‘Yellowjackets’ Showrunner Jonathan Lisco on Cannibalism, the Death of [Spoiler!] and That Shocking Ending
SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of “Yellowjackets,” “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” which premiered Sunday, January 16 on Showtime.
Internally at “Yellowjackets,” the nickname for the show’s trifecta of showrunners is JAB — which stands for Jonathan Lisco, Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson.
Lyle and Nickerson created the genre-defying Showtime series — which has become a sensation over its 10-episode run, concluding Sunday — and Lisco (“Halt and Catch Fire,” “Animal Kingdom”) joined as an executive producer to run it with them. When Lisco completed the head-writing team, “I really wanted to mind-meld with them,” he said during an interview with Variety. That meant that he “wanted to know everything that Ash and Bart had thought about — even things that they had dispensed with.”
According to Lisco, that bonding process worked so well that the trio became an acronym: “When people talk about us, they say, ‘What does JAB think?’”
The explosive season finale of “Yellowjackets,” called “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” was directed by Eduardo Sanchez, and written by Nickerson and Lyle. If you’re reading this, you likely know what happened within it, but in brief summary: In the episode’s final moments, 2021 Natalie (Juliette Lewis), about to shoot herself in the head with a shotgun, is instead taken from her motel room by four sweat-suited kidnappers — as we hear Nat’s ex-sponsor, Suzie (Colleen Wheeler), leaving a desperate voicemail, saying in part: “I think someone is following me. Who the fuck is Lottie Matthews?”
Good question, Suzie. The episode then returns to the snowy 1996 woods, where Lottie (Courtney Eaton) ritualistically places a bear’s bloody heart in a tree-stump altar, flanked by Misty (Samantha Hanratty) and Van (Liv Hewson).
Earlier in the episode, the adult Misty (Christina Ricci) kills Jessica (Rekha Sharma), who thinks she’s been freed, having tempted Misty with the promise of riches to tell her story (ha, Jessica, no way). Taissa (Tawny Cypress) has won her election in an upset — but her victory was perhaps thanks to the sacrifice of Biscuit, the family dog whom she’d beheaded in (an unconscious?) ritual discovered by her horrified wife, Simone (Rukiya Bernard).
And if that weren’t enough, we finally learn how Jackie (Ella Purnell) died in the woods. She freezes to death after a fight with her best friend, Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) — and the ordinariness of her death, and how avoidable it was, will haunt (literally) 2021 Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) forever.
Lisco broke down the “Yellowjackets” finale in a conversation with Variety, sharing details about how the showrunners — let’s just call them JAB — built toward its propulsive conclusion, how they feel about the show’s rabid fanbase and why they’re hell-bent on creating a “mind-blowing” second season.
“People who are outside the business might think this is our moment. They might think, ‘Oh, my God, you guys must feel great!’” Lisco said. “And while we do feel great, it’s actually quite stressful. Like, success is actually in some ways more stressful than mediocre failure, right?”
Lisco continued, as he laughed. “Ash, Bart and I were talking about it last night. And we made this very nerve-racking realization, which is, ‘Guess what, guys? Now, we don’t have to actually be as good as Season 1. We have to be better.”
What was the show’s general approach to where you wanted it to end up at the end of Season 1?
When I first got involved with this project, I had long discussions with Ash and Bart about the cannibalism of it all. And that’s not what the show is about. In fact, some of the commentary that I’ve most appreciated from our very enthusiastic fans is, like, “Wow, this is a show where cannibalism is the least interesting thing about the show!” And that’s because we’ve tried to have these characters with a great deal of specificity, and psychological nuance. Because ultimately, the show is not about if cannibalism, it’s about why cannibalism, and how cannibalism. And it’s about this group of people, young women in the mid-‘90s, who suddenly wind up — ironically — more alive than they’ve ever felt in their entire lives. Because there’s a kind of rhapsodic freedom when they are stranded.
Of course, it’s terrifying. Of course, it’s terrible. But at the same time, with all the gender conventions coming down, and the savagery of high-school hierarchies coming down in the woods, when they actually have to be themselves — a true version of themselves and try and find out how to survive, oddly, they self-actualize in ways that surprise them, surprise their peers. Like, who are they?
