‘Yellowjackets’ Foreshadowed Shocking Season 2 Death in the Pilot, Director Reveals
Karyn Kusama, who also helmed the first episode of the Showtime series, talks to The Hollywood Reporter all about the big-swing decision and the earlier moment that predicted the major reveal for one character.
[This story contains major spoilers from the season two finale of Yellowjackets, “Storytelling.”]
After hearing what Karyn Kusama has to say about the Yellowjackets season two finale, viewers are going to want to rewatch the pilot. The audience of the hit Showtime series could have never seen it at the time, but the tragic full-circle ending for one major character was right there in the first episode of the series.
“Something I know the showrunners had always thought about, and that [co-creators] Ashley [Lyle] and Bart [Nickerson] had always thought about from the pilot, was that mysterious moment when Natalie hallucinates Misty at the kegger in the woods,” Kusama tells The Hollywood Reporter about the first episode of the series, “Pilot,” in a chat after the shocking events of the season two finale. “That was always this time-defying flash-forward to the notion that Misty was always going to be kind of an angel of death for Natalie.”
Kusama, also an executive producer, directed the season two finale, “Storytelling,” and she also directed “Pilot.” Now that the second season of the dual-timeline Showtime series has released, Kusama’s bookending director experiences put her in a unique position to shed light on how long it’s been in the works that adult Nat, played by Juliette Lewis, would meet an untimely death in the present-day storyline just as young Nat, played by Sophie Thatcher, would be crowned Antler Queen in the 1996 wilderness.
Devoted Yellowjackets viewers have poured over that first-ever episode, trying to glean hints from the “pit girl” flash-forward scenes that have driven the mystery drama. With each new episode, a rewatch of the pilot brings more clues into focus (Jackie’s heart necklace; Nat wearing heliotrope; Shauna’s foreshadowed pregnancy; and Lottie’s real name being Charlotte, labeled on a prescription pill bottle). But the biggest question continued to loom up until the season two finale: How will this team of teenage soccer players arrive at the ritualistic cannibalism that was promised?
The second season gradually answered that, with the penultimate and finale episodes showing the starving survivors sacrificing Javi (Luciano Leroux) to the wilderness and crowning young Nat as their new leader. And the present-day gut-punch of adult Nat’s death — and that Misty (Christina Ricci) accidentally killed her best friend in a wilderness reunion gone very wrong — brings renewed clarity to the young characters who have captivated viewers since the start of the series.
As it turns out, the pilot not only foreshadowed Nat’s death at the hands of Misty, but upon rewatch, it also hinted that Nat would become Antler Queen, which is the show’s most tragic twist to date. “All this time, it was Natalie who was crowned the successor to Lottie (Courtney Eaton). And she’s been carrying this terrible shame of taking on that role. What has she done?” says Kusama of the finale’s “surprising inevitability” for the self-destructive fan-favorite character. “The fact that was part of her guilt was such a surprise to me. Of course, she’s so much a part of it that she hates herself for it. And that was something that I felt bound the two seasons together, from pilot to this finale.”
Below, Kusama unpacks the emotional decision to kill off the character of Natalie and say goodbye to core castmember Lewis, explaining in depth why the big-swing choice made sense for the series and how long it’s been in motion. She also looks ahead to what the questions around the season two ending mean for the already renewed third season, including a “dark conclusion” after that primal hunt that lead to Nat’s death.
I spoke to Yellowjackets showrunners Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson and Jonathan Lisco at the beginning of the season. I planned to chat with them again at the end, but we are now in the ongoing writers strike. How is everything going for you amid the state of the industry?
As a director and as somebody who sometimes writes and as somebody who is married to a screenwriter, I am just so ready for these companies to understand that we do something that is a very, very, very special skill, and I look forward to them learning that and compensating us fairly for it.
They said they are still targeting a five-season gameplan. Now that I’ve seen the full season and understand that the younger cast isn’t any closer to getting out of the wilderness, I’m starting to see the journey you guys have lined up. Can you talk about what you all set out to do with season two amid the larger plan?
That’s an interesting question. Something we have all seen as the show develops is that the emphasis is on emotional surprises and emotional dynamics. Now that we’ve set up this big reveal about Natalie [played by Lewis and Thatcher] in terms of what she functioned as in the past, I think that gives Ashley and Bart and Jonathan even more runway to explore with these emotional dynamics between all the girls. I don’t want to call it a power struggle, because that almost minimizes what they’re going through. It’s something more mysterious and more primal about trying to find your place in society; we’re watching each of these girls try to figure out if they have a role to play in this performance called life. But in the case of our Yellowjackets, it’s such a heightened stage and obviously the finale is leaving you with tensions and conflicts that promise more to navigate between all of the girls — and a few of the guys.
