SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” the Season 2 premiere of “Yellowjackets,” now streaming on Showtime.
“Yellowjackets” — which earned seven Emmy nominations for its freshman season, including one for outstanding drama — set the internet alight during Season 1 in a way that feels tough to match, which its showrunners, co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, and Jonathan Lisco, are all too aware of. In an interview with Variety, Nickerson said they tried to approach the Season 2 premiere carefully, in order to set up “this season of story that we’re very excited about,” while also wanting to give fans “something that expresses appreciation for you tuning in.”
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Most of all, though, Nickerson said, “I guess we tried to tune out the pressure and the expectations.”
According to Lyle, the Season 1 writers’ room had already spent time establishing what might happen at the beginning of the second season, which helped. “So some of it, we just kind of came in ready to go,” Lyle said. “And then other things, it was just like, ‘OK, how do we even top that? Is there a better idea that we’ve come up with in the interim?’”
When it comes to topping those plans, let’s first address the end of the episode: The cannibalism on “Yellowjackets,” teased in the pilot and throughout the show’s first season, has at last arrived in the show’s ‘90s timeline, where the Yellowjackets are trying to survive the freezing Canadian wilderness.
Yep, in the final moments of “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) gulps down the ear of her dead best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell), who froze to death in the Season 1 finale. Jackie’s ear had fallen off in the meat shed, where her corpse is being stored, as Shauna — pregnant, lonely, starving and guilt-ridden about Jackie’s death — had been conducting overly spirited conversations with Jackie’s dead body, causing it to topple over. After Jackie’s frozen ear fell off, Shauna pocketed it. Accompanied by Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl,” an anthem about the complexities of female friendships, Shauna ate Jackie’s ear — and then the screen cut to black, signaling the end of the season premiere.
It’s not a spoiler to say that they won’t stop there. As Lyle put it, Shauna eating Jackie’s ear is a “baby step toward the cannibalism.”
Elsewhere in the premiere, in the present-day timeline, Natalie (Juliette Lewis) has been kidnapped — or saved, it now seems — and taken to a woodsy retreat run by fellow Yellowjacket Lottie Matthews (Simone Kessell, making her debut in the episode), all grown up. Misty (Christina Ricci), not knowing where Natalie has gone, at first feels ditched and betrayed — but like the good citizen detective she is, she then starts to investigate Nat’s sudden disappearance. Taissa (Tawny Cypress), having won her election for state senate, should be on top of the world. But instead, she’s losing her mind, and is suffering from the same terrifying, violent sleep disorder that plagued her as a teenager. And Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), bonded once more with her husband, Jeff (Warren Kole), is somewhat nonchalantly trying to cover up the fact that she murdered her lover, Adam (Peter Gadiot), having wrongly suspected him of blackmailing the Yellowjackets. (It was actually her own husband along with his dumb friend.)
We also caught our first glimpse of a third “Yellowjackets” timeline, in the immediate aftermath of the girls being rescued after 19 months in the wilderness. They looked freaked out, and practically feral — with Lottie (Courtney Eaton) reaching the top of the stairs of the awaiting plane, only to turn around and scream at the top of her lungs. Showing the team’s lives after being rescued is something Lyle teased to Variety in an interview last year, saying it’s “something we very much talked about exploring in the future.”
Indeed, there’s a lot going in “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” setting up what will be a nine-episode second season of the genre-defying Showtime series. Eventually, all the adult characters will come together, presumably to face their pasts.
But not yet.
For Lyle, the episode is meant to serve as a greeting. “Welcome back!” she said. “We’re back in the ‘Yellowjackets’ world.”
Jonathan, when we first talked, you said “the show is not about if cannibalism, it’s about why cannibalism and how cannibalism.” The season kicks off with Lottie giving Travis (Kevin Alves) and Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) a little blood to drink before they head out to hunt; can you talk about what that signals to the audience? Now cannibalism, perhaps.
Jonathan Lisco: I’ll speak for myself, but I think we probably have a similar reaction: It never struck me as being about cannibalism, that moment. That was more about the rituals that Lottie is starting to almost unconsciously develop as a means of putting order over chaos. They’re alone, they’re existentially alone — they’re starting to have a great deal of fear. And so for some reason, she’s the conduit through which the wilderness is speaking, so to speak. And she’s starting to establish basic customs which ground them in a sense of order.
