We are probably reaching the end of the shelf life for declaring that some piece of pop culture or some start in the celebrity atmosphere "understands the assignment." It's shorthand for being deeply in the pocket of a concept and playing to one's strengths. Zendaya doing Barbarella camp couture in the new Interview Magazine photoshoot? Understood the assignment.
Kristen Chenoweth giving Broadway diva scenery-chewing on Schmigadoon? An assignment understood.
Rihanna at literally any event at any time? WROTE. THE. ASSIGNMENT.
It's a fun phrases and I hope we get something else cute in its place. But just before the countdown clock on its cultural currency hits zero, we must discuss Showtime's phenomenal thriller/mystery series Yellowjackets, which not only understands the assignment but is getting straight As on it.
The remarkable thing about Yellowjackets is that the assignment in question is actually a whole damn syllabus. The core concept is a mashup of a couple different premises and genres, each with their own assignments. In the 1990s, a plane carrying a girls soccer team and their coaches crashes in a remote wooded area, stranding them. We know from the first moments that rescue takes months, during which time they develop their own creepy, murderous little society. In the present, we find the surviving women scattered to the wind and sworn to secrecy, all trying to live very different lives from each other and from who they were in the woods. Think of it as Lord of the Flies meets the play The Wolves meets Now and Then. It's a lot and yet it works.
I think the key to its success is that the show's different world's, at least for the first half of the season, are strictly siloed. The woods scenes from 30 years ago play like Lost, with the girls negotiating and shedding the people they used to be. Skipping ahead, we find four of the women--played by Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, and Tawny Cypress--in three starkly different genres exercises that are all on a collision course.
Most stellar is the storyline featuring the powerhouse team of Ricci and Lewis. These actresses are playing to their strengths and the show makes the most of every opportunity with them. Lewis plays Natalie, a short-fused former high school burnout who is fresh out of rehab; Ricci is a hoot as Misty, a sociopathic nurse with a true crime fetish. The two were enemies back in the 90s--Misty was the overeager team equipment manager with a lot to hide--but are thrown together in a road trip mystery when it becomes clear that someone knows a lot more than the women want to say about what happened in the woods. It's thrilling to watch the two actresses spar from the first moments of their confrontation when Natalie surprises Misty in Misty's house by pointing a rifle at her and purring "Hello Misty, you crazy bitch."
There's a campy undercurrent to their odd couple adventures--they both seem to be playing off of their unique celebrity images and long pop cultural history. Rather than bringing baggage, the characters they used to be--Ricci as the haunted gothic illustration come to life; Lewis as the sharp-edged manic pixie dream girl of the 90s--add dimension to these broadly drawn new roles.
Meanwhile, Lynskey, of Heavenly Creatures and Two and a Half Men, among others, seems to be playing in a whole different cul-de-sac as Shauna, a disaffected suburban mom whose husband is probably stepping out on her. A fender bender introduces Shauna to Adam, a mechanic who seems a little too charming, a little too game for an affair, and a little too conveniently everywhere she is. Shauna is probably in a mystery, too, but Lynskey's realm at present feels more grounded in domestic ennui. It's a fun counterpart to the gun-toting, stakeout-ready Misty and Natalie. That said, one of the scenes that introduces us to Shauna finds her catching a rabbit in her garden, killing it, and serving it for dinner. She's giving The Hours meets Sweeney Todd. I didn't know this was an assignment I needed, but I cannot live without it now.
Finally, we have Cyrpress's Taissa, whose storyline is simultaneously the most quotidian and the most supernatural. Taissa is running for office, in a battle of negative ads with her conservative competitor, and hustling for donations from deep pockets who just want her to spill on what really happened in the woods. It would all be rather simple, and perhaps blasé, if Taissa wasn't also raising a young son with her wife, who is giving big Omen vibes and casually mentions being bedeviled by a woman in the trees. It's a genius stroke to pair this series' most out of left field plot point with its most ordinary. It's sort of like "what if Madame Secretary but in The Conjuring?" I mean, sure! What if!
Yellowjackets is doing a masterful job keep each of these disparate worlds tonally consistent and engaging, while also moving of swiftly toward two inevitable points: the girls in the past are going to reach a breaking point and doing something horrific and the women in the present, and their wildly different stories, are going to come face-to-face in the present.
What's most fun about this series is that I have very little idea how they're going to get there or what the assignment of the show will ultimately be. Is this at its heart a horror, a mystery, a 90s reunion? Honestly anything is possible. All I know is that they will most likely nail it.
Cover image: Getty
Editorial assistant: Sean Simon