‘Yellowjackets’ Bosses Explain Shocking Episode and “Perversely Celebratory” Final Scene
Showrunners Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson and Jonathan Lisco unpack the big season two episode: "We’re finally at a place where we can earn it."
[This story contains major spoilers from the second episode of Yellowjackets season two, “Edible Complex.”]
Yes, that just happened.
Yellowjackets has been prepping its audience that cannibalism was coming, and it arrived in a big way when Showtime’s hit survival series returned to the wilderness in season two.
The premiere had ended with a shocking moment when young Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) ate the frozen ear of her dead best friend Jackie (played Ella Purnell, who returns in hallucination form). Shauna has been keeping Jackie’s corpse around for more than two months, much to the concern of her teammates who remain stranded in the wilderness since their plane crash in the 1996 timeline. Shauna agrees to move forward and they decide to cremate Jackie’s body — but the wilderness has other ideas.
Instead, while young Nat (Sophie Thatcher) and Travis (Kevin Alves) are having sex in the cabin, and Travis can’t seem to get the spiritual Lottie (Courtney Eaton) out of his head, snow falls on Jackie’s body while it’s burning. The team is woken up by the smell and when they emerge from the cabin, they discover that Jackie’s body has been cooked — a meal essentially served up and ready to eat for teenagers who are on the verge of starving. What do they do? They dive in and devour her body. The scene plays out in reality, as the team (and Travis) savagely tear the meat apart, and in a more ethereal sequence showing the group honoring Jackie’s sacrifice with a decadent supper (imagined with real food).
“We called it the bacchanal and the feast. We wanted it to have a sort of perversely celebratory feeling,” co-creator Ashley Lyle tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Coach Ben (Steven Kreuger) is the only one to not partake, and the range of emotions on his face as he backs into the cabin speaks loudly. What happened sparks many questions — which are answered below by creators Lyle and Bart Nickerson and co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco, the latter who wrote the episode, titled “Edible Complex.”
What were your discussions about how early you wanted to get into the cannibalism with season two?
Jonathan Lisco: It can’t just be incident. It can’t just be plot. It can’t just be like, “Oh, gruesome, they just ate Jackie.” It has to emanate from character. And so, for us, it really began as kind of a Shauna story and to try to locate where Shauna was, emotionally and psychologically, at the beginning of the story. She’s such an important lynchpin for a lot of what happens in the wilderness, and so once we realized that she was sort of harboring all of this guilt and self-recrimination and anguish and shame from her stubbornness that led to, arguably, Jackie dying in the wilderness, how could we continue that story in a really vivid way? And, given that the friendship was so fraught and complex in that she loved Jackie, but she also wanted to destroy her; she lived in her shadow, yet this was her best friend. The next step in that is consumption, in a way. And she’s also pregnant, let’s not forget. And starving. And so it started to speak to us as a very truthful story. And once it started to speak to us in that way, it felt like, why should we wait? Why should we tease it out? I think the time is now.
Ashley Lyle: There was a part of us that felt like there could be nothing more boring as storytellers than to have an entire season where the audience is just waiting for that to happen. So we said, “Let’s do it. We’re here, it feels like we’re finally at a place where we can earn it.” And we did not feel like we could earn it and get them from point A to point B in season one, but I think that winter gave us an opportunity to really deepen the pits of their despair and their desperation in a way that we could justify it. It allowed us to open up the rest of the season to story that could move beyond that point.
Jonathan, you previously said that if you are doing your job right, cannibalism won’t be the most morally transgressive thing you do on the show.
Jonathan Lisco: I so 100 percent stand by that. We early on said that will not be the most transgressive thing they do. By the way, I would like to submit it’s arguable that this isn’t so transgressive. They’re starving. Jackie is dead. They have no other stuff to eat in the wilderness. You can argue whether or not this is amoral. But we’re going to complicate their choices as we move forward in these episodes. It gets more complicated. Then we’ll start talking about morality, as well as necessity. And at that point, I think you’ll see that that idea that we had, that the eating of a person is only the beginning, does hold true for this season.