Bart Nickerson: I 1,000% agree with you, in that I did not think about it that way. But now I’m like, “Oh, yeah, of course it’s about cannibalism.”
They’re drinking her blood.
Nickerson: Right! So her version of this ritual — her sacrifice — is being ingested by her peers to protect them.
Lisco: And embolden them, and give them the temerity to go out in the wilderness and try to survive.
Ashley Lyle: But at the same time, we also talked a lot about how Lottie is a growing force amongst the girls and has become this de facto and somewhat reluctant spiritual leader. But she’s not a theologian. She’s not an adult. She’s a kid, and so she’s piecing together, I think almost subconsciously, all these rituals that are floating around.
I really enjoyed the line where Natalie says, “It’s not like this Wicca bullshit is doing us any good.” Because there’s obviously an element of communion in there. She’s saging things. She’s clearly just trying to piece together something. And, as Jonathan said, and as Bart said, it’s about trying to exert a sense of control over the uncontrollable.
The flash-forward of them being rescued — why was that the device you used to introduce adult Lottie?
Nickerson: One of the challenges of introducing another present-day character is they’re a season behind in terms of the audience engagement, so we were really wanting to put her on an equal footing. Instead of doing a flashback to catch up, part of the idea was to give you a novel view of her.
Lisco: I would add that you also get to see Lottie in a tripartite way, in three modalities, if you will. You see her in the woods as sort of this reluctant Messiah. Then you see her upon getting rescued, when you realize that it’s not all OK, when she screams when she gets to the top of the stairs. But then, you also see what’s happened to adult Lottie. You get these three flavors of Lottie, in a good way. I hope the audience is leaning in and wondering, “Well, what happened in between?”
And when it came to creating the character of adult Lottie, without spoiling episodes beyond the premiere, the show is subverting assumptions we might have made about her in Season 1. How did you approach her?
Lyle: What was really important for us with Lottie is that there’s a tendency to want to dichotomize characters in television and film into protagonists and antagonists, or heroes and villains. I think it’s pretty clear that we don’t have a lot of heroes in this show. I think there was an expectation that we were setting up Lottie as the quote unquote Big Bad, and we don’t see any of our characters as functioning in that way. It felt important to us that we give her complexity, we give her nuance — she’s a character that ideally, over the course of these episodes, people will feel for, even if she is a catalyst of sorts. Especially in the beginning, we wanted to announce quickly that this wasn’t a mustache-twirling villain, and that she’s just as fraught and as complicated and as beautiful and terrible as the rest of our women.
Lisco: We also think she’s very sympathetic in a way. There’s a fragility there, because she’s had this role in some ways thrust upon her. She didn’t necessarily want it, but now she has it, and there are all these expectations on her as a character to do certain things. Which she may not even want to do; she may want to abdicate. But she gets into a situation where she’s unable to do so, and then the downstream effects of it become beyond her control.
At what point in the writing did you know you wanted Shauna to be talking to Jackie’s frozen corpse in the meat shed?
Lyle: I mean, we talked about that in Season 1.
Nickerson: We might have had a discussion about that while we were shooting the pilot, actually.
Am I right that Shauna in the present day doesn’t seem overly worried about being caught for murdering Adam? She seems almost excited by it, and is using what happened to re-form her family in a way.
Lyle: Shauna might be, in a strange way, our most subversive character. I mean, Misty obviously wears her subversiveness on her sleeve, but I think that Shauna’s goes deeper and darker.
On the one hand, she’s a character who’s been engaging for a lot of her life in this sort of self-flagellation, where she’s punishing herself for the choices that she’s made. But at the same time, I think we even see it in the pilot, there’s a self-destructive instinct in her. You see it in her affair with Jeff as a teenager, you see it in some of the choices that she makes this season with regards to her family and the investigation. Part of her wants the thrill — I think she’s a little bit of a thrill junkie, honestly. And so that part of how she is coping with and reacting to the consequences of her actions is really bifurcated. Part of her is genuinely terrified of the consequences, and of losing her family and her freedom. And part of her is thinking, “Well, this is a hell of a lot more exciting than what my life has been!”
