The Emmy-nominated sleeper hit returned to our screens this year with more blood, guts and extreme psychosis. All the good stuff. But having such a successful first season comes with its caveats. Follow-up seasons are tricky enough as it is – recapturing the magic, sustaining the mystery, all while driving the narrative forward in new and interesting ways. Add to that the fact that shows nowadays are being axed left and right when they don’t clear a certain arbitrary threshold (your guess is as good as mine as to what that threshold is), the pressure on showrunners to consistently deliver is greater than ever. The good news is that Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson managed it. Just about.
Season 2 picks up shortly after first left off. The present day unit is fractured, the adult iterations of our core character set are scattered, each wrestling with harsh, penetrating truths about themselves. Meanwhile, back in 1996, rations are running dangerously low and Shauna’s baby is imminent. I’ll be honest, things don’t get much merrier from there so strap yourselves in, you’re in for a rough ride. Lyle and Nickerson’s approach to the 90’s storyline was to not simply retread the structure and themes of Season 1, (which was to more-than-hint at cannibalism in the first episode, then proceed to tease us for the remaining 9). They had to be more direct. So rather than saving some of the major shocks and reveals until late in the day, critical developments are introduced much sooner and boundaries left mostly untouched until now, are pushed with more purpose, raising the stakes early doors for the ever-more-desperate teens. This less ambiguous game-plan gives the wilderness-set scenes a feverish, anxiety-inducing tone from the jump. The same can’t be said for the current timeline, which isn’t without its worth. The dilemma is though, that the handful momentous twists we get are great when they come but are not quite enough to sustain 9 Episodes. The connective elements between those foundational points need to remain strong in order to maintain suspense and intrigue and, well, keep us watching. Utilising the present-day events to build that connectivity is just less successful this time. Some of the modern day strands are dull and half-baked, lacking satisfying conclusions. You end up yearning for the flashbacks which are, on the whole, much more engaging. There are certain threads in the present that are more entertaining and do an impressive job of tapping some comedy out of darkly pleasing situations the adults often find themselves in, as well as the unreliable-narration provided by certain character’s POVs, but it doesn’t do quite enough to hydrate the dry patches. Cutting the run to 9 episodes is little aid, perhaps 6 or 7 would have helped iron out some of the less compelling wrinkles.
The cast is more expansive this time round, however, new faces popping up in the 1996 storyline as if they were there the entire time is rather jarring. When we’ve spent 10 episodes becoming accustomed to and familiar with the key players, as well as a handful of lesser ones, it feels odd that brand new characters are only just appearing on screen. It suggests a lack of forethought from the showrunning team and considering where we know the story is going thematically, it’s not a stretch to think these newbies are destined for the butcher’s table.
Present-day additions are far more welcome, including Lauren Ambrose and Simone Kessel playing adult Van and Lottie respectively, both bringing A-game performances and blending seamlessly with their 90’s counterparts. These introductions offer an abundance of new contexts and partnerships in the present-day. Julliette Lewis’s Natalie spends much of her time this season acting opposite Kessel which is simply a delight to watch. Two powerhouse performances well-matched by the youngsters in their own timeline – Natalie played by Sophie Thatcher and Lottie by Courtney Eaton. Another essential duo and one of the greatest strengths of this season’s present-day bench is that of Misty and Walter (Christinna Ricci and Elijah Wood), who share an instinctive on-screen chemistry that reaches out and pulls you in. The natural, light-hearted quality of their scenes mark some of the high-points of the show so far. This technique of insightful pairings of top-tier actors help to clarify what could be an incomprehensible tangle of story-threads, but each is distinct enough to stand on its own two feet, even if sometimes the content doesn’t quite measure up.
Yellowjackets is, at its core, about the enduring nature of trauma and the futility of trying to forgo healing. Each of our adult iterations is still bound, defined in fact by what happened to them, what they did to survive and what they continue to do. Yet despite the weight of this, it still finds space for heart, warmth and jet-black comedy without ever losing sight of its thematic centre, an achievement that cannot be understated. Such astute writing realised by an impeccably cast ensemble is what makes this show arguably the best tone-defying, female-dominated show on TV.
Ruling: Lyle and Nickerson deploy a team of quality directors who do enough to avoid the tricky-second-album problem which often hampers shows enjoying early success. Weaker sub-plots form some cracks in the ceiling and threaten to undo the hard-won triumph of the first season, but a world-class cast serves as a watertight seal.