How ‘Yellowjackets’ Reveals the Satisfaction of Mysteries With Obvious Answers (SPOILERS)

(L-R): Sophie Nélisse as Teen Shauna and Ella Purnell as Teen Jackie in YELLOWJACKETS, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”. Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME.
Courtesy of Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains major spoilers for “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” the Season 1 finale of “Yellowjackets,” which premiered Sunday, January 16 on Showtime.

The central mysteries of “Yellowjackets” are as tantalizing as the wilderness that inspires it: thick and even seductive with possibility, but also grounded in the banal pain of just trying to stay alive another day. As the show’s many threads intertwined and untangled over the course of its first hit season, it invited viewers to become as obsessive about figuring out what the hell might be going on as the teen girl plane crash survivors — and, 25 years later, their adult counterparts — onscreen. As Shauna (Sophie Nélisse and Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Jasmine Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress), Nat (Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis) fell deeper down the rabbit hole, so too did their audience. And as “Yellowjackets” spun its tales of trauma, loss, faith, and recovery, it also seemed to relish leaving just enough room for interpretation in its narrative that truly anything seems possible. When the worst and most unbelievable has already happened, why shouldn’t the subsequent questions have larger than life answers? The way “Yellowjackets” dances between reality and the supernatural, reality and delusion, reality and a slight enough twist on reality to make everyone question everything, is its most potent power — especially when, as is the case in the season finale, the show reveals most of the answers to be the most obvious.

The more a TV show tries to stump its viewers, the more prone it is to tripping over its own ambitions and falling into a black hole of narrative nonsense. Everything from “Lost” to “Game of Thrones” to “Gossip Girl” has tried to outsmart its audience by throwing so many surprises into the mix that they become an unwieldy pile. So-called “mystery box” shows do their best to stack their puzzles inside each other so that there’s always more to solve, but often lose themselves amid their own complications. If a twist makes me go “what?!” rather than “whoa!,”  it’s usually a sign that the road leading to it wasn’t one I could actually follow. The best mysteries, or at least the most satisfying, layer in not just enough clues, but reasons why their conclusions make sense. “Yellowjackets,” with its intricate characterizations and dedication to giving even its wildest effects the most logical causes, threads that needle perfectly.

The pilot sets up a series of mysteries to be answered over the course of the season. Who was the girl who plunged to her death in the pilot? Who was the “Antler Queen” who appears in charge of the grisly proceedings? In the present, who’s blackmailing the Yellowjackets, and how did Travis die? Framing these questions were stark flashbacks to the dead of winter, directed with chilling precision by Karyn Kusama, that showed the depth of the team’s eventual desperation and raised the stakes. There’s something to be said for starting a story with straight up cannibalism, thus removing the usual limits and making just about anything seem possible.

So in 2021, why shouldn’t Nat believe that her ex was murdered when her life’s already been marked by so much unnecessary death? Why shouldn’t Shauna, haunted by memories and past exploitation, believe that Adam (Peter Gadiot), the mysterious man who sweeps her off her feet, might be a blackmailer? In pre-winter 1996, why shouldn’t Lottie (Courtney Eaton) believe herself to be divinely inspired, when her tangled thoughts become so much smoother in the woods? And in an extra-textual sense, why shouldn’t the audience obsess over who Adam is or how Jackie (Ella Purnell) died? After the pilot’s deliberate and elaborate teasing, why wouldn’t fans pore over clues to figure out if Jackie was her hungry teammates’ victim, or maybe even some kind of time traveler (this theory, courtesy of an old journal of Jackie’s gushing over movies from a future seemingly beyond her lifespan)? As the dual timelines of “Yellowjackets” unfolded, the paranoia of its characters was only matched by their feverish audience trying just as hard to put all the pieces together.

The brilliance of the finale, directed by Eduardo Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”) and written by co-creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, is how it manages to provide so many satisfying answers without giving in to the kind of twists that might be Shocking, but ultimately incomprehensible. There are no grand conspiracies at play; not really. Shauna kills Adam only to learn that he was (probably) just some guy who didn’t know about her past until he Googled her. The real blackmailer was her husband (Warren Kole), who we already knew was struggling to keep his furniture shop afloat. The “Antler Queen,” as many had already guessed, is almost definitely an emboldened, bloodthirsty Lottie. That none of these reveals are particularly surprising in and of themselves make them almost more interesting as storytelling choices. On “Yellowjackets,” an anti-climax can be just as fascinating as a twist.

Most devastating of all, though, the finale reveals Jackie’s death to be utterly, heartbreakingly banal. She’s not a mastermind, nor the cannibals’ feast, nor a time traveler of any kind. The night before Jackie died, she and Shauna got into a terrible fight, were too stubborn to apologize, and so Jackie stayed outside until she accidentally froze to death. It’s as gut-wrenching a twist as it is a completely ordinary wilderness death, and the fact that “Yellowjackets” had the temerity to pull it off speaks to its confidence in its sharply drawn character-building to that point. Shauna doesn’t have to have eaten Jackie to feel incredible guilt over her death. As anyone who’s screamed their best friend’s deepest insecurities to their face knows, that’s more than enough to stick with you forever.

“Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” doesn’t answer every question, nor should it now that a second season of “Yellowjackets” is officially on the way. But even the enormous cliffhanger that sends the first season off, staggering though it is, has recognizable roots. Just as Nat accepts that Travis might have killed himself, she’s kidnapped by those who probably murdered him — and were apparently sent by none other than Lottie. On the face of it, this twist appears huge. Dig a little deeper, though, and it just makes sense. Of course Lottie wouldn’t want to give up the power she felt in the woods. As the show had illustrated, and Eaton ably demonstrated through her eerie performance, Lottie spent most of her life before the crash confused and repressed. In the wilderness, she found her own and embraced the rush of giving in. Maybe, as Shauna gently suggests to Nat earlier in the episode, the simpler answer for Travis’ death would have been suicide. And yet, the more dramatic truth also makes perfect sense given how the series built its way up to it, brick by patient brick.

Now that the show’s a success, “Yellowjackets” has more eyes on it than ever. More people will work harder to find its every Easter egg, solve its every clue, and pick apart its logic. But that shouldn’t encourage the series to make itself more complicated for the sake of keeping us on our toes. If anything, the “Yellowjackets” team should take heart in the fact that its meticulous attention to detail made its relatively simple answers all the more satisfying — and left us starving for more.