OK, enough of this — Shauna eats Jackie’s ear! Tell me every detail of how you came up with that twist, and why you ended the episode with that.
Lisco: Of course, she’s hungry and she’s pregnant, so she eats the ear that accidentally broke off when she pushed Jackie down — but it’s really about their friendship. It’s about this very specific friendship that Jackie and Shauna had, where Shauna loves Jackie, but also was always in her shadow. She adored this friend of hers, but also in some ways, was always wanting to kind of destroy her — maybe that’s going a bridge too far? But I think that is very relatable to a lot of people who are in these intense friendships.
And so the next step of that is consumption, right? I literally want to consume this person, because I love them so much — but I also want them no longer to exist in a way. I also want to keep them a part of me for my entire existence. We were playing with that kind of plasticity on a psychological and emotional level, and not just have it be about, “Oh, I’m gonna eat the ear!”
Nickerson: Two things. This idea of wanting to destroy that which you love — there’s almost a part of me that’s starting to create this theory that those aren’t actually opposing views. I guess I’m thinking about the most clichéd imaginable impersonation of a grandmother wanting to, like, rip the cheek off of a cute kid. Like, they’re just so overwhelmed with cuteness and affection that they actually want to destroy the thing that is the object of that.
And then the other thing is — and I usually don’t want to do this, talk about what almost was — but I just think it’s hilarious the amount of time that we spent both in breaking writing, and then in editing, deciding how much of the ear — like, should it go in the mouth, should it not go in the mouth? Should there be a chew?
Lisco: Should we cut out before it goes in the mouth?
There’s a crunch —
Lyle: There’s a crunch, yeah. We went for it. We ultimately decided to go for it, but definitely debated endlessly. Cutting as it went up. And it felt as though — like, we’re already here.
Lisco: What’s the point of cutting to black at that point?
And the Tori Amos of it all — why was “Cornflake Girl” the song you chose for that scene? Was it because of the lyric “things are getting kind of gross” as she’s looking at the ear?
Lyle: I have always loved that song — I’ve been a huge Tori Amos fan since middle school, and we’ve been wanting to get Tori in the show for a long time. I think what’s so perfect is, as Jonathan and Bart are saying, to us the ear is this baby step toward the cannibalism — but also being this metaphor for the intensity of those female friendships. And that bizarre desire to want to be the other person, and to almost want to consume the other person.
All of Shauna’s guilt and her shame and her grief — I mean, that song is about how fraught female friendships are. It felt so thematically perfect. She’s been going through a little bit of an identity crisis as a teenager, from the moment we meet her in the pilot until now. And she’s continuing it throughout Season 2. Who is she, really? How does she fit in, particularly without Jackie? And so it just seemed like the perfect song.
What were the conversations like between you guys and Sophie Nélisse about how she should play that scene?
Lyle: It was actually pretty straightforward. We basically told her, you’ve had this ear in your pocket, and it is metaphorically burning a hole in it. We talked about how, from the moment it goes in her pocket, she is acutely aware of its presence, and is just feeling this impulse and this instinct, and whether you can blame it on the pregnancy and a weird craving, a weird urge — or is it her grief?
What we talked about with Sophie was that there was just an inevitable pull. And that she has spent the rest of the day trying to deny it, and cannot deny it any longer.
Broadly, what should we anticipate for the rest of the season?
Lisco: I think we’ve all said in different ways that the cannibalism is possibly the least transgressive thing that we’re going to see. And when we say that, we’re not saying, “Strap in, buckle in, it’s gonna get more gruesome!”
What we’re trying to say is their choices are going to become more morally ambiguous — because that’s what we’re really interested in. You could make the argument that cannibalism is so terrible, and we can argue that for the next 10 minutes. But you could also wait and see what they’re actually going to have to face, and the choices that they’re going to have to make. I think you’ll find that it gets even more complicated as we go.
In both timelines?
Lisco: I would say yes!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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