It’s not looking good for Coach Ben (Steven Krueger)!
Oh, yeah… yeah.
This season exploded out of the gate with the Jackie feast in episode two. Then things settled down a bit before ramping up into this finale. When I spoke to Sophie Thatcher, I realized this show is almost a two-season origin story for the character of Natalie.
At what point did you guys decide this fate for Natalie?
She was always meant to be a character who fulfilled a role that we’ve come to love in television, which is the transgressive, self-destructive, self-sabotaging… the shit-stirrer. The tension was always that we understood that people like to watch those characters, but the reality is that they literally or figuratively self-destruct.
What I love about these past two seasons is that we’ve been given all the information about Natalie. We’ve been told over and over again that there’s a part of her that flirts with the death instinct in a pretty big way. Whether it’s her own addiction issues, whether it’s what she’s gone through in the past. We’ve watched this character cheat death, come close to death, be foiled in attempting her own suicide, and now that sense of inevitability is finally answered by this terrible mistake. Just like a messy, human mistake. Which is similar to the finale in season one with Jackie dying almost out of poor judgment. That’s something the show does really well in exploring. And I think that was something always intentional about Natalie’s arc.
Earlier in the season, Juliette Lewis told me she was sure that Nat would have pulled the trigger in the season one finale if Lottie’s followers hadn’t saved her. When you filmed that season one finale and Natalie’s suicide attempt, did the writers and/or Juliette know about her ultimate fate?
I think they had a pretty good idea of where she was headed. That was something understood. This is something that I think is really fascinating: We’ve heard over and over again that this is a character who has been in and out of rehab and has had a really hard time sort of staying straight on this earth, right? And then we get a window into what that actually has looked like and felt like for her. So to me, what’s so interesting are the emotional reveals of why she is so tortured and so self-destructive. I just feel like it’s a big surprise to discover that she was put in that position of responsibility in the past, and it’s a terrible role to play. Just terrible.
Because of that season one finale, viewers could guess that of all the characters, Natalie might not make it to the end of the series. And yet, I don’t think fans saw this coming. Also, it’s Juliette Lewis! So, this couldn’t have been an easy decision.
Oh, I think it was hard. I know it’s hard. I’m going to miss Juliette and I’m going to miss the energy that she brings, and I’m going to miss that adult character. But I also feel like there is a satisfying quality of real life being brought to the show. You feel like people are people when the stakes are real, and they’re not just on for however many seasons you make your show.
Are you aware of the conversations about her death; at what point Juliette found out and how long she had to keep it a secret from everyone?
I think she had to keep it a secret for kind of a long time. I don’t know the exact… I don’t know how that all went down in terms of how it got discussed with the network or how it got discussed with her, but I think she was in the loop for quite a while.
It’s interesting to think about the writing being on the wall. Do you think when Juliette signed on for this role, she knew Nat might not make it as long as everyone else?
Juliette is a really soulful, expressive actor who talks a lot about the implications of what it would mean to be like this character. Each day gets harder and wears you down more, if you’re living the life that this character does. And I think what’s really nice about the final couple of episodes of this season is that you see how she’s had this shame and kind of primal guilt imprinted in her DNA since she was 17 or 18 years old. We’re seeing how damaged she truly was and is, and I hope that helps with some of the sense of the surprising inevitability that comes with the finale this season.
From what the cast has said, Melanie Lynskey is the only one who knows the arc of the series, because she wanted to know more in order to play adult Shauna. Was she in the know about this?
I actually think that this might have been something that was kept from the whole cast until later, with the exception of Juliette of course.
Were you there when her co-stars found out?
I wasn’t. I wasn’t able to be there. But I know that it was emotional.
Since you were one of the people in the know, how were you able to be a resource for Juliette throughout the season and heading into this finale?
That’s an interesting question. What we learned, and this is definitely something we all spoke about at length, is that people have a conflicted but loving relationship with this character, right? And particularly as an adult, in the way that you have conflicted relationships with people in your life who might push some of those same buttons that Natalie does. And so to me, and I think this wasn’t a big surprise to the showrunners, and they certainly were in full-throated agreement, that it was crucial if we were going to make this move that we feel like Natalie’s life had had this arc in which we understood some of what brought her to this moment.
