Jonathan Lisco is no stranger to television hits, having overseen the critically acclaimed dramas Southland, Halt and Catch Fire, and Animal Kingdom. But no series of his has hit the zeitgeist quite like Yellowjackets, whose admirers have gone down the fan-theory rabbit hole in ways not seen since True Detective or Lost.
“It sort of crept up on us,” he says with a grin.
The Showtime show tells the grisly tale of a high school girls’ soccer team (the titular Yellowjackets) whose plane crash-lands deep in the Canadian mountains in 1996. The surviving young women, an assistant coach, and the head coach’s two sons are then marooned for 19 months in the wilderness, resorting to occultism and cannibalism. Twenty-five years later, four of the women—Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Nat (Juliette Lewis) and Misty (Christina Ricci)—are still grappling with the horrors of what transpired in the woods.
In Sunday’s Season 1 finale, the quartet rejoined forces to help dispose of the body of Adam, a curious lover whom Shauna stabbed to death in a PTSD-induced panic. Later, they begrudgingly (well, except Misty) attend their 25-year high school reunion. Back in the ’90s, Shauna and the girls cast Jackie out of the cabin for sleeping with Nat’s lover Travis—and being a general diva—causing her to freeze to death. Then, in the present, Taissa wins her New Jersey Senate race just as her estranged partner Simone finds a cult shrine bearing that haunted symbol in their basement, along with the decapitated head of their dog Biscuit, his heart, and their son’s mangled baby doll. Misty poisons Jessica, the fake journalist sent by Taissa to investigate the women. Oh, and Nat is snatched from her motel seconds before taking her own life by a group of white-gloved cultists and before learning that Lottie is the one who emptied Travis’ bank account. Things end back in the woods, as teenage Lottie places the heart of the bear she slayed in a tree shrine, kneels before it, and—flanked by Van and Misty—says, “Let the darkness set us free.”
The Daily Beast spoke with Lisco, who runs the show with Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson—as well as executive producer Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), whose visual stamp is all over it—about that finale and where things are headed from here.
Yellowjackets seems to be a testament to the effectiveness of the weekly format. It’s really allowed the fandom to grow gradually.
I think it has benefited from it. Some of these shows drop and they’re so quickly digested that, even if they’re quite good, it almost has the effect of a cotton candy experience, where you’ve eaten a ton of it, and you like it, but then at the end it’s gone. It evanesces into your consciousness in a way that doesn’t live with you. I think Showtime was spot-on in doing it this way. It’s very old school—especially in a show like this where we’re, I will say with great humility, meticulously crafting the architecture of the season. What has just happened gets to live inside you and mushroom in your consciousness in a way that, as you can see from the audience response, leads to so many creative thought experiments.
It has become a bit like Lost when it comes to fan forums cooking up wild theories about what’s happening in show. Has that surprised you, and what’s the wildest fan theory you’ve come across?
One pretty awesome theory, actually, is that Adam was actually a transitioned Jackie who had come back from the woods to haunt Shauna. I thought that was really outside the box, interesting, and edgy. I also heard that Adam was Shauna’s baby—although that timeline wouldn’t quite work. Those are two pretty interesting theories.
And that second one would’ve involved Shauna having sex with her baby.
Well, yes, unfortunately. That is the downside of creativity—sometimes it leads you down the demented path. But I read that on the internet. It was very much our intention, for example, with the bite Taissa has on her hand, we were trying to convey that it was probably the dog, Biscuit, that probably bit her as she was doing those terrible things to the dog. But a lot of people said, “Why is Taissa eating herself?” So, some people thought that she had bitten into her own flesh as a ritualistic reflection back into the woods. I have to say, we love the fan theories. Many of these we’ve thought of—perhaps not the three I’ve mentioned.
I’m not sure if this is a continuity error, but one thing Redditors pointed out was that grown-up Misty, played by Christina Ricci, shares the same license plate number as Adam.
So, I’m going to tell you the absolute truth: the answer is yes. Ash, Bart and I just would like to prostrate ourselves before our audience and say, please let this one go. I gotta tell you, this matters to us a lot. For example, a lot of people pointed out that Jackie’s diary contained a lot of movies that post-date her death. That is not an error, and something we intend to explain moving forward. But this license plate thing, we must cop to the fact that showrunning is very much like building an airplane as it’s taking off, and we love building something that is very detail-oriented, but that license plate thing was simply too many things going on at once and an oversight. There was a gap of time between the pilot and that episode, and somebody in our lovely departments slapped on the wrong plate.
