“Yellowjackets” is a lot of things. It’s a show about survival, a dark comedy, a coming-of-age story, and a performance showcase. If you had to fit it into a broad category of series formats that work in today’s TV ecosystem, though, you’d call it a mystery. That’s the way “Yellowjackets” first hooked its audience, by asking a series of huge questions in the pilot that would slowly be answered over the course of the show.
In fact, most of the intrigue that “Yellowjackets” is still riding on was generated by a single question posed in a single scene: the pilot’s cold open. Watching a band of feral, fur-clad warrior girls chase one of their own through the forest and into a spike-filled pit at the behest of some kind of antler queen begged the question: how did these normal suburban teenagers come to this?
The spellbinding visual contrast between the clean, polite, ordinary girls we meet soon after and the avatars of savagery and chaos that we’re first introduced to continues to be the series’ main source of power. A frictive charge that energizes each scene with a pull forward: you have to keep watching to find how that gap gets bridged.
So, Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, Karyn Kusama, and the rest of the creative team landed on a great mystery that viewers feel compelled to solve. Is that the reason why the show has produced more podcasts, Reddit threads, fan blogs, Twitch discussions, and video essays than virtually any other show on the air? Don’t dozens of shows with the same mystery core design debut to strong ratings and reviews yet nevertheless fail to find an audience?
The key to its ability to rise above the rest, I think, lies not in what kind of story “Yellowjackets” is telling, but in who’s telling that story, and to whom they’re telling it.