Something I know the showrunners had always thought about, and that Ashley and Bart had always thought about from the pilot, was that kind of mysterious moment when Natalie hallucinates Misty at the kegger in the wood and how that was always this time defying flash-forward to the notion that Misty was always going to be kind of an angel of death for Natalie. And so that’s why it comes full circle in the finale of season two, where we go back to that moment. Their relationship was so troubled and sticky and strange, and this is partly why. These are complicated ladies, complicated teenagers!
That vision was in the pilot? I have to rewatch. [Note: After Nat hallucinates Misty, the episode cuts to the flash-forward of the Antler Queen, identity hidden, leading the survivors in their cannibalism ritual in another seemingly foreshadowing moment to Nat as Antler Queen.]
Yes. There’s a moment in the pilot where Natalie has taken drugs and she sees Misty, or thinks she sees Misty sort of staring at her across a party that she never would have been invited to. I think that’s something that we always knew had a mystery to it that was almost meant to be like a key to looking forward to that relationship.
That’s so interesting. So Juliette had much more time to accept this ending, but I understand everyone else found out closer to filming the finale. By the time you got to filming her death scene, was there also a sense of acceptance from the rest of the cast or could you feel the sadness?
Oh, I think it was really hard actually. Christina [Ricci] was breaking down on set. First of all, we were in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night in the rain for two nights. It was just kind of grueling, as these things are sometimes. And all the actors were in a very amped up emotional space. So yeah, it was like a discombobulating scene to shoot. It was hard.
What was it like when you wrapped the scene?
We were just thankful that the sun had not fully come up yet, and that our actors could make their flights to get home. I think we were relieved, and I think we were hopeful about how it would all turn out. And there was a lot of emotion and good will exchanged, and ultimately, a lot of love. It’s a show that brings up a lot about female friendships and relationships and in the end, I felt like there was a lot of good vibes on the set. And then the sun rose and we all had to trudge to the airport.
Killing off a major character in an early season is a big swing; some other major shows have done this and it’s paid off. How will Nat’s death propel the story forward? Why did this need to happen in the overall picture?
Something I talked about a lot with Juliette, and actually all of the cast, was that no life is a sure thing, right? Something I’ve certainly experienced, and know a little too much about for myself, is that loss can be this lacerating, transformative experience and I think we’ve seen that the teen characters have gone through so much loss. As we get to know them, we watch what they’ve gone through and then we see them as adults and we wonder how some of them, at least I do, put one foot in front of the other. But I feel like there’s something about a loss in the present like this that creates an opportunity to explore the ways that it can trigger reevaluations or revisiting of the past, and it can trigger a lot of change, for good and for ill. And so I think that will be something that the show will explore deeply around Nat’s death.
Ella Purnell returned as Jackie after her character’s death. Do you know if it’s a possibility that ghost Nat or flashbacks are on the table for Juliette?
You know, that’s interesting. I have no idea about that. But what I’ve learned about Ashley and Bart and Jonathan is that they are kind of a never-say-never group. I find they’re always super open to imagining things if it drives the story into an interesting place.
When speaking to Sophie about the finale, she said that Natalie is a heavy character to play and how she’s devastated but also happy Juliette gets to move onto other roles. Do you think this decision was purely story-driven, or that some of it was mutual?
Oh, I think that’s a possibility in terms of just the history that we all bring, and the experiences that we all bring to the work that we do, but particularly actors. That Juliette was playing this kind of transgressive, self-destructive character, I’m sure for her, spoke back to moments in her young life, moments in her career as a young actor at the beginning that she has a lot to draw on; a lot of wisdom and a lot of experience to draw on. But also, a lot of loss and hurt.
That’s what made her perfect for the role, but I’m sure it’s not easy. Like, off camera, we would be talking about the essential oil line that she was developing. (Laughs.) I felt like that was her looking for all the ways to be living with a quieter mind and with a little more peace. I’m sure for so many actors, it’s just hard to play people who are kind of living on a jagged edge. So I can’t speak to exactly what happened behind the scenes, but I don’t doubt that there were some real open conversations about what it can mean, what the toll can be to play these kind of characters.
In her final scene, she ends with this deep breath. Sophie said you filmed an alternate take with her young Nat and Javi (Luciano Leroux) laughing at her. Can you tell me why you went with the final shot and what you wanted to leave us on with Nat?
