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In ‘Yellowjackets,’ The Old Eat Their Young

Promo picture of the stars of the TV show Yellowjackets.
Photo courtesy of Showtime

If you’re 40, you’re old. It’s all over your face. Your cheeks start to hollow, lines that used to smooth out don’t, freckles and sunspots spread everywhere. In your 40s, your face exposes all the bad decisions you've made: all those times you didn’t wear sun lotion, all those blemishes you wouldn’t leave alone, all those moments you frowned when you didn’t have to, how much you drank or smoked or didn’t sleep. Forty is when you really stop getting carded. Past this age, the beauty is in the decay. This is the flower right before it droops, the fruit the day before it rots—have you ever tasted anything so good? That’s the shadow of the end you’re tasting, and it always makes what comes before it so much sweeter.

The preference for age is not something you see much in Hollywood, an industry that prides itself on the promise of youth. To cast your young as an afterthought is madness and yet that’s how it plays out in Yellowjackets. The Showtime series’s slow-burn success—it started in November and ends this month, with a growing contingent of devotees in line for its second season—is apt for a story about a team of teen girl soccer players in 1996 whose plane crashes on the way to nationals and who, 25 years later, are still living with the decisions they made while stranded during those 19 months (including some not-particularly-light cannibalism, the sudden potential public leak of which is what brings four of them back together). In this show, the teenagers act as conduits, for how they inform their grown-up selves, for the nostalgia those grown-ups hold. They are a stopgap on the way to adulthood. Age is the main event.

Yellowjackets is the rare series that incorporates its interrogation of the gendered aging process into its casting. As a show about women in their 40s, it casts accordingly. Juliette Lewis (48), Christina Ricci (41), and Melanie Lynskey (44) are all women who look their age and, yet, whose youth is still accessible. All three of these actresses became famous as teenagers in the '90s: Lewis in Cape Fear (1991), Ricci in The Addams Family (1991), Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994). Nostalgia is embedded in their celebrity. (The fourth lead, Tawny Cypress (45), is the outlier.) “I think they were really smart to tap into that '90s zeitgeist with all of us,” Lewis has said, while Lynskey and Ricci have likened surviving a plane crash as a kid to being a child star: the lack of freedom that comes with being so public so young, the arrested maturity that follows. 

In a weird kind of kismet, though creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson didn’t have any actors in mind during development, their visual aids included a high school yearbook photo of Lewis. And if Yellowjackets’ casting can be seen at all as a stunt, this is it. The woman who just a moment ago was a smooth-faced pubescent giggler sucking on Robert DeNiro’s thumb, is now '90s-era Mick Jagger, pushing 50, sexy as fuck, her face etched in lines, her eyes smeared in black, her laugh a cackle, her swaying gait and deep-down deadpan delivery—Every. Word. Its. Own. Sentence.—unchanged.

And Lewis's character, Natalie, a goth rock underage drinker with a solid core of empathy, hasn’t much changed either. So, when a guy a decade her junior, as her drinking companion notes, looks at her like he wants “to ravage you right then and there in the bar,” you don’t ask why. You know why. And when a man ends up dead at the hands of one of the women and Natalie says she would have aimed at the knee, you believe her. In her shitty motel, eating junk and snorting spilled coke off the floor, she may look desperate, but her moral center remains strong. This woman with the Porsche and the gun, the ripped band tees and fishnets, the one who is intent on giving their past a proper burial, is the adult you trust most. She is proof that growing up and staying the same aren’t always at odds.

“Hello, Misty, you crazy fucking bitch.” This is Natalie’s greeting to the Yellowjackets hanger-on played by Ricci after she returns home from one of her many failed dates. Natalie’s what-the-fuck-ness is all the more pronounced in the face of Misty’s bubbly, needy exterior, which coats an internal sangfroid. Unlike Lewis’s timeworn face, as the youngest of Yellowjackets’ adult cast, Ricci’s smooth, youthful, plasticky skin perfectly plays off her character’s poodle-haired madness, which has only congealed into a streamlined psychopathy in adulthood. Here, youth is menacing. Misty is pickled in insanity, and as pristine as Natalie is not.   

But it’s Shauna around whom Yellowjackets unfurls. More specifically, it’s Lynskey. She was the first one cast, the New Zealand-born actress who, as one guy joked on Twitter, is always playing cucks. What he didn’t add was that she also fucks. “You seem like someone who doesn’t play by the rules, Shauna,” Yellowjackets’ inevitable younger man (Peter Gadiot) says. He is about a decade her junior, a floppy-haired dreamer with whom she quotes Vonnegut: “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep”; as Shauna puts it, you want to punch him when you’re not fucking him.

Shauna's initial response to the man is not unlike her response to her “asshole” teen daughter’s boyfriend, whose shirtless photo she masturbates to but whose compliments fall flat: “What is this—adorable? Are you trying to be adorable with me? Does that usually work for you?” She waves her hands around and scrunches her face in constant perplexity, because her situation is constantly perplexing. Shauna is old, she has the beginnings of marionette lines, she wears a floral skirt and a long cardigan, she is married to an adult Opie (Warren Kole), but she is the same girl who 25 years ago had a best friend who was prettier, who was richer, whose own child now takes on that role. “I think she wants to start living her life back at that point and having those kinds of experiences,” Lynskey has said, “and here she is in her 40s with a mean teenage daughter like, 'What the fuck is this?'"

In the public imagination, Lynskey is also under-appreciated, having started out as a 14-year-old obsessed with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures. This side of her, the one that exists in the context of one of the most famous actresses in the world, fits seamlessly with Shauna, who quietly got early admission to Brown and quietly fucked her best friend’s boyfriend, but who continues to be cast in her shadow and, as Lyle describes, is still “somebody who is really trying to figure out who they are.”

As an adult Shauna, Lynskey, with her voluptuous bod and her keen intellect, is camouflaged by a matronly costume, an anodyne exterior covering that which burns, spikes, even kills. This is a woman who responds to her daughter’s blackmail with a lesson on “mutually assured destruction” after her affair is discovered. Per Lynskey, “as a woman in her mid-40s, who’s not super thin and hasn’t done a lot of stuff to maintain her face—I think she’s a regular-looking woman, like me, because it’s me playing first person, obviously—I think that there’s an element of, she doesn’t really believe that this young, hot person could really be into her. She’s kind of grabbing her last little bit of self-esteem and being like, 'What if he does?'"

The creators of Yellowjackets may have been inspired by the Donner Party, by girls’ ability to be as vicious as boys, but they have also admitted that the show really comes down to asking who you are when you hit your 40s—with the added baggage of womanhood. In this sense, Yellowjackets is not unlike The Lost Daughter, in which Olivia Colman’s “unnatural mother” is praised for looking younger than her 48 years while at the same time being questioned for traveling alone. These are both stories set within the bounds of gendered expectations. “The core of Shauna is somebody who, even though the world is telling [her] that I’m not, [knows she’s] awesome and has a lot to offer and is sexy,” Lynskey has said. “I think that’s a big part of her identity: She’s a sexual, interesting person.” Shauna has sex in her car to Republica’s “Ready to Go,” jumps off a bridge in her bra, buys liquor surreptitiously—all of this as a grown-up. And part of me wished the show stayed here, before she questioned her every move, before any of them did, when all of them were living their lives as middle-aged women without consequence, who didn’t have to ask how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was theirs to keep, because reality hadn’t yet hit like a plane crashing in the middle of nowhere.

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