Bart Nickerson: I think that’s one of the challenges of the show. I obviously don’t know but having read a few accounts of people in extreme deprivation and those kind of circumstances, there’s a part of me that actually suspects it wouldn’t be that difficult. That our bodies on some level are prepared for this. Imagine the way you get cranky if you skip lunch. And now extend that times a million. I think there’s a reason your body is giving you that crankiness. I think it’s saying: Look, here’s a little bit of adrenaline, you’ve got to fix this. If this gets worse, I’m going to continue to give you the resources to do things that might totally not be kosher in society.
Ashley and Bart, you recently told THR that you do have conversations about taking it too far. What did you debate about most?
Lyle: I don’t know that we’ve ever discussed something as being too far because it felt too far. I think it’s more about whether or not it’s right for our characters. What we were saying in that interview is that it’s never about likability. We’re not particularly concerned about likability, because TV has proven over and over again that we will fall deeply in love with monsters. Don Draper and Walter White and Tony Soprano — name a whole slew of others — are dubious at best and monstrous at worst. And if you’re doing your job right as a storyteller, and you’re justifying at least from their perspective and their point of view why they’re doing the things they are doing, I don’t know that there are lines that are too far. For us, it’s a gut thing and an instinctual thing, and we’re making the show that we would want to watch and sometimes that’s just the question. Is this something I would want to watch? Or, is this something that just feels gratuitous or salacious? And that’s something that could lose me, if it’s not motivated correctly.
Lisco: Same. I put this in the same ballpark as the conversation about melodrama. People throw around the word melodramatic, but very few people actually know what that means. My personal definition is that it means the characters’ reactions are outsized relative to the circumstance they’re experiencing. Then it doesn’t feel real or truthful. Similarly, I’m on board with what Ashley and Bart are saying 100 percent, because gruesome and terrible things happen in the world. And so if you’re going to depict them, earn them. And if we can earn them, then maybe consider showing them. But I think the value here is that we will always discuss it, and discuss whether or not it’s worth it. And if it feels really earned from our characters subjective reality or from their circumstances, we may do it. But, only then.
This leads into that fantasy feast; I’m not sure how you referred to it on set, but what is that meant to illustrate — is that what the group is thinking, or telling themselves in order to eat Jackie? And, why the reality-fantasy approach?
Nickerson: We wanted to get at a lot of conflicting things about that moment. One is the sort of psyche’s ability to protect itself from the trauma of something deeply transgressive that is considered wrong. There is also a quality of, these are very, very hungry people who are getting the food and the nutrition that they need. So there is a visceral level on which this feels amazing, and a sort of joy that’s released. So, how do you tie those things together to show how awful something is and how incredible something might feel? As much as they’re trying to block that out as much as possible. And in some ways, that elation is its own trauma. How warped it must be to have this thing feel good that is so horrible. And just trying to get at all of that.
Lisco: And I feel like if we had left out that hedonistic part, it wouldn’t have felt as authentic.
Lyle: I don’t know what the cast was calling it, but we went back and forth calling it the bacchanal and the feast. I think that we wanted it to have a sort of perversely celebratory feeling. And there is an ecstatic quality to it as well, and it’s because of all the things that Bart and Jonathan are saying — about the disassociation as a protective measure, the ecstasy of the just pure physical sensation of getting food, and then also the reverence in a strange way that they’re showing to Jackie in that moment. On the one hand, they are literally ripping her apart. But on the other hand, they are sort of honoring her body in a strange way. So we really wanted it to be a combination platter of all of those things, all at once.
Your young co-stars spoke to THR about the reactions they had when filming the feast (Editor’s note: Read the cast’s oral history on filming “Edible Complex”). What was that day like on set and what kind of support was offered to them?
Lisco: I’ve got a great little audio clip of that day. We were all there. I hit play on my phone and there’s eight minutes of Ben Semanoff, who was the director of that episode, talking to them. And then the art department and the production designer came down and we were all talking about the dummy. And our young cast, who knew they were about to do something intense, was, in some ways, mimicking art because they were using humor to sort of process it. There was a lot of joking around. They called it Jackie-fruit, because it was actually composed of Jackfruit and maple syrup and some pepper and stuff like that. The whole thing was very bizarre. So there was this weird duality of reverence for what we were about to portray, but also the sort of human need to make it funny in order to engage it. It’s like a great memento of that day.