And then, of course, they may have to resort to cannibalism. But it may not be just because of scarcity. It may be because of something much more complex: the new micro-society that they need to build, and the rules that they need to form to survive. Not just physically, but psychologically and mentally.
Did you know what questions you specifically wanted to answer by the end of the season, and which ones you wanted to leave as mysteries for now?
We’re extremely meticulous and deliberate in the way we’re creating the architecture of the story, as well as executing the actual scenes and visuals, and obviously the scripts. So we take a great deal of time to be very careful. Now, that said, there is, of course, a feedback loop once you start cutting film. Because you see the ways in which the characters are reacting to each other, you see who has chemistry — and certain ideas start to pop and become more vivid. So I guess my answer is: For the most part, yes. Like, we knew where we were going. And we knew the questions that we wanted to answer at the end of Season 1.
Because it’s not an immediate flip to cannibalism. And we’re not trying to hide the ball or anything — but it’s a slow burn. You’ve got an organic interest in these characters: Because young women wouldn’t just suddenly eat each other. I mean, there’s got to be an unpacking and a deterioration and a devolution of their psyches to the point where they actually get there. Obviously, this is just anecdotal on the internet: I thought they might eat Jackie!
With great respect to that storyline — a little too soon to just eat Jackie at the end of Season 1. Of course, we thought of that. But is that the most compelling, riveting and emotional storyline for Shauna to carry into 2021? And the answer was no. The most emotional storyline, which is always what I’m looking for specifically, is that these two friends who loved each other — like really loved each other, but also had all these simmering resentments — have this major blowout, full of truthful things that were said to one another. And then through sheer obstinance, like absolute stubbornness, neither one could offer an olive branch to the other. And because of that, a tragic accident occurs. That’s baggage. That’s something to carry into 2021 that Shauna will have to live with forever.
Is it hard to say goodbye to a great character like Jackie? And was there a chance that her death might have happened in Season 2?
Some of it has to cross-pollinate with the business dynamics behind the scenes. But Ella loved the show, and loves the show. And I think may come back. Just because she’s dead, and she is dead — a lot of people don’t even trust that she’s dead — that doesn’t mean that she can’t appear, right?
An engine of the relationship between Shauna and Jackie is this rupture and repair. Like, they’re best friends, but they obviously have had this major rupture. Well, I think in 2021, one of the key things that Shauna is vectoring for is repair, even though Jackie is dead. And so the image of Jackie, and we’ve already established in Season 1 — the ghost of Jackie, so to speak — is something that she may still interact with.
We are torn, because we love Ella Purnell so much, and we wanted her to continue. But ultimately, when you’re doing a story like this, the story tells you what the best path forward is. And we have to trust those instincts. And when we actually came up with this story in the writers’ room, it was just almost impossible to abandon. Because it felt so right, and so emotional.
This is a small thing, but will we ever find out why Jackie’s journal seemed to include movies from beyond their time in the woods, or was that just a mistake?
It’s not a mistake. We will find out. And I think that will have a lot to do with what I’m talking about here in terms of her seeking some kind of reconciliation with the past.
Was it always the plan that the final moments of the finale would reveal the cult of Lottie in the present day, and Nat being kidnapped?
It’s difficult for me to say that it was actually the frontrunner, because there were some others. But ultimately, we decided that this was the way to go. Because indeed, we’re trying to unpack the creation of a new society, and what that looks like. And if you want to call it the cult of it all, or Lottie’s attunement to some kind of energetic darkness — let’s just put it that way — or her belief in the supernatural. The idea that that energy is continuing 25 years later, in a kind of sub rosa away, was very fun for us. And we thought that’s a really interesting thing to explore that can shake things up for our Yellowjackets in 2021.
With the shocking dog beheading courtesy of Tai, can we be sure that she is unaware of what she’s doing when she’s sleepwalking, or allegedly sleepwalking?
I’m both the progenitor of it — the creator of it, with Ash, Bart, and our great team — but I’m an interpreter of it as well. When you see that scene with Taissa after the senate win is announced, and the camera just lingers on her, I will tell you that my interpretation — and frankly, the way I see it is — for the first time possibly, the fact of her alter ego and its actions is actually bubbling consciously to the surface.
