And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
*This contains spoilers for the first season of Yellowjackets, reader beware*
Are you one of the many people obsessed with Showtime's Yellowjackets? Were you a teenage girl at some point in your life? Are you now years removed from that time in your life and still processing the liminal existence of those years? Welcome.
I fell for Yellowjackets as Omicron began to rage and I ate up the first eight episodes of season one in two days. The elevator pitch is that it's 1996 and a state champion high school girls soccer team from New Jersey is flying to Seattle to play in nationals when their plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. They're out there for 19 months before they're rescued but do they ever really go home? That's where we meet the survivors 25 years after the crash.
Yes, there's blackmail and mystery and cult stuff and the supernatural and potential cannibalism but what I was completely drawn in by is the accurate depiction of teenage girlhood and its aftermath; decades pass and the wounds remain, some as fresh as the day they happened. What the fuck happened to us?
we think we know what we’re doing, but really we have no clue.
I have a very distinct memory of having a conversation with my mom when I was 18 years old and it makes my stomach turn to think about it now, 27 years later. She was trying to tell me that even though I was about to go off to university in a few months, I was still young and had so much to learn. I remember the feeling of laughing and answering completely seriously: "Don't worry, I know everything important there is to know about life."
I said it with gusto, with such a sense of sureness that it was almost poetic when I realized how wrong I was just a few months later.
There's something that happens with puberty that feels dangerous to me. Your body grows and changes, sometimes so fast that it hurts and your skin has stretch marks where cells divide faster than the collagen develops; physically you become the adult version of yourself. Meanwhile your brain is still developing as your hormones change your desires and impulses—your body is a car and you are the baby learning to drive that car in real time.
There are shifts in social dynamics when the Yellowjackets crash in the wilderness but to see this as the story of savagery arising from a desperate situation is to miss everything already going on. These girls were already in the wilderness in their regular lives: Shauna is having sex with her best friend Jackie's boyfriend behind her back, Taissa is so desperate to win Nationals that she tackles and breaks the leg of underperforming freshman Allie at practice, Misty is ignored and underestimated and bullied as her resentment grows, Jackie is self involved to the point of not noticing what anyone else around her is feeling. Surviving a plane crash and then life in the wilderness changes the power structure of the team (Jackie not having as much use or influence there, Misty finding her place thanks to her survival skills) and it raises the stakes of everything going.
The team being dropped into this environment feels absolutely natural; when you're a teenager, everything feels like it's life and death. Adults tell you it's not the end of the world at every turn but how you feel, how everything feels, is a completely different story. Surviving a plane crash in the wilderness just makes the situation match what these girls are already feeling in every other aspect of their lives. Interestingly, the most well adjusted Yellowjacket in the wilderness is Natalie (played as a teen by Sophie Thatcher and as an adult by Juliette Lewis), the team burnout with an abusive family of origin; having experienced very real violence in her own home and witnessing her abusive father's accidental death, Natalie understands more than any of the girls that there are things you don't entirely come back from and that death can happen in an instant.
you were my best friend.
I inhaled season one of Yellowjackets and it felt exhilarating, as if I was connecting with a younger version of myself and in some senses I was. I saw myself in so many of the girls at different moments but I felt the friendship between Shauna and Jackie so deeply. The feeling of loving and resenting your best friend so much that you can't imagine a future without her even though it's the thing you want to run from. You're cocooned and trapped all at once; how do you walk away from this kind of love? Jeff is at the center of the Jackie-Jeff-Shauna love triangle but Jeff also doesn't matter at all—the deepest feelings here are between Shauna and Jackie.
What is it about being best friends when you're teenage girls? I remember my high school best friend more vividly than anyone I was romantically involved with at that time. Maybe that's it really: the friendships of teenage girls are incredibly romantic even when they're not sexual. My best friend was the first person outside of my family that I really loved after childhood. We were inseparable and enamored with each other but when we had a big falling out that ended our friendship, the things that bubbled to the surface had obviously been simmering for years. It's the kind of heartbreak we don't talk about enough; there's no clear path to getting over your first best friend and there isn't always the language or understanding at that age to repair what's been broken.
For Shauna, this is her big loss, her biggest regret when it comes to Jackie: not ever being able to mend things. In any other environment, both of these girls' frustratingly banal, ordinary teenage anger and stubbornness wouldn't have led to Jackie's death; they probably would have talked it out in a few days or weeks or even years. Shauna carries this guilt into her post-crash life as an adult and she is stuck in the dynamics of the past. She's haunted by what she did and didn't do when the sad fact is that she and Jackie did what we all have done: fought with our best friend, hurt our best friend. The tragedy is that for once the feeling and the stakes were aligned and there is no coming back.
we're never going home.
In 2021, we find the survivors we've met so far in very different places: Taissa is a successful lawyer running for state senate, Shauna is an unhappy wife (to! Jeff!!) and mother, Natalie is coming out of a stint in rehab, and Misty is... forever trying to chase the high of cutting off Coach Ben's leg. They're still in many (different) ways dealing with what happened during those 19 months after the plane crash and seemingly equally marked by that experience whether they address it or not. Taissa is coping by literally dissociating and eating dirt and climbing the tree outside her son's room in the middle of the night. Shauna is masturbating in her teenage daughter's bedroom to photos of said daughter's boyfriend as well as killing the rabbit terrorizing her garden and neatly butchering and serving it to her family for dinner. They are extremely not ok. No one understands what they went through except each other but there's still a wariness amongst the survivors; you don't really ever forget what you did in order to survive and you definitely don't forget who was there when you did what you had to do. To the outside world, Shauna and Taissa seem alright, better than alright even.
The world, including Shauna and Taissa, doesn't see Natalie the same way because she's not even trying to pretend that she's remotely ok. When they're brought together again to pay off a blackmailer who threatens to expose what they did after the plane crash, Natalie doesn't mince words about Shauna and Taissa's judgments of her: "You guys are just as fucked up as I am, you're just better at hiding it". They're all back in 1996 but Natalie knows better than to try to pretend what happened didn't mess her up—she chooses drugs to feel something, anything, else. Natalie feels like the moral compass of the group in a fucked up situation in a fucked up world because even when she doesn't do the right thing, she tries for repair in the ways she knows how. She's a traumatized person who knows that's what she is; the world can be hardest on those who don't try to hide their pain.
we were kids.
What do we do with the past? What do we do with who we were in that heightened space in between childhood and adulthood? Why does it feel like even when nothing specifically traumatic happened to us as teenage girls, it did? Why does it feel so heavy and harrowing from the other side of things, having made it through? I think about this a lot and I suspect I'm not the only one. I think this is where Yellowjackets draws us in; as adults, we can connect with media about teens because we were once teens but I think that for many of us, Yellowjackets takes us back to when we were teens or at least kids. It looks and sounds and feels like our past as well as our present. There's so much to grapple with years after the fact, the things we did and choices we made that felt like we knew what we were doing at the time. We look back years later and see just how young we were, how little we understood, even if we were stronger than we ever could have realized then. We can look back but we can't go back—we certainly can't tell them what we know now.