While they were in Vancouver to film Yellowjackets, actors Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress visited a park to practice eating dirt. On the Showtime series, the two actors portray the same character, the smart, self-possessed, and cruelly pragmatic Taissa, at two different points in her life. So they consulted with each other to make sure that their depictions shared some of the small details of behavior that tend to persist over the years, such as whether someone pronounces “either” as “ee-ther” or “eye-ther.” But nailing down other parts of their performances required more hands-on work—hence the trip to the park. The dirt-eating approach they landed on finds Taissa down on her haunches, frightening and feral. “Arms kind of forward and hanging,” Brown told Jezebel of the stance. “It’s very animal, very dirty, very aggressive.”
“I think we got some weird looks,” she added.
Over the course of its first season, which ends with Sunday’s finale, the buzz around Yellowjackets has risen to a dull roar. The series, created by the married producing team of Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, tells the story of a high school soccer team stranded in the woods in 1996 after the plane carrying them to nationals crashes. Each episode toggles in time between the immediate aftermath of the crash and the lives of the survivors in present-day middle age. Even on paper, the show sounds like a hit, tapping squarely into ‘90s nostalgia and featuring in its cast Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, and Juliette Lewis, who were among the decade’s most memorable young stars. Which means that the actors playing the ‘90s Yellowjackets had a tough job to do: Not only were they to serve as believable approximations of beloved performers, versions of whom circa 1996 are very much still alive in viewers’ memories, but they also had to carve out performances that could stand on their own.
It helps that the series was one of last year’s best-written shows. Yellowjackets opens with a murder, as an unidentifiable girl attempts (and fails) to evade eerie, animal skin-clad pursuers through a snowy wilderness. The rest of the season jumps back and forth between the prologue to and aftermath of the bloody ritualized killing, and, it’s suggested, accompanying cannibal feast. In the 1996 timeline, the members of the team contend with the normal struggles found at the borderline of childhood and adulthood—romances, rivalries, and college plans—first on the soccer pitch and at keggers, and then in the woods, where the threat of exposure and starvation only adds to their woes. Twenty-five years later, they’re still struggling with the aftermath of their mysterious and traumatic 19 months in the wild, which manifests in each survivor’s life in different and alarming ways, from Natalie’s drug addiction to Shauna’s flashes of violence to Taissa’s sleepwalking fits of dirt-eating.
The series was filmed in and around Vancouver, with its older cast shooting their scenes in the suburbs for one week at a time, with the younger Yellowjackets filming in the woods the next week. And, because few of the stars were told all of the mystery series’ twists and turns before receiving their scripts, they often were unsure of just what was coming for the characters.
“I will never forget the first day of coming on set and seeing the plane crash,” said Samantha Hanratty, who plays Misty in the ‘90s timeline. “It went from being kind of like, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ to very surreal and very anxiety-inducing for me, personally, just seeing the wreckage… it was really, really intense in the beginning.”
Over the course of the season, the teenagers find that the social hierarchies of their normal lives don’t quite graft onto their new crisis world. Shauna, longtime sidekick to team Queen Bee Jackie, finds her stock rising as her best friend’s falls, as influence within the group shifts to a maybe-addled, maybe-psychic girl named Lottie (Courtney Eaton), who, like Jackie (Ella Purnell) has yet to appear on the show in adulthood.
For Misty, whose prior participation in the Red Cross babysitter training program elevates her to team doctor after the crash, the sojourn in the woods seems to turbocharge tendencies towards violence and vindictiveness. In the present day-sequences, Christina Ricci gives a hilarious performance as an adult Misty whose psychopathy is in full bloom, an Annie Wilkes-style nurse who keeps a pet bird named Caligula and whose gestures of affection might include bugging your house and sabotaging your car. Hanratty’s earlier take on the character is both more innocent and more reactive. “Even though our characters are obviously the same person, we also play things very differently,” she said. “My stuff in the nineties is based off of her not knowing how to manipulate as well, and her feeling that sense of power for the first time in her life.”
While the crash gives Misty newfound authority (especially over Steven Kreuger’s poor assistant coach Ben, the sole adult survivor, who loses his leg in the accident and becomes the first in a long line of Misty’s patient-victims), other characters are left to grapple with a powerlessness that is at times even more frightening than the starvation they face. In a show filled with mauling, murders, and amputations, one of the most harrowing scenes finds a pregnant Shauna making a failed attempt to give herself an abortion with a wire hanger and her friend Taissa’s help.