And what’s so terrifying in that moment, especially since she’s about to be a legislator, is: “Wow, for many, many years, I’ve been suppressing this knowledge of my alter ego. If not repressing it. And yet now, holy cow, I have a feeling that there could be advantages to what I’ve kind of subconsciously known all along — that I’m a bifurcated personality. And should I or should I not capitalize on the advantages of that dark power moving forward?”
My God! Speaking of killers, Misty straight up murders Jessica. Was there ever a way out for Jessica, or was her fate sealed as soon as Misty kidnapped her?
We did entertain different pathways in that story. But ultimately, because we want to keep our focus on our main characters, and this wonderful ensemble that we’ve got — I mean, we think Rekha Sharma did a great job as Jessica. But it sort of felt like that was a story that was telling us to conclude it.
I think the key to a sophomore season of TV is to maintain the DNA of everything people loved about the show, but then bend over backwards to make it even better and reinvented. And so the idea of having this fixer out there, haunting them, it felt like a little bit of stasis moving forward — and didn’t fit into our grander plan for Season 2, which I think is going to be a little bit more mind-blowing than that.
Speaking of Season 2, can you reveal anything we might learn about present-day Lottie? And are you close to casting adult Lottie?
I can’t really reveal who they are, but yes, we’ve had some really fun, vivid discussions about who could play adult Lottie. I can’t really tell you much more about Lottie in 2021, because I feel like that might kind of spoil the story that we’re marinating on.
Since Lottie appears to be on anti-psychotics, how mindful are you of making her a terrifying character without simultaneously stigmatizing mental illness?
Very! Like, very careful. We absolutely are aware of that. And we will bend over backwards to make sure that those two things are not conflated.
But at the same time, if you’re asking the question of whether or not the darkness is an external force — some kind of monster that’s going to jump out of the woods and hit you over the head or slit your throat — or whether alchemically this collection of women has created a darkness from within themselves, I think it’s inevitable that you need a leader of that.
What’s interesting about her being on meds is that you can create a rational explanation for what’s happening — meaning, it’s something about her psychiatry and her makeup that is causing her to act in a certain way. And of course, we’re not going to demonize it, we’re going to sympathize with it, and try and unpack it and understand it. And then you can also say, “No, no — she’s actually, for whatever reason, a conduit of an energy, a dark force, larger than she is. And is actually the victim of it.” So we will certainly try and be sensitive to that issue. But she did feel like a great portal to the exploration of that.
You’ve led me to another one of my questions, which is: Does “Yellowjackets” believe in the supernatural?
“Yellowjackets” believes that the question of what is the supernatural is the even more important thing to explore. I.E., is it inside us? Is it outside us? You know, is it just the ones and zeros firing in our minds that are creating some feeling of darkness? Or is it truly something sort of monstrous and terrible — an energy from outside of us — that is threatening us?
To us, unpacking that question is the real key.
The show has focused on certain members of the team, obviously. But there are other characters that we’ve seen who’ve been less prominent. Will any of them, like a Mari (Alexa Barajas) for example, or others whose names we might not even know come to the forefront and Season 2, or even later?
Suffice it to say — and I don’t mean to be cagey or evasive — I think we haven’t met all the survivors yet in 2021.
Can you talk about how the show used the opening credits to help tell the story, and entice the audience?
Ashley, Bart and I and all the EPs, along with Showtime, worked really hard on that main title sequence. And the fact that you bring it up is so gratifying to me. Because once we had this, like, found-footage-from-the-‘90s feeling, and the static-y way in which we palletized and color-treated the film, almost like in a punk rock type of way — we were like, “OK, that’s cool. That’s stylistically interesting. But could we do something more with it?” And then we had this great idea of dropping in seminal images from our plan — seminal images from the show moving forward — so that each time the audience watched the main titles, they would see that image in a different way. Because then they’d seen it in context.
Because otherwise, you skip the main titles, right? So the question that we had on the table was, “How can we make this an absolutely undeniable, delicious, succulent meal for our audience, so that they watch it each time?” It’s not because we want them to see our names, it’s because we want them to be in the mind-frame to watch the show, because we believe a great main title sequence often gets you in the mind-frame to enjoy the episode. Because even my wife is like, “Oh, wow! Now I know why they’re raising their glasses in that scene, that’s when they’re toasting Laura Lee!” Or, “Holy cow, when the needle goes into that chocolate, now I know what that is — that’s Misty threatening Jessica.”
