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On Yellowjackets, teen girl friendship hurts like cannibalism

The cannibal feast of the hit Showtime drama has finally begun.

A group of teenagers in classical robes sit in the forest around a candlelit table.
The Yellowjackets sit down to their cannibal feast on “Edible Complex.”
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The cannibal feast that Yellowjackets promised viewers in the first moments of its pilot episode has finally begun. Showtime’s critical smash began last year with a horrific vision of a girl’s soccer team, stranded in the wilderness for over a year after a freak plane crash, hunting, killing, and ritually devouring one of their teammates. Throughout the first season, though, it was never clear how the titular Yellowjackets got to the point of eating one another’s flesh — until now. In “Edible Complex,” the second episode of the second season, the surviving Yellowjackets devour the roasted body of one of their old teammates.

Our protagonists haven’t quite gotten to the point of the highly ritualized cannibalism that we saw in the pilot episode. Team captain Jackie is already dead of (mostly) natural causes when the Yellowjackets eat her, and they don’t cook her intentionally. They’re trying to cremate her, but a fluke snowdrift transforms the funeral pyre into a roasting oven when they aren’t looking.

Still, with “Edible Complex,” Yellowjackets shows us how they take their first steps into the world of cannibalism. Most impressively, it keeps their cannibalism motivated by deeply relatable teen girl emotions. The cannibalism is a survival strategy, but it’s also a metaphor.

When the Yellowjackets start to eat Jackie’s body, they do it because they’re starving to death. They also do it because Jackie was what they were told to aspire to be, so much so that they loved her almost as much as they hated her — until the only thing there was left for them to do was eat her all up.

Jackie (Ella Purnell) appears only briefly in the opening credits of Yellowjackets. We see her, ponytailed and perky on a soccer field, drawing a line across her throat in a vicious threat to someone we can’t see. Then she notices the camera, grins, and tosses us a sultry “just kidding” wink.

That’s who Jackie is: Casually bitchy to the extent that it helps her keep her underlings in line. Unwilling to commit to her threats. Always, always aware that she is being watched, and hence always protecting her image.

Jackie is aware that there’s a certain type of teen girl it pays to be, and she is able to embody that type apparently effortlessly. She is always pretty and put together, but not overly so. She’s dating the most popular boy in school. In the first episode, the Yellowjackets coach tells Jackie that he named her team captain not because she’s the best player on the field (she isn’t), but because the other girls defer to her. She’s a natural leader, he tells her.

In suburban New Jersey, that appears to be true. When the other Yellowjackets get into an argument that escalates into a shouting match at a party later that night, Jackie’s the one who’s able to defuse the situation. She tells each girl to take turns telling everyone else something they admire about the other, and sets the example of going first. The fight ebbs away without further incident.

When the Yellowjackets are stranded in the wilderness by a plane crash, however, Jackie’s leadership skills vanish without a trace. She has no practical abilities and is unwilling to learn any. She is unable to help the team find food or water or shelter. She slacks off on the communal chores of cooking and cleaning. Gradually, the rest of the team starts to defer to strong-willed Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) instead of Jackie because, unlike Jackie, Taissa has ideas that will keep them fed.

Over the first season, we see most of the Yellowjackets gradually abandon the more frivolous and ornamental requirements of suburban girlhood. They stop wearing makeup, and they let their clothes get gradually grubbier. Taissa crops her hair short. Jackie, however, keeps wearing makeup the whole way through the first season, and she remains fastidious about her wardrobe. She is preserving her image for an audience that no longer exists.

That audience is boys, who are the source and the sign of Jackie’s power: The rest of the girls defer to her because she is the kind of girl who popular, desirable boys like. That’s part of why Jackie holds on to her boyfriend Jeff, even though she finds him boring, isn’t particularly attracted to him, and plans to dump him as soon as they graduate. Jeff is what makes Jackie someone the other girls want to be like, a figure to whom they can aspire. Without Jeff, Jackie cannot be queen bee.

In the wilderness, though, there is no Jeff. The only boys are Coach Scott, who is gay, and their dead coach’s sons Travis and Javi. Javi is too young for any of the Yellowjackets, and while Travis (Kevin Alvis) is both age-appropriate and straight, he is the wrong kind of boy. He’s nerdy and uncool, someone who cannot grant a girl status by proxy. Jackie at first snubs him. She’s unbothered when Travis pairs off with Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), whom Jackie considers to be a burnout.

