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Yellowjackets, How Could You?

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 5/26/2023 Shirley Li
© Kailey Schwerman / Showtime

This story contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of Showtime’s Yellowjackets.

Back when she was just a member of the championship high-school soccer team known as the Yellowjackets, Natalie (played by Sophie Thatcher) was a wide midfielder, according to fans who studied the few scenes of the girls in action. The position comes with little glory. Wide midfielders don’t normally score the goals themselves; they are tasked with attacking from the wings and providing assists. They’re quietly powerful, in other words—often overlooked, yet integral to a squad’s success.

Off the pitch and throughout much of the Showtime drama Yellowjackets’ run, Natalie has performed a similarly underappreciated role. In 1996, after the team’s plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness, she becomes a hunter, only to disappoint her friends when the brutal winter leaves her empty-handed day after day. As an adult, Natalie (played by Juliette Lewis) attempts to unmask a blackmailer threatening her and her fellow survivors, only to be kidnapped by Lottie (Simone Kessell), another former Yellowjacket. Again and again, Natalie has been a crucial catalyst: In the past, she made clear to her teammates how tough the cold would be to endure, and in the present, her disappearance reunited the other women. Yet in the second-season finale, Yellowjackets killed her off. During a melodramatically staged, near-farcical scene, Misty (Christina Ricci) accidentally injects Natalie with a syringe full of poison after Natalie tries to stop her from hurting Lisa (Nicole Maines), a woman with whom Natalie had bonded at Lottie’s cultlike compound. As a way to cover up the circumstances of her passing, Natalie’s death is deemed an “accidental overdose”—a cruel punch line, given Natalie’s history of substance abuse.

Yellowjackets thrives on twisty plotting and gnarly action, but losing Natalie feels deeply misguided. She was the wild card, an unpredictable character who could engage with all sides of the show’s ongoing debates—over whether the girls’ barbarism was driven by natural instincts or supernatural forces, and whether the women can ever heal from their trauma. As a teenager, she ate human flesh to survive, but she also pushed back against the influence Lottie (played as a teenager by Courtney Eaton) held over the other Yellowjackets. As an adult, she confronted her demons—rather than suppressing them, as the other women did—by chasing clues to the murder of her ex and fellow survivor, Travis (Andres Soto). Natalie may not have always been easy to root for, but she was in many ways the ensemble’s conscience, someone willing to act when others wouldn’t, someone posing the questions others feared. Even before the crash, she’d been called a “burnout” by her teammates. By the time the wilderness took them, she had nothing to lose. Watching her, in both timelines, meant watching someone discover who they could be: not just a burnout or an addict, but a true teammate, fiercely trying to save as much of her squad as she could and seeking nothing in return.

The show isn’t completely done with her; Lottie crowns the younger Natalie in the finale as the group’s new leader, claiming that the wilderness spared her life and took their coach’s younger son Javi’s instead for a reason. The development, though, feels rushed. Natalie has barely begun mourning the death of Javi (Luciano Leroux), and the show glosses over her complicated romance with his brother, Travis (played in the past timeline by Kevin Alves). Worse, these events feel divorced from the show’s astute examination of teenage dynamics. The death of Jackie (Ella Purnell) last season resulted from the end of a best friendship, a common experience for many high-school girls; Javi’s death, meanwhile, comes off as contrived, an accident that has nothing to do with the girls’ existing relationships. Teenage Natalie’s new role—and the adoration she subsequently receives—seems, as a result, like a twist made for the sake of having a twist.

The twistier the ’90s segment of Yellowjackets became, the more tedious the present-day plot seemed. Although that was true for many of the characters in Season 2, Natalie’s story suffered the most. Adult Natalie’s misadventures at Lottie’s “wellness retreat” paled in comparison with Teenage Natalie’s trials in the wild, which included faking Javi’s death earlier in the season to protect Travis, trying to find food for the entire starving group, being hunted by her own teammates. Every time the show returned to Natalie in the present day, I felt myself losing interest, even though in theory, Natalie’s final moments redeem her. She puts herself in danger to save Lisa, instead of stepping aside as she had done when Javi fell through the ice. But the situations are nowhere near the same—Lisa had been threatening the women, whereas Javi had been helpless—and Natalie has only burdened Misty (Christina Ricci) with fresh guilt. Misty had already accidentally caused the death of one best friend; now she’ll have to contend with knowing she was fatal for another.

By the final stretch of Season 2, the show—so riveting and inventive in the arcs it has built for characters such as Misty—seemed to have no idea what to do with Natalie. She roamed the compound week after week, befriending people clad in lavender, passively drifting from room to room. But passive was never Natalie’s MO. She was a character who understood that the stakes only grew higher after the girls escaped the woods. As an adult, she was still trying to answer the same questions she had as a teenager: Whom could she trust? What could she do to be better understood? Yellowjackets could have interrogated Natalie’s jagged path to healing after her time in the wilderness, observing how a person explores her beliefs and learns to live a fuller life. Instead, it squandered her potential and did the worst thing anyone could do to an essential teammate: It forgot about her.


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