‘Yellowjackets’ Shows Us the Teenage Girlhood We Were Hungry For

“Yellowjackets” does have a little something for everyone. There’s a fundamental humor in the show’s timing: one moment of grotesque violence in the past, one moment of mundanity in the present, contrasts à la “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad,” but with teenage girls doing the things, broadening the innate disconnect. Gliding brashly and mostly successfully among horror, buddy detective, melodrama and light camp, the show also achieves something that I can only describe as the sometime triumph of Prime Time over Prestige, the marriage of surreality and strong character development within the confines of fast-paced entertainment doled out a week a time. It harks back to the golden age of weird prime-time shows like “Twin Peaks” or “Lost,” which delighted, shocked, titillated and annoyed, but never in quite the way audiences expected.

Like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” another fan favorite that trucked in teenage-girl archetypes, “Yellowjackets” is occasionally quippy and self-referential. “Wow. I’ve never been in a French farce before,” says one doomed character when he hides from a husband in a bedroom closet. As adult Misty (Christina Ricci) prepares to kill a nosy reporter (long story), she ponders who might play her in a movie adaptation. “Who’s the one in that thing about those rich ladies that kill that guy?” she asks guilelessly, a nod to “Big Little Lies,” one reference to which Comins compared the show during pitch meetings. “Big Little Lies” disguised a searing portrait of abuse as a piece of gossamer lifestyle porn. “Yellowjackets” performs a similar trick: It sneaks a thoughtful excavation of teenage girlhood and middle-aged floundering into its genre pleasures.

Toward the end of the day, I visited costumes, where Amy Parris, who like me is nearing 40, kept a stack of ancient magazines as reference material: Seventeen and Sassy and YM, which could have been mine. One magazine contains a photo of a teenage Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood — who joins the show this season as Walter, one of Misty’s fellow citizen detectives from the true-crime forums — together at the height of their early fame. It’s a potent reminder of the psychic resonance the show holds for someone who grew up with these referents. I read some headlines aloud: “A ballerina and her eating disorder.” “So you think you want a nose job? Read this first.” We briefly observed how nasty it was to be alive and teenage in the 1990s. And yet these nostalgic artifacts opened a yawning chasm of feeling. Perhaps the real resonance of the show is the age of its present-day characters — early 40s, just tipped into the zone of midlife where women have historically become invisible, a tendency that popular culture dances with and occasionally fights against.

Retrospection is in the air. Younger millennials, apparently, are rewatching “Girls” in record numbers to parse the just-vanished particulars of their early 20s. Before “Yellowjackets,” I binged “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and was totally caught up in the backward excavation of its hapless middle-aged characters. I exchanged texts with my peers about the promised reappearance of Aidan on “And Just Like That,” an unheimlich but irresistible return to “Sex and the City,” a show that gave my generation a formative if deeply inaccurate picture of what our adulthood might hold. Cultural offerings like “Impeachment” or “I, Tonya” take up the specifics of the 1990s’ sensational moments and examine them in a new light. What a time, then, for both of the “Yellowjackets” story lines: its murderers’ row of former icons — Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey, now Elijah Wood — playing middle-aged roles, as well as the opportunity to see those characters as their past selves, a vicarious simultaneity.

The show takes the common awfulnesses of teenage girlhood in that era (which of course persist today, with their own temporal inflection) — the unsettling sexual experiences or outright assaults; the casual racism; homophobia and misogyny; Kate Moss languishing in her underwear — and discreetly moves them out of the way. A primary love story in the woods is a queer one; the romance between Van (Liv Hewson) and Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is a loving and fully realized relationship from the jump. The only adult man present, the team’s coach, Ben Scott (Steven Krueger), is gay, and his period-appropriate terror of being outed is understood and neutralized by the empathetic perspicacity of Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), who navigates her own halting romance with Travis (Kevin Alves), the only teenage boy in the cabin. Unlike the characters of “Euphoria,” whose goal seems to be to show as much pretend-under-age boob as possible, those in “Yellowjackets” have access to a form of fundamental self-respect and agency that many middle-aged women took years to attain. Maybe that’s part of the fantasy, too.

There’s something fundamentally melancholy, though, about all this looking back. Toward the end of the first season, in a wilderness interlude, Van is attacked by wolves, her face torn open. Back at the cabin, the girls work together to hold her down while one draws a curved needle through her cheek to stitch the wound. In the next moment, we see 40-something Taissa (Tawny Cypress), now at Shauna’s modest New Jersey ranch house, where Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) makes up her teenage daughter’s bed, beneath a poster that reads “Keep Calm You Can Still Marry Harry.” The two old friends lie in bed, and Shauna muses about what would have happened had they not crashed, had she gone to Brown the way she planned, where she would “write amazing papers on Dorothy Parker and Virginia Woolf” and fall in love with a “floppy-haired, sad-eyed poet boy.” Taissa, meanwhile, describes a litany of successes that actually came to pass: Howard University, “a bunch of beautiful women,” “first string on the soccer team,” Columbia Law. But achieving a dream can also become ash in the mouth. “Not a single one of those things felt real,” Taissa says. It was their time in the woods, when everything was terrible and vivid and somehow fundamental — and cheeks were stitched with twine — when feeling and reality were truly one.

Or at least that’s what the show wants us to think at first. That’s certainly how the characters feel in the early episodes, quietly assenting to the fate suggested in their bad marriages, puzzling children and unfulfilling jobs. But then the gang gets back together, and their efforts to keep their shared trauma among them amount to a kind of quest. Their days become unpredictable and enlivened again. At some point, viewers sense that the women approach their present-day escapades with the same ferocity they brought to their exploits in the wilderness.