stairs again). When the show jumps to the present day, we meet adult Lottie for the first time (played by Simone Kessell), and she’s gone full cult leader. Lottie preaches to a group of lavender-clad believers gathered at an idyllic wilderness resort. A new player has entered the game.
Last time we saw Lottie—at the end of the first season—she was offering a bear’s heart to some forest god, flanked by her two acolytes, Misty (Sammi Hanratty) and Van (Liv Hewson). In the ensuing years, she’s obviously built a reputation and a following, eschewing the outside world for, possibly, some semblance of the control she had when she was a child in the woods. We get a taste of it when Natalie (Juliette Lewis) escapes her imprisonment, but we’ll get to that in a second.
The winter of 1996 has finally come for the young girls stuck in the woods, and things are looking grim. Their young gunslingers Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) and Travis (Kevin Alves) have had an unsuccessful two months of hunting, finding no sign of game—or of Travis’s brother Javi (Luciano Leroux), who ran off in the middle of last season and hasn’t been heard from since. They’ve gotten pretty good at mapping, though, so there’s that. Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Van are still a couple, but Taissa’s midnight restlessness hasn’t abated. In her sleep, she bites Van’s lip bloody. Lottie shows more signs of strange visions, telling Travis that somehow she can feel his brother is alive.
In perhaps Yellowjackets’ most disturbing new element, Jackie (Ella Purnell) is back, in imaginary ghost form. Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), consumed by guilt, has been keeping her frozen corpse in the cabin’s ramshackle “meat shed,” having heart-to-hearts with her Jackiecicle every time she’s sent to retrieve their swiftly depleting rations. When a bit of Jackie’s ear falls off, Shauna pockets it—and, later, eats it.
The dark behavior continues in the present timeline, where adult Taissa (Tawny Cypress), having won her senate race, is suffering from the repercussions of her wife discovering her secret basement dog head shrine that she may or may not have used to score an eleventh-hour victory. Taissa gets a new dog, a little Yorkie, and promises to it, “I’m going to do better with you.” Someone please, please, get that dog out of that house before it’s too late.
From there, things become increasingly ritualistic. Shauna and Jeff (Melanie Lynskey and Warren Kole), still trying to repair their marriage, have sex in the middle of the studio belonging to the late Adam (Peter Gadiot), filled with portraits of Shauna, before barbecuing the remaining evidence of Adam’s murder. Misty (Christina Ricci), convinced that someone is going to find out about Adam, goes on a hunt for Natalie, not believing for a second that she just up and left. Natalie finds herself tied to a bed in the middle of Lottie’s cult compound, and escapes for just long enough to see a bunch of cult members leading a naked man into a hole and burying him alive, apparently. Before Natalie can get out for good, she bumps into Lottie herself, who tells her, “I have a message for you from Travis.” It’s enough to give Natalie pause.
Lottie knows her power—anyone’s power—lies in expectations, and in the ways those expectations are confirmed or denied. When Natalie yells at her for lying to Travis in the cabin, Lottie says, “There’s no such thing as false hope. There’s just hope.” The coming of the bear at the close of last season was confirmation enough for some, and Lottie is prepared to use any semblance of the mystical to her advantage.
The show, however, is still keeping its cards close to its chest. While dread creeps through the shadows of this first episode—dark in theme and in setting, as most of the real plot stuff take place either at night or huddled inside a snowed-in cabin—most of what happens feels like setup. That’s not unusual for a show’s second season, especially given all the massive stuff that happened at the end of the previous season. It’s probably the best course of action here. Yellowjackets is taking a short break, having a couple orange slices in the final moments before the shit hits the fan.
In her grand speech to her present-day acolytes at the beginning of this episode, Lottie preaches, “We are the ones making ourselves sick.” Whether it’s a bit of cult-y word salad or something she truly believes about the modern world, Lottie’s words speak to the central mystery of this show. The point isn’t whether or not the girls are going to start doing psychic witchcraft in the middle of the woods in order to save themselves. The point is belief, and how far people are willing to go for what they believe is true, and real, and right. Sometimes that means covering up the murder of a nice artist you were having an affair with. Sometimes that means mutating a teen girls’ soccer team into a pagan hierarchy to survive nineteen months in the woods. Sometimes that means chowing down on your best friend’s ear.
Emma Stefansky is a culture and entertainment writer based in New York City. Her work can be found at Vanity Fair, GQ, and The Daily Beast, among others.