Yellowjackets knows exactly what it is, and who it’s made for. Midway through the first episode of the new Sky Atlantic mystery drama, Juliette Lewis chain-smokes outside of her apartment building to the snarling strains of Hole’s “Miss World”. She gets into an Uber and requests to be taken to an airport for an emergency late-night flight. She does this menacingly, it should be said, because every character in Yellowjackets speaks with a terrifying gravity. It’s as if they’re all teetering on the edge of full-blown psychosis.
Lewis is just one of the pleasures of this pristine, time-hopping bit of pulp, which also features sad masturbation, Christina Ricci with a terrible perm and bones sticking clean out of broken legs. And that’s before the ritual sacrificing begins. If you ever watched Desperate Housewives and wondered if a less-than-great season would improve if Teri Hatcher just started eating people, then Yellowjackets will be right up your street.
In 1996, an all-girl high school football team went missing in the Canadian wilderness for 19 months, their private plane having fallen out of the sky. In 2021, a plucky journalist attempts to unravel what happened in those woods, and whether there’s any truth to the rumours of cannibalism and Lord of the Flies-style derangement that have trailed the surviving girls. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious notes have drawn a handful of those very girls back together.
They’re unsettled in the present day: Melanie Lynskey’s Shauna is a restless stay-at-home mother prone to bursts of rage; Ricci’s Misty is an abject sociopath; Tawny Cypress’s Taissa is running for public office while trying to suppress dark secrets from her past; Lewis’s Natalie has been in and out of rehab and seems to be best friends with an enormous shotgun. Their younger selves, meanwhile, are explored via flashback, with their bitter, resentful, and occasionally lusty feelings exposed once their plane goes down.
Like the far-less-grimy teen drama Cruel Summer – which arrived on Amazon Prime in August – Yellowjackets angles Nineties nostalgia through a lens of frantic horror. If it’s not being soundtracked by Liz Phair or PJ Harvey, it’s by the anxious wails of rhythmic chanting, a bit like the oppressively sinister score from this summer’s The White Lotus. Creators and showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson are quick to dole out the plot twists, too, while ably balancing timelines and a parade of complicated lead characters. An hour with these women flies by.
Yellowjackets’ first episode also bears all the hallmarks of its director Karyn Kusama, best known for her 2009 Megan Fox horror comedy Jennifer’s Body. There’s lots of that film’s sting here, a kind of world-weary acknowledgment of the cruelty of teenagers, as well as the trauma that high school can inflict on even the strongest of people. This show leaves a spectacularly sour aftertaste.