There was this concept we were experimenting with, which was all of Natalie’s guilt, all of her shame kind of coming at her from every ghost, including her younger self. Mocking her. Laughing at her. But I have to say, when we saw it in the cut, it felt kind of gratuitous and cruel. It didn’t feel organic, ultimately. We were really trying to get to something that had some emotional power and I think that’s almost more like a horror movie moment, to have Javi and young Natalie laughing at her. I think it was a good decision to pull back on that and make it a little more about the more somber version of that surreal moment.
With the final shot you did pick, I interpreted it as her arriving at a point ultimately where she was ready.
It’s funny, I think people take it differently. There are some people who say, I don’t think she was ready at all. And then there are some who say, she’s been really ready. It’s been so interesting, because I think we project our hopes and fears onto these kind of imaginative spaces. Juliette and I talked a lot about the people in our life who we have lost and the people we wonder, were they ready? Tears were shed, because we were like, you know what, not everybody was ready. And that was really painful to think about. So I think that was something she was keeping in her mind during those scenes.
All season long, I’ve asked the cast predictions about “pit girl.” When you were directing that first episode, there was story mapped out but nothing was greenlit or written for season two yet. So, how much were you winging it with those scenes and how much will they actually come to fruition?
Well, I think that’s actually still an open question. How to manage the reality of shooting a pilot with a cast that’s not necessarily going to be available two or three years from now, with a story that’s not completely beat by beat worked out and having to roll with the punches of making episodic television. Something that I loved about that pilot episode was that it set up this incredible question about what happened out there and, are we watching cannibals and, is this a cult? All of those questions.
But to me, in making the pilot and in reading the pilot, and I hope in the experience for the audience watching the finished pilot, the biggest transgression is Shauna [Sophie Nélisse] sleeping with Jeff [Jackie’s boyfriend] and realizing that she kind of holds these secrets, right? And that to me was the brilliant hook of the show. It had a lot going on plot-wise that was quite noisy, but in the end, the real nuts and bolts emotional questions were quite down to earth.
And in the finale of the second season, what feels so kind of lovely and full circle for me is that despite all the bigger plot elements about Shauna’s baby and Javi falling through the ice, the thing that really informs it emotionally for me is the idea that all this time, it was Natalie who was crowned the successor to Lottie. And that she’s been carrying this terrible shame of taking on that role; not begrudgingly, but with enthusiasm and joy, at least initially. And, what does that mean? What has she done in that role? Which I’m sure we’ll explore more of in season three.
But the fact that was part of her guilt was such a surprise to me, just something I hadn’t thought about because we watched her in opposition to so many people that it hadn’t occurred to me. And of course that’s the great thing about it. Of course she’s so much a part of it that she hates herself for it. And that was something that I felt bound the two seasons together, from pilot to this finale.
Young Misty was the only character we actually saw in the pilot’s flash forwards. Is there any significance to that?
That is correct. And I think that was just speaking to her surprising powers of survival instincts. That in this terrible situation, she might be the one who figures out a way to survive and thrive better than anyone else. And I think in the second season, we certainly see that she’s all-too eager to play a loyal lieutenant if it means she gets keys to the back door of the kingdom. And so I think that’s something the pilot always knew was going to be intrinsic to her character.
I also understand that there were some scenes filmed that explained more of the cannibalism ritual that didn’t make the final cut, and that this season was cut down from 10 episodes to nine once the show was renewed for season three. Can you talk about that decision and are those scenes that might appear down the line?
Yep. Yeah, I think there might be some things you’ll see down the line that give a little bit more of the mythology of the wilderness. And there were things in the finale that just made the finale so long, and we had to make some hard choices. I’m not sure how that’s going to get distributed into season three, but I don’t doubt that there might be a place for it.
Release another episode!
(Laughing.) I know, I know.
Travis (Kevin Alves) also had a big shocker in this finale: taking the first bite of Javi after believing his death was an accident. He is a character who also doesn’t have an older counterpart anymore — it’s devastating that both he and Nat are not alive in present day. What would you say about where he ends the season?
It’s so interesting to watch a character who starts in a kind of teenage boy opposition through the first season and then shifts and changes the way that Travis goes into having to sort of submit to the logic of the team and the kind of brutal metrics of this group. It was just really nice to be able to work with Kevin where he had so much to do. It was a real pleasure.
Kevin told me what the heart was made of (read THR’s interview with Alves). Did you all take a bite out of the heart after you wrapped…
Nope. Nope. But it looked pretty gross while I was watching it.
