‘Yellowjackets’ Review: Season 2 of Showtime Sensation Is Alternately Terrific and Tedious
In baseball, scouts like to talk about pitching prospects in terms of mechanics.
There are pitchers who have repeatable mechanics: Their windup and delivery is the same every time, which reduces the chances of injury and facilitates easy and simple corrections.
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The gap between the highlights and lowlights widens further.
Then there are pitchers with herky-jerky mechanics: There’s a violence and irregularity to the way they throw, which can sometimes yield more spin or more speed. But it means that in some games they just won’t have their rhythm, and the risk of blowing out an elbow or whatever is far greater. Maybe that career-ending blowout will never come and maybe it’ll come tomorrow. You never know.
HBO’s Succession is a show with repeatable mechanics. Not to be reductive, but it’s rich people who go to rich-people places and say “fuck” a lot. Give me that cast and that creative team and I’m going to assume steady execution, which doesn’t mean there can’t be gradations of quality or preference — just that the show is pretty reliably the show.
Showtime’s Yellowjackets, which premieres its second season opposite the fourth and final season of Succession, is a series with herky-jerky mechanics. Nothing in its structuring or tone feels inherently repeatable from episode to episode; it relies on wild variations in plot and characterization for its appeal. After loving the pilot, I kept watching the first season of Yellowjackets assuming that a precipice was approaching, but 10 episodes of twists were executed without a major breakdown in quality, 10 episodes of surprises unfolded without a collapse. It was a remarkable achievement in evading the inevitability of disaster.
Disaster could come at any point in Yellowjackets, and I can say with relief that it hasn’t occurred through the first six episodes of the second season either. Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson aren’t just continuing to unfold this audacious blend of trauma-drama and ’90s nostalgia. They’re expanding the tapestry, continuing to service the elements that fans embraced in the first season while even, thankfully, offering some answers to the story’s mysteries and paying off some long-promised events.
It remains a show in which the gap between the storylines and characters I like and the ones I find tedious is significant. The gap may even be growing, but if the show has longevity, it might be thanks to the fact that the reasons I like it will be entirely different from the reasons some other fans watch; the elements that annoy me most will likely be the ones that keep another viewer entranced.
Yellowjackets remains a show that’s best experienced with as little spoiling as possible, so suffice it to say that the second season picks up roughly where we left things in both present-day and flashback storylines.
In the present, Taissa (Tawny Cypress) just won her election — zzzzzzzz — but her marriage is falling apart and her nocturnal dissociations are getting worse. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Warren Kole) are still in the early stages of covering up a murder and dealing with how much daughter Callie (Sarah Desjardins) does or doesn’t know. Natalie (Juliette Lewis) was abducted in the finale, and we quickly learn more about that. And Misty (Christina Ricci) is stuck in the middle of both stories, trying to learn more and keep her online amateur detective group from catching any incriminating scents.
In the past, the teenage Yellowjackets are messed up from Jackie’s (Ella Purnell) death. Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) is, for logical reasons, particularly wrecked and, two months later, particularly pregnant. Hunting isn’t going well, so everybody is hungry and if you’ve seen Lost, you won’t be especially shocked to discover that different factions are forming around more spiritually inclined Lottie (Courtney Eaton) and more practical Natalie (Sophie Thatcher).
It remains unavoidable that the past and present storylines are not, in fact, created equal — a gulf that is bridged by the spectacular casting. My interest in the stuff happening in the present stems almost completely from the excellence of Lynskey, Ricci and Lewis and, unfortunately, I’m not becoming more invested. Shauna’s murder cover-up arc is like a season 2 or 3 Desperate Housewives story, but I love how Lynskey, Kole and Desjardins play their new domestic strangeness. My feeling in the first season was that Ricci was in a different show from everybody else, but I’m growing to like that show and the weirdness of her comic timing more and more — with the added bonus of a fresh storyline featuring Elijah Wood in the Ice Storm reunion you didn’t necessarily know you wanted.
The show introduces Simone Kessell as the older version of Lottie, but everything related to that character is so familiar and perfunctory that my initial enthusiasm was gone by the time six episodes had passed. It’s better than the Taissa story, mind you. We spent the entire first season on a state senate race that I didn’t find at all convincing and then this season has, thus far, had so little to do with that that Tai might as well be a dentist.
Too often the themes in the present relating to trauma get lost in murder, mystery, whatever Tai is doing and whatever Lottie has been up to. Lots of disparate pieces are coming together, but with a deliberate pace that doesn’t feel like the show at its best. Only Lynskey feels wholly and comfortably positioned between the dramatic and comedic extremes.
My interest in the stuff in the past is far greater. I love a good survival narrative, and there’s a lot of that in the cabin in the Canadian wilderness; we’re getting a better sense of how starvation and isolation are impacting the girls.
Nélisse, Thatcher and Sammi Hanratty (as teenage Misty) continue to do remarkable approximations of the performances given by their adult counterparts and I think Jasmin Savoy Brown and Liv Hewson are doing beautiful work that stands alone. If you’ve been thinking, “Man, I wish we could spend more time with Crystal (Nuha Jes Izman) and Akilah (Nia Sondaya) and Mari (Alexa Barajas)!” the second season has you taken care. If you just said, “Who? Who? And who?” you may be frustrated at how they’re devouring screen time from our established leads. There are several Yellowjackets wandering around that cabin whose names I couldn’t tell you even if I were backed into a corner by a demanding bear.
In the second season, the wilderness side of the story has consistently been the one I’ve found most satisfying, delivering the most reliable jaw-on-the-floor moments, including one long-anticipated development that I found particularly delicious. It’s scary, disturbing and ridiculous, in a good way.
Then again, the wilderness side of the story has also been the source of the most regular incursions of supernatural and mystical elements that never felt necessary to me. As long as I can interpret anything “supernatural” as a product of malnutrition and claustrophobia and desperation and trauma, I can buy it or at least accept it. If, however, the story really wants me to invest in the Falling Man etchings in trees or whether or not Lottie has magical powers on a tangible level? Nah.
So that’s where I am in Yellowjackets through six episodes into the second season. I love the flashback stuff, with its killer ’90s needle drops, its array of great performances and some satisfyingly bonkers detours. But any time I’m asked to invest in the spirit of the forest or anything relating to Javi’s (Luciano Leroux) absence or Coach Ben (Steven Krueger), I check out. I’m not invested deeply in anything in the present, but Ricci’s quirky choices, Lewis’ manic energy and basically anything related to Lynskey keeps me going.
I’m willing to bet that there are viewers who have precisely the opposite set of preferences. There are so many things happening in Yellowjackets at all times that it’s never completely clear which aspects are the distracting sleight of hand and which are the actual magic trick. It’s not mechanically sound, but Yellowjackets is still moving forward. For now.
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