‘Yellowjackets’ Finally Goes Full Cannibalism: ‘We Scared the Crew’
Ever since the Yellowjackets pilot premiered, bookended by nightmarish sequences of its central characters ritualistically hunting and eating one of their own soccer teammates, a central question has hung over the show: when and why the hell did these seemingly ordinary teenage girls descend into gruesome cannibalism?
It’s one of the many mysteries of the Showtime series, which unfolds across two timelines: one in which a plane crash leaves the show’s titular high school soccer team stranded in the wilderness for 18 months in the late ‘90s; and another in the present-day, in which the surviving adult Yellowjackets find their pasts coming back to haunt them as they’re forced to come to terms with the dark, possibly supernatural truth of what happened during their time in the woods.
But Season One upended some fan expectations by ending not with salaciousness and cannibalism, but with the heart-wrenching death of popular ringleader Jackie (Ella Purnell), who accidentally froze to death after storming away from a fight with her best friend Shauna (played as a teenager by Sophie Nélisse). The series is at its best when it grounds its genre elements with measured meditations on the horrors of girlhood and the lingering effects of — cue up your best Jamie Lee Curtis impression — trauma, which is why Jackie and Shauna’s fraying queen bee-meets-wallflower dynamic was arguably the heart of Yellowjackets’ first season.
So it’s only fitting that when the starving teenage Yellowjackets finally cross the cannibalism line by consuming two-month-old Jackie’s corpse — which has been left perfectly barbequed on her funeral pyre in another surreal twist of fate — they’re given permission by Shauna, who’s currently consumed by her own grief and guilt.
“What I set out to do was to make sure that if they were going to eat Jackie, we did it through the lens of Shauna’s emotional and psychological life,” co-showrunner and episode writer Jonathan Lisco tells Rolling Stone. “So, if we do it right, this is not just a cannibalism episode. It’s an emotional episode.”
Over the course of Yellowjackets Season Two’s first few installments, Shauna engages in imaginary confrontations with her late frenemy, doing her hair and makeup one moment and being blamed by Jackie for her demise the next. There’s also the fact that a malnourished and heavily pregnant Shauna has taken to eating bits of Jackie that have fallen off in the wintry cold, literalizing the intense, codependent, and sometimes borderline-homoerotic friendships that often form between young women.
“She’s obviously struggling deeply with trying to extricate herself from the meaning that Jackie’s friendship gave her life,” Lisco says. “There were times [in Season One] where it almost felt like Shauna wanted to cut [Jackie] open and climb inside her so she could be her, while, at the same time, she couldn’t imagine life without her. So what better way to make that psychological impulse manifest than to actually get to a point where you could literally consume your best friend?”
When it came to shooting the episode’s climax, suffice it to say that it was no ordinary day at the office — if such a concept even exists for Yellowjackets. The actors found themselves face-to-face with a Jackie-sized rubber dummy with skin made of air-fried rice paper, medium molasses, and maple syrup. As for the meat? It was made of jackfruit — “Jackie fruit, if you will,” Lisco quips — seasoned with paprika and honey, stuffed into all manner of body cavities. When director Ben Semanoff called “action,” the crew began weaving between the actors with handheld cameras, focusing on a few actors at a time.
“We tried to joke and bring some light to it, but once you got into shooting it, your brain got so convinced that you were doing something wrong,” actor Courtney Eaton, who plays teenage Lottie, tells Rolling Stone. “Samantha [Hanratty, who plays teenage Misty] threw up. I gagged. There was a shot where Jasmin [Savoy Brown, who plays teenage Taissa] just ends up grabbing Jackie’s face and takes a big chunk out of her cheek, and all of us are grabbing an arm and eating it off the bone. So it was a mindfuck. I think we scared the crew.”
The only wilderness survivor left out of the Yellowjackets’ feral feeding frenzy? Their assistant coach, Ben Scott (Steven Krueger), who looks on, horrified. As Lisco points out, the moment doesn’t exactly spell positive things for his future.
“Now, he can be the self-righteous one who they could come not to trust,” he says. “When people do acts they’re not proud of, or [they’re] ashamed of, and there’s one outlier, you can see how that can easily create division.”
Originally, Ben wasn’t the only bystander.
“For a while, there was a discussion of whether or not Natalie should refuse to eat her, because she’s not ready to go there, because she is such a strong character,” Lisco adds. “She’s the one actually out there hunting for game for them to eat. But we did feel like it would ultimately be much more effective if the whole thing could be a kind of mass bacchanal. A protective hallucination.”
The idea of a mass hallucination is made all the more plausible with the introduction of a Greco-Roman-esque fantasy sequence, which shows the characters dressed in classical garb, assembled for a banquet of sorts. As Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls” blares, tracking shots of the Yellowjackets gorging themselves on their lavish woodland feast are intercut with frenetic glimpses of the girls tearing into Jackie’s body with abandon.
Inspired by the ancient Western civilizations that they would’ve likely studied in history class, the bacchanal sequence helped keep the cannibalism from becoming too outright gory for Showtime — while leaving the gruesome particulars of the scene up to audiences’ imaginations.
“We’re borrowing from Greek tragedy,” Lisco notes. “The Greeks would play a lot of stuff offscreen and it would be even more harrowing, because it would mushroom in your consciousness, because you’d be imagining it and not actually seeing every moment of it. We tried to give you just enough to the point where when you turned off the episode, you would have a hard time not thinking about it.”
“It’s almost more haunting that way,” Eaton agrees. “I thought it would be a little bit more hectic and animalistic, but I like the dance it does between two worlds and where their heads are at.”
Ironically enough, the bacchanal was shot shortly before Canadian Thanksgiving at Camp Howdy, a scenic retreat based about an hour outside of Vancouver. Coincidentally, the woodland clearing where the bacchanal was filmed lies just up the hill from the former camp that stands in for adult Lottie’s compound.
“Originally, it was gonna be more of a medieval room, so we did have those medieval elements,” production designer Margot Ready says. “We laid the table with a real feast, but we also brought in elements that relate to our story and the forest. We grew moss up over the table, and we had antler and bone candelabras and pine cones and acorns. We were, in a way, in the collective unconscious mind of our Yellowjackets.”
The scene also made for a nice change of scenery for the younger Yellowjackets cast members, who spent so much of Season Two filming in the cabin where their characters are fending off the brutal winter. Eaton says wrap gifts included card decks emblazoned with the words “Fuck this cabin.”
“We realized we had gone too hard at the beginning and had to commit to just stuffing our faces,” Eaton recalls. “I sat next to Sophie Nélisse, and I think we ended up just accidentally eating bits that we had both spat out during [and] after the scene, covered in wine in the middle of a forest. But it was nice to play around and be in this different world.”
Viewers will have to wait for the fallout of the moment so many fans have been clamoring for since Yellowjackets’ bloody beginning, but it bears asking: why do this many people want to watch a girls’ soccer team eat people that badly? While Lisco stresses that the creative team didn’t set out to make a horror show, Eaton attributes it to our cultural obsession with the taboo.
“As a society, we’re always intrigued by things we can’t do,” she says with a laugh. “And we don’t have any societal rules or structures out [in the wilderness], so everyone’s intrigue can be satisfied.”
So for fans who can’t help but feel drawn to Yellowjackets’ gorier moments, Eaton has good news: “I don’t think they’ll be disappointed with Season Two.”