Can’t Miss Episode of the Week: ‘Yellowjackets’ Premiere Excellently Builds Dread

Yellowjackets pilot on Showtime
Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

Welcome to our weekly column Can’t Miss Episode of the Week! Every Saturday we’ll be spotlighting a different episode of television from that week that we thought was exceptional and a must-see. Check back to see if your favorite show got the nod — or to learn about a new one! Spoilers ahead.

If you came away from the November 14 premiere of Showtime’s new drama Yellowjackets thinking about how well it builds dread, you might be interested in knowing it’s directed by Karyn Kusama. Kusama, also an executive producer on the series, is the director of horror films such as Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation. The show follows a New Jersey high school girls soccer team who’s plane, in 1996 on the way to the national championships, crashes in the Ontario wilderness, leading to a Lord of the Flies type of situation (I also recommend checking out Amazon’s similarly premised series The Wilds). It also flashes forward to the surviving girls’ lives as adults, who are still trying to handle their trauma decades after being rescued.

While we get glimpses of the tribalistic cannibals that the girls will become, the episode mostly takes place in the days right before the plane crash. One might expect it to depict the teens as wholesome so that we can wonder how they will eventually become so terrible, but the show inverts this trope by depicting them as already viciously cut-throat. This is where we see notes of Jennifer’s Body layered in. Like she does in that film, Kusama explores the complexities of female relationships at that age–the toxicity and co-dependency that often creeps in.

Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) and Jackie (Ella Purnell) have been best friends their entire lives. They’re planning on rooming together the following year when they start college at Rutgers. As Jackie tells Shauna in a sincere moment, “you’re the only one who’s always been there for me. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.” There clearly is great love between them, but Shauna prickles at Jackie needling her about her taste in clothes and music. Jackie seemingly has everything–she’s pretty, fashionable, has a hot boyfriend, and is team captain. Shauna feels like she’ll never live up to what the glamorous Jackie wants her to be, but at the same time she also seems to want to be Jackie. We see that play out in the reveal that she’s been sleeping with Jackie’s boyfriend, Jeff (Jack DePew). Just as guilt-inducing for Shauna is the acceptance letter to Brown that she hasn’t managed to get up the courage to tell Jackie about yet.

As it turns out, we don’t need to wait until after the plane crash to see these teenagers maim each other. High achiever Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is willing to go to any lengths to win Nationals, which means stamping out every last shred of weakness she can find in the team, and fellow player Allie (Pearl Amanda Dickson), a freshman, is on her list for making a fumble at their most recent game. Taissa initially tries to get the other players on board with icing Allie out by not passing her the ball–but when they refuse to turn on Allie, Jackie takes matters into her own hands by playing aggressively in a scrimmage game to, as she puts it, force Allie to learn how to play “under pressure.” But because of Taissa’s single minded focus on winning, she purposely trips Allie as she goes for the ball, and her cleat accidentally rips open Allie’s knee in a spectacular display of gore.

This team is already simmering with resentment and rivalries when their plane goes down. Being lost in the wilderness will only exacerbate that. We find out that the oft-dismissed team manager Misty (Sammi Hanratty) is the leader of the cannibals, and is no less vengeful as an adult (Christina Ricci), as she abuses her patients at a nursing home. Adult Shauna is similarly terrifying (Melanie Lynskey, Two and a Half Men). Although rather meek on the outside, she savagely murders the bunnies who wander into her garden, and sternly warns Taissa (Tawny Cypress) against her run for public office, which has already caused a reporter to start digging around about the crash. The reporter may or may not get her answers, but we certainly will find out what happened over the course of the 19 months the girls were lost. One thing’s for sure, it’s only going to get worse from here on out.

Yellowjackets, Sundays, 10/9c, Showtime