Lyle: It was a weird one! It was definitely a weird one — and we’ve had some weird moments on these sets. “Chicken baby” comes to mind, from the first season. But we try really hard to be respectful of what we’re asking our actors to do. It was interesting because, on the flip side, when we filmed the bacchanal part in the woods, that was also pretty intense. Again, we just try to be as supportive as possible. [There is a later episode] where we tried to be even more respectful of what we were portraying and how dark it was. There could be emotional fallout for our actors for having to get into that place. Obviously to some extent that comes with the territory, but we hope that we all — and that’s us and the entire crew — really tried to be as sensitive as possible to the reality of what it means to put yourself in that place mentally and emotionally.
Lisco: Absolutely. I hope our cast would say this to you. Anyone who ever has a problem with anything that we’re doing — this sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true — we do have an open-door policy. You come in, we’ll talk it out. I’m not an actor, but I think sometimes the way in which an actor becomes comfortable with what they’re doing is to understand it better. And we can be the resources for them understanding it better. And I think once they do, they can sort of wrap their minds and hearts and their whole psyche around actually doing it in a way that feels more truthful. So we’re always there as a resource and if somebody says, “I won’t do that,” of course we will stop and discuss it and never force anybody to do something they’re completely uncomfortable with.
Nickerson: I think it’s one of the benefits of having a really talented and experienced cast. Because they’re the teen cast, but they’re very experienced actors. I think that to a large extent, that’s one of the big functions of having craft, is your ability to explore these horrible things but in a way that you can always keep your feet on the ground. And it’s exploring, it’s not literally happening. So it’s to create truth without being swallowed by it. We do have a cast that’s very capable of that by their skill, talent and craft.
Lyle: We were so impressed by them in season one but I have to say in season two, just the professionalism and the commitment of our cast, both the younger and the adult versions, is truly mind-blowing and we’re really grateful for it.
I like that you keep them in the dark to a certain extent, because they’re able to weigh in freely when interviewed about the show.
Lisco: I have to tell you, we don’t necessarily do that by design. If somebody wants to know what’s coming up, we will tell them. But what’s interesting when you have a cast this big is that they have different processes, so some of the actors want to know and others explicitly do not want to know. But of course they’re like a club so they will talk to each other, so we have to be very mindful of that.
Nickerson: It is delicate. Because things also do change, so you can’t really give them a confidence interval and say, “Well, there’s like a 75 percent chance of this…” Because, how do you prepare for that?
Lyle: There’s absolutely a trust that develops between us and the cast. As much as we do have a roadmap, things do evolve and change, and sometimes that’s because of story; a lot of times, it’s because of the realities of production. And we never want to break that trust by telling them one thing and then having something else happen. So we try to be careful not to give them information until we’re very confident in it, but because of that, we know that the rumor mill runs rampant!
You previously spoke to THR about the supernatural elements of the show being more for the audience to decide what’s real and what’s not for these characters. This episode’s sex scene between Nat and Travis and Lottie’s spirit, then leading into the wilderness “cooking” Jackie, felt the most supernatural yet.
All: Oh, how interesting. That’s interesting.
Lisco: I’m so glad, because when you’re watching that scene, we hope that the audience doesn’t necessarily interpret that, or doesn’t absolutely interpret that, as a love triangle. It’s not just like, Travis is having sex with Natalie but thinking about Lottie. That’s not it at all. It’s actually a battle between faith and pragmatism, in a lot of ways. Like faith and the acceptance of what Natalie would construe as cold reality. And it’s coming from a place of love, because Natalie loves Travis so she doesn’t want this faith to become toxic and even more painful for him in believing that Javi is still alive. So that’s a really beautiful relationship they have. But something in Travis is still responding to faith, and Lottie represents that. So maybe that’s what you’re feeling, I would submit. Maybe it’s not so explicitly supernatural, but it’s that energy that you’re feeling and seeing as we cut outside.
So it’s more spiritual then, rather than supernatural.
Nickerson: Yeah, yeah.
Lyle: We’re sort of very interested in the unexplained. And whether you are a believer or not in any number of different things, from ghosts to God, there are no concrete answers to anything. And we’re really interested in the unexplained. And I think that whether or not everything happens for a reason or is completely random is one of the greatest questions that humanity has asked of the universe around us. And that’s a question that could be asked of that scene. Are things happening for a reason? Is there some sort of divine purpose or supernatural purpose? Or is it a confluence of events that are lining up in such a way as to result in certain consequences?