As the months wear on in the wilderness, though, and Jackie’s status tumbles ever more precipitously, she changes her mind about Travis. Toward the end of the first season, she decides to seduce him.

Jackie presents her decision to sleep with Travis even though he’s still with Natalie as practical: Winter is coming, they’re most likely going to die, and she doesn’t want to die a virgin. When the other girls learn of her decision, though, they see immediately that it’s also a display of power on Jackie’s part. Even here, in the wilderness on the edge of death, Jackie is still the kind of girl who can take ownership of any boy she pleases.

It’s Jackie’s betrayal that first drives the group into the state of semi-feral predatory glee we see them relishing in the opening moments of the pilot: They charge at Jackie and Travis with a knife, ready to kill them both. Their plans are foiled, but that impulse is still lingering in all of them when they are faced, starving and weak, with Jackie’s succulently roasted corpse: wouldn’t it be great to get her? Wouldn’t it be perfect if they could harm her, punish her for her sins, for being more popular and powerful than all the rest of them? And simultaneously, wouldn’t it be great to become her, to have Jackie’s perfect hair and perfect smile and perfect life?

To aspire and to punish all at once, they eat her. That’s true for no one more than Jackie’s best friend, Shauna.

Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) is the one who actually takes out her knife and cuts into Jackie’s dead body at the end of “Edible Complex.” She’s been eating Jackie for longer, though. Before Jackie’s corpse is baked, one of her ears snaps off her frozen head. Shauna pockets it and eats it.

Shauna’s friendship with Jackie is at the center of the first season of Yellowjackets. Jackie’s power over Shauna is, in a way, a more intense version of the power she wields over the rest of the Yellowjackets. She remakes quiet, studious Shauna in her image, painting makeup onto her face, trying to set her up with Jeff’s dorkier friends, telling her where to go to college, pushing her to join the Yellowjackets even though, as Shauna yells during their final climactic fight, “I don’t even like soccer!”

Shauna allows Jackie to do all this because she is under Jackie’s sway, awed by her power, and wants to be her. She also allows Jackie to do all this because she loves her. But Shauna’s love for Jackie is laced with sadistic resentment. Before the group is stranded in the wilderness, Shauna secretly sleeps with Jeff.

“I’m not jealous of you, Jackie,” Shauna says during that final fight. “I feel sorry for you. Because you’re weak. And I think that deep down, you know it. I’m sure everyone back home is so fucking sad to be losing their perfect little princess, but they’ll never know how tragic and boring and insecure you really are. Or how high school was the best your life was ever gonna get.” Jackie is so furious at this rant that she storms outside on her own, and that’s how she ends up freezing to death.

Shauna’s lying in her big speech — she’s clearly jealous — but she’s also telling the truth. Jackie is insecure, and she is unlikely to take the world by storm after high school, while smart girl Shauna is ready to go to a good college and make something of herself. That’s one of the things Shauna has to remind herself of when she starts to feel too jealous.

In season two, Shauna hallucinates Jackie’s corpse laughing at her as she paints makeup over its frozen face. “You know Jeff only had sex with you because I made you into someone else,” Dead Jackie tells her. “And you only had sex with him so you could imagine being me.” Then she cuts into her arm and tells Shauna to eat her dead body.

Part of the poignancy and the creepiness of Shauna putting makeup on Jackie’s corpse comes from the fact that Shauna is reasserting Jackie’s old social power, the power of boys and makeup and high school popularity contests. Shauna used to envy that power, longed for it, imagined taking it for her own by sleeping with Jackie’s boyfriend, as if she could absorb it into her body through sympathetic magic. Then Jackie gives her another way of taking that power: eating her flesh.

In the present day of Yellowjackets, Shauna (now played by Melanie Lynskey) is a middle-aged housewife, married to Jeff, with a teenage daughter she resents who reminds her of Jackie. She is living out the future she used to comfort herself by imagining for Jackie, punishing herself with it.

“The thought of you with someone else always scared me,” she tells Jeff in “Edible Complex,” clearly referencing Jackie. “But it also turned me on. Someone else’s tongue in your mouth. Their smell on you. I used to think that made me some kind of pervert.” Now, she says, “I like being the way I am.”

Eating Jackie, Shauna gets Jackie’s tongue in her mouth and Jackie’s smell on her hands. Shauna eats Jackie because she hates her and she eats her because she loves her and she eats her because she wants to be her. It’s messy and it’s bloody and it’s grotesque, but it’s as emotionally true as TV about teenage girls ever gets.

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