December 2021 – January 2022

Noted

‘Yellowjackets’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from ‘Yellowjackets’
The US drama about teen plane-crash survivors is a heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal

In this visceral American TV drama (streaming on Paramount+), survival is double-edged, literally: following a plane crash that strands a girls’ high-school soccer team in the wilderness, one of the teens wields an axe for an emergency amputation. With an alternating then-and-now structure – between the gruesome events at ground zero in 1996 and the trauma-laden lives of the survivors in 2021 – the first season of this series is a horror-stoked mystery. When you have to take extreme measures to stay alive, the evocative storytelling insinuates, you can never truly be saved.

As the very cold opener makes clear, with a teenage girl running for her life through a snowy forest before her unexpected pursuer is sighted, something went horribly wrong among the young adults who exited the ruptured fuselage. Present-day enquiries reveal that it was 19 months until the New Jersey teens were found, enough time for a new societal structure to take root. Animal-hide masks, forest rituals and sizzling flesh all indicate that social norms, and the bond of friendship, gave way to something darker. The path there, shrewdly doled out, is mostly enthralling.

“After they rescued us, I lost my purpose,” notes the adult Natalie ( Juliette Lewis), exiting her latest stint in rehab. Even if the women at the centre of the story don’t want to talk about what happened, they can’t hide the impact. Natalie is an extreme version of her teenage rebel self (Sophie Thatcher), whereas Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) has buried herself so far in the suburban doldrums, complete with a dismissive daughter and marriage counselling sessions, that she’s starting to embrace the possibilities of her adolescent odyssey. Misty (Christina Ricci), the squad’s put-upon coaching assistant, is a cheerful sociopath; when an armed Natalie accosts her she smiles with genuine delight.

Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (both graduates of Netflix’s drug cartel franchise Narcos) have crafted an involved dynamic among the characters: the teens are still taking shape, but the decisions they make before the disaster feed into what happens afterwards. There’s a camaraderie among the young women such that their stirring bromides of teamwork hint at the nightmarish. In this heady mix of folk horror and high-school betrayal, there’s also room for mordant humour. The geeky young Misty (Sammi Hanratty) takes charge at the crash site by declaring, “I took the Red Cross babysitter training class. Twice.”

Yellowjackets will get classified as a gender flip on Lord of the Flies, but it also weaves together strands that call on everything from the ominous conspiracies of Lost to the feminine otherworldliness of The Virgin Suicides. It is rife with pulp-like moments, right down to the young son of another survivor, the hard-nosed Taissa (Tawny Cypress), producing unnerving drawings, but it’s rarely messy. It has a juicy momentum, primed by skilful editing that ties the two settings together. The mid ’90s soundtrack may be era-specific, but the intent is timeless: what is left after you’ve lived life at the unspeakable extreme?

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

In This Issue

Image of The Sea of Hands, representing support for reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous Australians

The truth about truth-telling

Revisiting trauma is not the road to justice for Aboriginal people

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Did Federation compromise our democracy?

How the advent of Australia’s national government separated power from people and place

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy


Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?