The teenagers committed to the hunt when they went after Natalie (Thatcher) after she drew the Queen of Hearts card. Then in present-day in the finale, their “hunt” turns quite real as they go after Shauna (Melanie Lynskey). Similar to Shauna, I was thinking: Wait, are they actually going to kill her? As director, what were you playing around with when it comes to the larger question of if something is really happening, or if it’s only happening in their minds? And, is Shauna the most unreliable narrator of the show?
Ha! Well, that’s interesting. That’s certainly one way to read it, because I do think the more we learn about Shauna, the more you could argue it seems highly unlikely that you could be a functional adult without being in hardcore therapy and getting real help! But the show in some ways is testament to the way we make coping a full-time job, and you could argue that’s definitely something Shauna knows how to do. But, it’s hard. I had a long conversation with the cast where I had to talk about this transition into “the hunt” becoming something more real, and more mysterious on an emotional level where we’re watching characters seem to literally lose their grasp of the plot. They were there to do one thing and then it all starts to go sideways, right?
All of these endeavors that we do as directors, writers, actors, it’s like we’re trying to make these really subtle things real. And it’s like a step to your left or a step to your right that it doesn’t completely work. I can’t speak to the success of the finale, to be honest. I don’t have that perspective on it. But I can say that we all tried to make it real in the moment, that some primal, reactive fight-or-flight instinct kicks in for them emotionally, psychologically; and they tried to make that real for them. But it’s a challenge. It’s a hard one.
The show has constantly been playing with whether or not there is something mystical or magical in the wilderness, and asks about a higher power. When Shauna says there wasn’t any other influence, “It was us,” and Lottie asks her, “Does it matter?” that answered it for me. Do you feel that answered it?
I do, I do. But I think in the same way I have people in my life who haven’t yet decided to get their shit together in the way I would like for them to, when she says that, I find it so kind of chilling and disappointing in the character. Because what you have to do is then reckon with the reality of people doing and acting in bad ways. Being actively destructive. And I know that’s something the show has been grappling with from the very beginning, but it’s a dark conclusion to draw. Don’t we all wish there was a mystical or supernatural or, for want of a better word, some religious, spiritual component to all of it? But, what if there isn’t? How does that answer to millennia of bad behavior and terrible stuff acted upon humans by other humans. That’s something I grapple with, just generally. And so I feel like that’s some of the stuff the show is trying to unpack.
This leaves the adults pretty fractured, and viewers love to see them together. But with the big hole of Nat being gone and the fallout of what happened out there, including Lottie (Simone Kessell) headed back to an institution, how will season three keep the adults in each other’s lives?
Certainly loss is going to be an initial kind of emotional glue, and the fallout from that. But I also suspect there’s a lot to explore about the real-world ramifications of the past two seasons. I think that’s going to get further addressed and further looked at. I think it’s going to be a question about how to bring everyone back together when it’s the right thing to do or makes sense narratively.
Like, if Taissa (Tawney Cypress) is going to get booted from office?
Yeah, totally! (Laughing.)
In the 1996 wilderness, their cabin just ignited in flames. My hypothesis is that Coach Ben was involved in the fire and that the girls will find Javi’s cave to wait out winter, and seek vengeance on Coach Ben. What can you say about that?
(Laughing.) I certainly understand how you would get there, and it definitely feels like many seeds are planted towards that. But I can’t speak definitely to whether or not you are correct.
Showtime has said they want to expand the Yellowjackets universe and Paramount’s Chris McCarthy said spinoffs are brewing; creators Ashley and Bart said they have ideas. Is there anything you can say about the spinoffs or expanding the show?
I can’t. I wish I could. Until the strike was called, I know that Ash and Bart and Jonathan were definitely putting their heads about it. But I don’t really know.
Are there ideas to explore the third timeline that was introduced into the show, of when the teens were rescued? Even if they aren’t linearly rescued yet in the show.
That’s interesting. It’s a really good question. I know that is something that has been out there and talked about, and I personally think there are incredible possibilities in that third timeline that are weirdly as ripe and interesting as the wilderness timeline or the contemporary timeline. I don’t doubt that they will be turning over every stone once they can.
Going up against the final season of Succession has kept a lot of TV writers busy these last few weeks. Have you gotten any indication of how the season is performing, and how do you feel about the overall reception to season two?
You know, I don’t actually really know. I’m not great at paying attention to that stuff, and I’m not on social media by design, but then also by sort of sheer incompetence I’m just not in that conversation. I don’t know the hard numbers. But I hope the show is doing well!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The second season is now streaming, with the finale airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Keep up with THR‘s Yellowjackets season two coverage and interviews.