Nickerson: I definitely see what you’re saying about it feeling more supernatural, and I think another reason that this season might feel more supernatural is something that is increasing, which is our ability to get into the subjectivity of our characters. Because now we feel like there is a formed relationship with the audience that the kind of grammar and language with the show is starting to solidify, so our ability to use genre strokes to help express an interior kind of subjective experience is becoming stronger.
And, they’re getting more delirious out in the wilderness.
Lyle: They’re getting more delirious. They’re getting hungrier. That has profound neurological effects. But we’ve always talked from the very beginning about being fascinated by belief and faith and religiosity, and how that seems to be a natural outgrowth of society in almost all of its forms its taken over time. And so, the question is: If somebody chops down a tree and their house burns down, well, those two weird things happened on the same day, is that a coincidence? Is that because the tree Gods were angry?
People are constantly trying to find order and meaning in the unexplained. And particularly, when it comes to the bad things that happen to you. And so I think a lot of why this season feels more supernatural is because our girls, and our boys, are finding themselves in increasingly dire circumstances and they want to find a way to control it — and they can’t. So they want to find meaning. They want something to believe in. And to have that kind of belief is a form of reclaiming control over your own circumstances. So as their belief system is growing, obviously that relates to the unexplained and the supernatural, but that’s not to say that this season is objectively more supernatural, I don’t think.
Your answers explain so very much. How would you say the rest of the season continues to explore that push and pull of faith and reality?
Nickerson: I think if you are a spiritual person on any level, or had ever considered or wrestled with spiritual questions, something else to throw into the stew here is that there is an experience or phenomenology of like belief in spiritual experience. There is an expansive quality to it that perhaps you’ve felt in religious ceremony or looking at the Grand Canyon or an art or piece of music, or being with family. However you’ve gotten it, I think we all have a kernel of that experience. So on the one hand, yes, something that expands this feeling seems great. But then there is all the tragedy and the times that it is elusive or completely unhelpful to you. So if you’re going to have a show that in some sense is trying to explore these elements of faith and spiritual experience, if you’re not also going to have the moments where those things are failures or useless, then you’re really not having a fair conversation.
Coach is horrified by the feast, which hits home the reality of what’s happening. What did you want to show with Coach being the only one to not partake?
Lisco: On the one hand, we wanted to explore it from the girls’ point of view. Because when he abstains, so to speak, how do they now view him? They could potentially view him as someone who had discipline and didn’t want to break that social taboo. But it’s more likely they will now see him as more self-righteous and judgey, and therefore consider him outside the circle of their ingroup politics. So I think it’s in some ways very dangerous for Coach, that he didn’t engage in the feast. And so we’ll see that play out in the course of the episodes.
Nickerson: Poor all of them!
This episode then ends on a cliffhanger in the present timeline with Taissa’s (Tawny Cypress) car crash. How much of her alter ego is a story about a dissociative personality disorder from trauma, or how much of it is… We don’t know what it is yet?
Lyle: I think what’s most important is that she doesn’t know what it is. And again, I think we’re attempting to play this season in the subjectivity of reality and how there really isn’t such thing as a subjective reality, because reality is created by the people living it and the people experiencing it. And for Taissa, it to some extent represents a repressed self. She is somebody who has been barreling forward and wants to put the past behind her. At some point, a character says, “That other you is a part of you and always will be.” So I think to some extent, her instability — not so much mental instability, although one could interpret it that way — but that this lack of control destabilizes her is a path we wanted to take her character down.
Lisco: And instead of just being literal with the dissociative personality of it all, aren’t we really just dramatizing something that everybody feels? I think we all feel like we have a shadow self who can wreak havoc if we let it. That’s really what we’re exploring here. Tai has been such a character who has suppressed all this. She’s decided to put it in a neat box and never visit it again when we first meet her, right? She’s ambitious, she’s Type-A, she’s going to get what she wants out of life. But of course, does that ever work? Your shadow self is a siren call. And ultimately the question of whether or not you suppress it entirely, or whether you integrate it into your personality and therefore live in a health way, I would argue, is a question we continue to excavate in the course of looking at her character.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Yellowjackets releases new episodes of season two weekly on Fridays for Showtime subscribers, and airs on cable Sundays at 9 p.m. Keep up with THR‘s Yellowjackets season two coverage and interviews.