It’s not exactly a Starbucks cup on Game of Thrones.
[Laughs] Thank you. I hope our audience will forgive us.
I want to dig into the finale a bit. Let’s start with Jackie—and the passing of Jackie. It certainly seemed like the series was angling toward that. And it ends up being the entire group, led by Shauna, banishing her outside and then her freezing to death. Why did you arrive at having Jackie be the big Season 1 finale death?
We had thought of lots of different avenues—and firstly, let’s just talk about Ella Purnell, who is revelatory as Jackie. There are moments when emotion ripples through her body and her eyes in a way that is really stunning. So, you can say to yourself, why on Earth would you want to get rid of that character and actor? And in a way, that’s exactly why. It harkens back to the deep relationship that was set up at the beginning of the season between Shauna and Jackie. A lot of people online thought Jackie was going to be the first person consumed by cannibalism—and we thought about that, if we’re being honest—but we’re not in the shock-value business. We’re trying to be truthful, organic, and visceral in the way we depict what these young women are experiencing.
The real reason we chose to do it this way is because from the very beginning we laid the seeds of this incredibly popular girl and her sidekick who lives in her shadow and has all these simmering resentments. But they truly love each other. So, when you’re talking about the PTSD—pain and trauma that is brought into 2021—what is the most insufferable baggage that Shauna could possibly endure? Their relationship was based on rupture and repair but they had always repaired things. Here, the rupture is so great that they can never get back to the repair—out of stubbornness.
They’re still teenagers.
They’re still teenagers. And I think that’s related to adult life as well: you’re so stubborn and you don’t realize that time is passing and life is short and fragile, and you don’t extend an olive branch to your friend, father, son, whatever it may be, and because you can’t even do that this tragic accident happens. Talk about the guilt that Shauna now takes into the present where she’s continually seeking repair not just with the ghost of Jackie, but with everyone else in her life.
When it comes to Lottie, how much of the occult and paranormal is playing into this? We know she’s off her meds, which is exacerbating what’s going on with her, but it’s obviously not just the meds, and the season ends with that sequence of her placing the bear heart inside of the tree shrine, flanked by Misty and Van.
We call it “the lightning stump.” People ask whether the show is supernatural or not, and one of the fundamental questions of the show is to ask: What is supernatural? You can be walking alone in the woods at night and suddenly feel an energy outside of you that feels other. Is that just your neurotransmitters firing to make you feel something that doesn’t actually exist, or is there actually some dark energy coming at you? That’s the question we continue to explore, and she is the greatest conduit for telling that story, because there’s a rational explanation for what she’s going through, but equally there could also be a supernatural and even paranormal one—and that could begin to sow the seeds of factionalization among the women in the woods between those that believe in dark energy and those that try to explain it away, much like young Taissa. One of the big questions we’re asking is how humans struggle to protect themselves against fear and the unknown, and how, in this micro-society that they’re going to have to build in their 19 months in the wilderness, how they can defend themselves psychologically and emotionally against fear. Inevitably, that may lead to in-group/out-group politics and the demonization of other people in order to be safe in their own identity. We’re hoping the show can ask the question of whether humans have the capacity to rise above that.
Is Lottie evil? Or is she someone who’s having forces work on her?
If you’ve been completely uprooted, and all the social conventions and safety of your life has been taken away, and you need to build up rituals or a belief system to keep you from unraveling, is that evil or is that necessary? Is that a survival instinct that we can empathize with—or something darker? And we’re going to get there.
There’s already a system of justice that is slowly being put into place—like when the girls nearly kill Travis for the crime of sleeping with Jackie even though he’s in love with Nat.
The majority belief systems are building up in a way. What’s really interesting is that this is a rhapsodic freedom they’re experiencing. It’s about true freedom and its consequences. In the woods, these women have all their gender conventions and the social hierarchy of high school degrading, and now they can self-actualize. Then, 25 years later, they’re middle-aged women who realize they’re in their own boxes and cages. Shauna is in a domestic cage. Natalie is still in the grip of addiction. Taissa is still ambitious and driven and suppressing all of their demons. In a way, and I know this is perverse, they rather long for that rhapsodic freedom from the wilderness.
