The Best Yellowjackets Theory of All: The Theories Don’t Matter!

Part of the fun of Yellowjackets is appreciating its expert blend of influences; Lost and Lord of the Flies are in the mix, and if you enjoyed Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, you’re going to love Episode 9. The drama also evokes Alex Garland’s The Beach, another novel about how an attempt at creating an intimate paradise is ruined by people bringing their baggage with them wherever they go.

But lately I’ve been thinking about another Garland work in relation to Yellowjackets. Part of what makes his 2018 film Annihilation a classic is that it can be interpreted in many ways, but my reading of the film is centered on metaphors for mental illness. A set of women who are traumatized, demoralized or depressed go into a weird, expanding forest that reflects their dilemmas and despair back at them in terrifying and beautiful ways. They meet strange monsters and have mythic experiences, but is what happens to them real? It feels that way, even if it feels like a nightmare, too.

As in Yellowjackets, the supernatural touches in Annihilation don’t feel extraneous or manipulative. They come off as manifestations of the characters’ subconscious minds trying to break free of restraints imposed by society — or by themselves.

In one scene, Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, is questioned about what happened out there, as a silent array of witnesses stare at her. Are these people — if they aren’t just figments of her imagination — judging her? Deciding her fate, in the mode of a Survivor jury? Whatever’s going on, it’s a brilliant distillation of the truth that some days, it’s hard not to feel that the world thinks we can’t do anything right — and maybe the most merciless judges of all live in our own heads.

As adults, Taissa, Shauna and Misty remain hyperconscious of how the world sees them, in part due to their unwanted fame. (Nat doesn’t give a shit about what people think of her, which is one of many reasons to adore her.) These women know people see them as damaged and possibly deranged cannibals (though they have maintained that they didn’t eat anyone in the forest). We don’t know exactly how many team members made it back, but we know those three survivors have constructed the lives they think they are supposed to have — which can feel like armor weighing them down.

In recent years, we’ve begun to re-assess how women in the public eye were treated by the popular culture of the ‘90s, and having necessary conversations about how that dismissive, cruel or even vicious treatment contorted their dreams and damaged or destroyed their potential. Yellowjackets doesn’t just observe this phenomenon from a measured distance: It casts women who came up when good roles for women were unbelievably rare, and gives them layered character journeys they can tear into with glee. But Yellowjackets shows the most respect for its cast — as well as its characters and its audience — by acknowledging that in the intervening decades, not much about how society treats complicated, flawed, rule-breaking women has changed.

Balancing out these ambitious themes are the puzzle-box aspects of the show, which are a blast. I’ve read every word written about every single theory and Easter egg, and I have fallen down all the superfan rabbit holes (sidebar: R.I.P. rabbits in Shauna’s yard). All that said, I’m not particularly concerned about whether Sunday’s finale “sticks the landing” on a purely story-driven level. Given the choice between convoluted plot twists and well-earned character moments, Yellowjackets has leaned hard on the latter and been sparing with the former, and that tendency makes me think (okay, hope) the proposed five-year run of the show — which has already been renewed for a second season — won’t soon sputter into superficial irrelevancy.

But when it comes to “solving” the show, the answer is something that would make Natalie laugh with that resonant, velvety voice of hers: There is none. There is no solving the problem of being a middle-aged person who’s lost touch with her ambition and her purpose, who’s stuffed her rage and dreams into the back of a closet, as Shauna did with her wilderness journals. There is no pat formula to rely on when you’re a teen trying to understand your friends’ weird or selfish choices, or your own deepest desires and fears. Being marooned for 19 months brought out and amplified what was already in these women; in both timelines, it made the darkest and most daring aspects of themselves that much harder to ignore.

Shauna kept secrets even before the team got on that plane, and when she returned to the “real world,” she tried to become a tamer, quieter version of herself. It didn’t quite take. We do not know what happened to her best friend Jackie, but — and this next bit is a spoiler for those who haven’t started the show yet— we do know that Shauna married Jeff, Jackie’s high school boyfriend. Thanks to Melanie Lynskey’s brilliant performance — one of many on this show — Shauna taking over the life of her friend looks like both a guilt trip and a flex. I love her so.

Fine, I’ll admit it: I wanted to get Shauna as my quiz result. She may not be the Antler Queen (probably?). But I can say this with confidence: She will always rule the Yellowjackets book club of my dreams.

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