Now we feel like, next season, what we need to do is obviously create the architecture of the season as much as we can. Film a bunch of those scenes, and then put some of the more cryptic ones or succulent ones into the main title sequence, and kind of do the same thing for the audience to entice them and get them excited about what’s to come.
On a related note, given how many Easter eggs the show has put into the series, have you seen people identify all of them? Or are there still others lurking out there ready for interpretation?
I try and read everything that’s coming out on the internet. But it’s almost a Promethean task. So I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling they haven’t found everything.
What I’d be more interested in is a second watch of the series, and how the audience would feel about that. I’ll just give you an example. Like in Episode 4, I think it is, when Misty calls Shauna and Shauna is about to go in and see Jeff — she’s just had an affair with Adam, they’ve jumped off the bridge and everything. And Misty calls, and Shauna says, “I told you not to call me! Why are you calling me? Just spit it out, Misty.” And then we cut to Misty, and she goes, “Travis is dead.” And then you reverse on Shauna, and you see this rippling disgust and nausea. And she shudders. And you’re asking when you’ve only watched Episode 4, you’re saying, “Why is she so fraught? Like why is she in such distress?”
However, if you knew what was going to happen in Episode 9, and you’d already seen the scene where she holds a knife to the throat of Travis, thinking he’s a stag and almost slits his jugular vein — then you’d have a different feeling about the scene when you’re watching it in 4! Because then you could say to yourself, “Oh my god, now I understand why Shauna is so wrecked.” Because after she learns the Travis has hung himself, she thinks to herself, “Did the victimization of Travis at my hand, did the assault on Travis that I perpetrated, lead to his suicide?”
Given how much people are screenshotting the pilot and the opening credits — and will surely be doing the same with what Jackie sees as she’s dying — do you have any regrets about things you’ve shown? Are there any things that you’d redo that may have led obsessive viewers down the wrong paths?
It’s funny, even with “Halt and Catch Fire” in those days, we got to a point where they were writing all this computer code on the whiteboards. We had to shoot most of those scenes with the boards blank, because people were screenshotting — even however many years ago — and all the computer science majors in the world or people interested in coding were, like, “That’s not the hexadecimal code that the guy is talking about.”
It kept us up at night!
So I hope two things: No. 1, that the audience will continue to do that, and realize that we’re meticulously crafting this series. I hope No. 2, that if we or the props department, or at some point some production assistant makes a mistake, they’ll also understand that this is a huge organism and part of making a TV show is essentially building an airplane as it’s taking off. And that they will grant us a reprieve.
However, the last thing I’ll say is, knowing that they’re doing that will absolutely keep us on our toes, and keep us honest. And that’s something that we appreciate.
How much do you and Ashley and Bart pay attention to the rabid fan theorizing that’s happened?
JAB is very much a unit. But as individuals, we differ a little bit in terms of our ability to engage and process all that stuff. I don’t want to speak for Ash, but I know that she has more of an appetite to absolutely embrace and understand all the fan theories. Bart and I maybe are a little more similar in the sense that we absolutely pay attention to them; we read as much as we possibly can — but truly, you could spend your entire day doing it.
And so what I’ll say is: We love the fan theories. We digest them with great frequency. And we consider them very seriously. The fact that the show is mushrooming in our viewers’ consciousness is fantastic and greatly appreciated. But ultimately, we hope they’ll respect that we have to do what we’ve always done as writers, producers and storytellers, which is to follow our own instincts to hammer out what we believe is the most thematically rich, compelling and emotional story. And we are very respectful and appreciative of our audience, but at the same time, we have to make the decisions that we think not only are the most like thematically rich, compelling and emotional, but also that serve the rest of the story. Because we’re seeing, I think, maybe a little bit further into the future than people who have only watched the episodes. Because we’ve thought about it so deeply.
Has the writers’ room started?
It’s not quite started. We’re actually doing some staffing right now.
But do you have to begin filming this winter, given all of the WINTER IS COMING dread that was layered into Season 1?
The prep and production schedule are still being hammered out between us, eOne and Showtime. That is obviously a consideration, because I think it would be difficult, let’s say if we wanted to set it in the wintertime to have all scenes have cotton batting all over the place, as opposed to real snow.
But those conversations are happening literally right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.