“Showtime's Yellowjackets returns this week with a second season that is bolder but messier than its first.”
- Consistently strong performances from the show's core cast
- A handful of stunningly bold and brutal flashback scenes
- Several welcome additions to the show's cast, including Elijah Wood and Lauren Ambrose
- A languid, frustratingly slow pace throughout
- Too many filler storylines
- Not enough plot progression in the show's present-day timeline
In its second season, Yellowjackets embraces all of its best and worst instincts. The acclaimed, Emmy-nominated Showtime series returns this week from a yearlong break with a sophomore season that is darker, scarier, bigger, and painfully slower than its first. Picking up from the series of reveals that brought its hit debut season to an end, Yellowjackets doesn’t get to answering its many remaining questions with any sense of earnestness this year, but with a patience that feels alternately measured and misguided.
As good as it was, Yellowjackets season 1 was far from perfect. It was about two episodes too long, which resulted in its pace slowing in the episodes immediately following its explosive premiere. In its second half, however, Yellowjackets season 1 managed to strike a near-perfect, brutally intense balance between its present-day, 2021-set timeline and its 1996 timeline, which follows the show’s adult characters as they struggle to survive a 19-month period spent stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a traumatic plane crash. Yellowjackets season 2, unfortunately, struggles to strike as strong of a balance between the past and the present.
The series’ second season pads out its present-day storylines with so much filler that it’s genuinely shocking how little progress the adult versions of characters like Taissa Turner (Tawny Cypress), Shauna Shipman (Melanie Lynskey), Misty Quigley (Christina Ricci), and Natalie Scatorccio (Juliette Lewis) make across the season’s first six episodes. If Yellowjackets’ alluring, twin-timeline structure isn’t quite as effective as it was in its first season, though, the same cannot be said for the show’s shades of horror. As messy as it is, Yellowjackets season 2 is already shaping up to be a more violent, horrifying, and generally bolder season of television than the show’s first.
Yellowjackets season 2 picks up with its characters exactly where the show’s season 1 finale left many of them. Lynskey’s Shauna is still struggling with her husband, Jeff (Warren Kole), to cover up her recent murder of her boyfriend, while Cypress’ Taissa is still failing spectacularly to address her increasingly destructive and violent sleepwalking spells. Elsewhere, Ricci’s Misty remains as desperate as ever to stay connected to her high school “friends,” while Lewis’ Natalie finds herself suddenly stranded in a wellness commune run by none other than her former teammate, the cult leader-esque Lottie Matthews (played as an adult by new cast member Simone Kessell).
Kessell isn’t the season’s only major new cast member (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose also makes her debut as the adult version of Vanessa “Van” Palmer, Taissa’s high school lover, who is played as a teenager by Liv Hewson). However, as played by Kessell and returning star Courtney Eaton, Lottie is very much the focus of Yellowjackets season 2, as the season’s spectacular opening montage, which is set to a pitch-perfect Sharon Van Etten jam, makes clear. Lottie’s kidnapping of Natalie at the end of Yellowjackets season 1 ultimately proves to be the key inciting incident of the show’s sophomore season, which takes its time putting Lottie’s new wellness center on its other characters’ radars.
In the past, Lottie’s seemingly supernatural gifts don’t do much to bring her fellow teammates closer together. Fulfilling the promise of its season 1 finale, Yellowjackets’ new flashback scenes pick up with its central group of teenagers as they all struggle to make it through a frigid winter in the middle of nowhere with very little food and even less privacy. The divisions between the show’s superstitious Lottie supporters and its more practical characters have been made more pronounced by the harsh conditions of the season’s winter setting. In fact, the only thing all of Yellowjackets’ teenagers have in common in the show’s second season is their shared hunger.
That fact only brings Yellowjackets season 2 that much closer to fulfilling the brutal promise of its very first scene. The show, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from leaning further and further into the darkest corners of its story, either. The season’s first six episodes rarely match the constant intensity of Yellowjackets’ debut run, but they are filled with moments that are genuinely shocking in their barbarity and tragedy. Some of the season’s uses of surreal fantasy don’t pay off as well as others, but the phantasmagoric nature of its second episode’s unforgettable climactic sequence also gives Yellowjackets the chance to reach a new peak of creative ingenuity.
The show’s all-star cast, meanwhile, returns in top form, though, Yellowjackets season 2 frequently struggles to give many of its returning stars the spotlights that they deserve. Of the show’s core adults, Lynskey and Cypress are given the most attention and neither ever let an opportunity to chew fully into the emotion or wry humor of a scene pass them by. That’s true even when Lynskey’s Shauna ends up trapped in a frustrating subplot involving Alex Wyndham’s small-town cop, Kevyn Tan, and when Cypress’ Taissa is forced to spend her time retreading emotional and narrative ground that was already explored in Yellowjackets’ first season.
While Ricci continues to inject the show with a manic form of comedic energy that’s hard to top as well, she’s left mostly stranded in the early chapters of Yellowjackets’ second season. Her oddball comedic chemistry with Elijah Wood, who shows up as a fellow member of the Citizen Detective board Misty spends most of her time on, helps make up for the fact that Misty does little-to-nothing of value throughout most of the first six episodes of Yellowjackets season 2. The same can’t be said for Lewis, however, who is pushed to the side for much of Yellowjackets season 2’s initial installments so that the series can make room for Kessell’s adult Lottie.
Kessell, for her part, conjures an even more compelling presence as Lottie than Eaton does as the teenage version of the character. Unfortunately, Yellowjackets season 2 is also deeply invested in maintaining so much secrecy about Lottie’s past actions and potential powers that the character frequently comes across more as a sketch than a fully-drawn figure. That proves to be a problem when many of the season’s later episodes end up revolving almost entirely around Lottie’s unexplained actions in both the past and the present.
Lauren Ambrose similarly brings a welcome new presence to Yellowjackets’ ensemble as an adult version of Hewson’s Van, but the Showtime series takes far too long to get to her character’s (re)introduction. That’s ultimately the result of Taissa’s present-day storyline, which unfolds at such a snail’s pace that it takes four episodes for her to progress past where Yellowjackets’ season 1 finale left her. The show’s flashback sequences, thankfully, avoid adopting the same languid pace as its present-day scenes. Many of Yellowjackets season 2’s early standout moments, consequently, center on the younger versions of its plane crash survivors.
Of Yellowjackets’ “teenage” cast members, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Nélisse, and Hewson make the biggest emotional impressions in the series’ second season with their performances as the younger versions of Taissa, Shauna, and Van, respectively. While she, like Lewis, isn’t used nearly as much as she should be, either, Sophie Thatcher continues to bring a real humanity and sense of hard-edged warmth to her younger version of Natalie, who frequently finds herself pitted against Eaton’s Lottie this time around. Together, Thatcher and her fellow cast members help ensure that even Yellowjackets season 2’s darkest moments — of which there are many — are grounded in a nightmarish kind of emotional reality.
Ever since it began, Yellowjackets has never struggled in that regard, which makes its second season’s inability to match the work done by its cast all the more disappointing. Having only seen the season’s first six episodes, it’s impossible to say whether or not Yellowjackets season 2 can deliver a conclusion that makes the uneven, occasionally slothful pace of its early episodes feel worthwhile. As of now, though, while it seems inaccurate to deem Yellowjackets season 2 a sophomore slump, the show’s sting doesn’t feel nearly as powerful or precise as it did last year.
Yellowjackets season 2 premieres Friday, March 24 on Showtime. Digital Trends was given early access to the season’s first 6 episodes.
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