“I think Jasmin and I sort of felt a responsibility with everything going on—abortion laws and everything—to shed light on that subject, and to do it in a respectful way,” said Sophie Nélisse, the actress who plays teen Shauna. “We talked with medical people to know what exactly what would happen…to make it look as realistic as possible.” Shauna is far from the first character on TV to consider an abortion and change her mind at the last minute, but it’s notable she’s not recoiling from the procedure itself. She’s recoiling instead from the dangerous and horribly painful circumstances in which she’s forced to undergo it, which sets the scene apart.
As the ‘90s cast spends most of their time in the woods, many of the usual period TV markers are out of reach. They can’t watch Clueless on VHS or tool around in Ford Explorers; the batteries die in their tape player early on, and if the team wants to hear their favorite songs, they have to sing them. But, with the help of its much-praised needle drops, the show still taps into a perfectly prickly ‘90s nostalgia. While even the oldest members of the ‘96 cast are too young to have anything but dim memories of the real 1996, this doesn’t mean that they’re unfamiliar with the show’s pop-culture milieu.
Sophie Thatcher, who plays Natalie, arrived in the role already steeped in her character’s cultural world. (She came in already sporting her shaggy mullet, which would become Nat’s signature style.) “A lot of the music on the show I was listening to in high school,” she said. “I was a really big, Mazzy Star fan for a bit, with like first heartbreaks and everything.” But at the end of the day, she’s still 21 years old, and there are some things that are tough for even the most committed music lovers to pick up without a little first-hand experience. When a flashback scene called for Natalie to play a Dinosaur Jr. tape, Thatcher needed a hand actually using the cassette player.
“That was so embarrassing,” she said. “I was so scared of messing it up because I didn’t think they had doubles for the Dinosaur Jr. tape. I was like, ‘Someone help me!’” Showrunner Ashley Lyle came to her aid, which made Lyle, as she told the New York Times, “feel real old.”
There’s something endlessly interesting about seeing the same person in childhood and adulthood, whether the person is real (just take the magnificent 7 Up documentary series) or fictional. It’s a structure appealing enough that this isn’t even Ricci’s first appearance in a similar project—in 1995, she played Rosie O’Donnell’s younger counterpart in Now and Then. Childhood holds all the possibilities in the world, and adulthood, no matter how successful or happy, represents possibilities foreclosed: The girl has a thousand doors in front of her, the woman has entered only one. In one of Yellowjackets’ best scenes, Tawny Cypress’s Taissa and Melanie Lynskey’s Shauna imagine the futures they might have had if not for the plane crash. Shauna, who married her high school lover and is now a thwarted New Jersey housewife, had planned to attend Brown University, date artists, and study abroad in France.
“Well, I was going to go to Howard, pre-law, with a double major in history and philosophy, date a bunch of beautiful women, make first string on the soccer team and graduate first in my class,” said Taissa. “And then I was going to go to Columbia Law and land an internship in one of the biggest firms in the city.”
When Shauna points out that Taissa did achieve all of those lofty goals, Taissa replies, “Yeah. But if I’m being honest, not a single one of those things felt real.”
Yellowjackets is one of TV’s best takes on the trauma plot, but often seems to be less concerned with the particular nightmare of the characters’ ordeal than it is with the horror that is the passage of time. It highlights the pang of both youthful dreams and grown-up realities. It makes clear that, given their older counterparts’ propensities for violence, deception, and self-loathing, many of the younger Yellowjackets will do all the wrong things. Watching the actors in the 1996 timeline, you can’t help but think that maybe they’ll find their way off the desperate road that in the show’s reality, their characters have actually already walked.
Last month, Showtime announced that Yellowjackets was renewed for a second season, but due to the show’s tight-lipped approach to its many mysteries, the actors don’t yet know much about what might be in store for their characters as they continue to reckon with the wilderness and each other. “I actually want more characters to die,” said Nélisse. “Because, first of all, it’s realistic.” They are stranded at the brink of winter, after all, and when asked to imagine her own fate as a Yellowjacket, she’s no more optimistic.
“At the end of the day, I would probably die over some stupid thing. I would eat that poisonous mushroom. I’d be like, ‘That one looks pretty,’” she said, “and die immediately.”