Taissa is not suppressing all of her demons though, because we see in the finale that as she wins the election, her estranged partner finds the head of their dog, the heart of the dog, and their son’s mangled baby doll decorated as a shrine in a hidden room in the bowels of their home.
With the symbol.
Exactly. So, we now know she’s still a member of this cult and that she’s the one who sent this woman to monitor and gather the stories of all the other women. And then we see other members of this present-day cult snatching Nat. So, she could be the ringleader of this cult in the present.
Yes, that is on the table. Although I will say that for most of Season 1, we’ve seen Taissa not even aware consciously that she’s the lady in the tree, and so she’s been doing a good job—in classic Taissa-esque fashion—of suppressing her distorted alter ego, or even repressing it and not being aware of it. And I think that great shot you’re talking about, where we’re on her and you see those flickers of recognition as Simone is discovering Biscuit’s head on the altar, where she’s saying, “Oh, I’ve been keeping this all in a cage, and now that I’m going to be a state legislator, I’m now seeing there may be some dark advantages to tapping into and accessing the more useful parts of that dark energy.” And that’s the really scary part.
How is that going to tie into the Trump/cult of personality of it all? Because now we’re going to have someone ensnared in—and possibly leading—a cult in the Senate.
Yes! Well, I think that’s a great thematic thread that’s baked in. We’re not going to hit it too hard, obviously, but it’s hard not to see that in the story for sure.
I know the show was originally pitched as being set in the ’70s and ’90s, but it was a stroke of genius to set it in the ’90s and the present-day, because it really taps into millennial and Gen X ’90s nostalgia. There’s been some chatter online about other ’90s actresses that could be given a career boost by Yellowjackets.
Who are they? Give me some!
My suggestion would be Fairuza Balk.
That’s really interesting. There are a lot of actresses from that era who have expressed great interest in the show as well, and the only reason why I won’t mention their names is if we ever get into a conversation with them on a casting level, to tip our mitt in print can get a bit messy to untangle.
It’s also a fascinating inversion of what a lot of ’90s kids feel. There are many people my age who feel quite traumatized about what’s happening now and are nostalgic for the ’90s, but these characters are haunted by what happened in the ’90s in the present-day.
If you want to go to that Trumpian place, one of the interesting things I find about our current era is, when I grew up I wasn’t a very jingoistic-type guy, but because of what happened in World War II, there was this feeling of American exceptionalism that was baked into people’s worldviews. And what did subsequent generations grow up in? They grew up in 9/11, the financial crisis…
…Twenty years of war in Afghanistan.
Twenty years of war in Afghanistan. So, they don’t have that same baked-in level of belief in American exceptionalism, and I think that’s very destabilizing. That is also threaded through these timelines.
So, back to Nat getting snatched by the white-glove cult. Can you talk about who they are?
We have not seen the whole story of what happened in the wilderness, and I think you’ll see that dramatized much more vividly in Season 2, is the way in which they start to form their society and the rules and conventions that govern that society. What you get a strong sense of is that’s not dead, and in a way it’s actually evolved.
It seems like Lost ran into a bit of trouble because they didn’t know where it was going, and they kept dropping in weird Easter eggs that they had trouble resolving. I read that you have five seasons mapped out of the show. So, you actually know where this is going, right?
I’ll speak from my own experience: TV is famous for, as I said, building the airplane as it’s taking off. That’s inevitably true, because you get into the “trifecta of pain,” as I like to call it, where you’re writing, producing, and post-producing simultaneously. However, if you’re smart, you lobby for as much writer’s prep as possible before those cameras start rolling so you can create an architecture for multiple seasons before it starts going. I can confidently say that we have a plan. Now, there are plans and then there’s the rubber meeting the road when you actually start to shoot; because when you start to shoot, some of the things that you had planned in your head aren’t working—you planned a romance, but they have no chemistry, or the story doesn’t land in a way you want it to on film. We’re cognizant of that. But we’re not just backfilling in and flying by the seat of our pants.
What else can you tease for Season 2? Will we discover the identities of the people in the show’s opening sequence—the girl falling to her death in the pit, and the people responsible? Or maybe the identity of the Antler Queen, perhaps?
I will say this: We are certainly moving in the direction of revealing that person’s identity. That’s not something that we’re going to hold. But our idea is to move beyond that in the storyline. That’s not the end. So, that’s one thing you can look forward to. And as always, we’re going to do our best to tap into something intangible, even beyond logic, that appeals to you on an emotional level.