"Yellowjackets" boss on the killer ending revelation "that will blow a lot of people's minds"

Jonathan Lisco spoke to Salon about inner darkness, cannibalism, season 2 & "mushrooming" viewers' consciousness

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 17, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

Yellowjackets (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)
Yellowjackets (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)

The following contains major spoilers from the "Yellowjackets" first season finale.

In hindsight, maybe "Yellowjackets" obsessives focused too much on trying to figure out who was the main dish in the premiere's stomach-turning barbecue. Instead it's the one that closes the season finale: "Who the f**k is Lottie Matthews?!"

If that blindsided you, that's good news for showrunner Jonathan Lisco. With everyone obsessing over the premiere's ritualized hunt and kill, few – save for the obsessed Reddit faithful – may have been expected Lottie (Courtney Eaton) to transform from one of the quieter figures on Wiskayok High School girl's soccer team into a carnivorous pagan priestess.

"It's funny," Lisco said in a recent interview with Salon. "At the beginning, some people went, 'Well what's the show really about?' We never thought cannibalism was the point. In other words, it wasn't about whether cannibalism, it's about why."

RELATED: "Yellowjackets" is wild & terrifying

He elaborates on that with, "Most people understand that there is cannibalism embedded in the show. And what is interesting is like, it's not just about scarcity. So I think that will blow a lot of people's minds. Because they think, 'Oh, well, you crash in the woods, you get hungry, you have to do what you have to do." And then people forgive you, likening it to [the situation depicted in] 'Alive' or the Donner party or whatever it may be. This may not be that. "

The fact that we're more curious and invested in "Yellowjackets" after seeing its finale "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi" is as sure of an indication of success as Lisco and series creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson could hope for.

With viewers still discovering this thriller about teenage girls stranded in the Canadian wilderness for 19 months, and what that trauma unleashes in their lives decades later, "Yellowjackets" is on a trajectory to become a solid phenomenon for its second season.

Still, one can't be blamed for wondering whether a slow-burn puzzle-box mystery that leaps between 1996 and 2021 while developing complex character profiles for actors playing the same roles in separate eras would succeed in driving its ambitions into the goal. 

"Yellowjackets" did all that while incorporating hints of supernatural themes into its '90s story, while leaving a breadcrumb trail through a 2021 murder mystery linked to a blackmail plot.

YellowjacketsLiv Hewson as Teen Van and Jasmin Savoy Brown as Teen Taissa in "Yellowjackets" (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)

Oh, and let's not forget the psilocybin-spiked orgy at the climax of the team's so-called Doomcoming rager, the penultimate episode's spree. "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi," written by Lyle and Nickerson, picks up the 1996 story in the hangover phase of that event, but 2021 is equally as harrowing.

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The episode ties off a number of loose ends for 40-something versions of Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Natalie (Juliette Lewis), Misty (Christina Ricci) and Taissa (Tawny Cypress) as it burrows toward deeper trouble.

Only some of their woes could have been avoided, to be fair. For example, if Shauna hadn't been lured into an affair with Adam (Peter Gadiot), who lied about his identity and may have been their blackmailer, maybe she wouldn't have knifed him to death in a fit of rage. Then she wouldn't have had to call Misty, Natalie and Taissa to help her get rid of the body.

And if Taissa, in her concern about her pals' loose lips about what really happened in those woods, had been honest about hiring a fixer (Rekha Sharma) to investigate them, maybe Misty wouldn't have had to kidnap her and, you know, make sure she wouldn't talk.

And maybe if Natalie hadn't broken her sobriety, then Misty . . . hey, are you noticing how many threads lead back to Misty?

This is how "Yellowjackets" sent us off in web of directions while slowly building the scaffolding for Lottie (Courtney Eaton) to ascend to power in 1996.  She begins the season a secondary character while Jackie (Ella Purnell), the team captain is established as the queen bee and best friend to the younger Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) with Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) slandered as the burnout on the fringes.

But in the finale's last spate of shocking turns, Jackie is literally driven out into the cold while Lottie is seen establishing what can at least be called a power bloc that includes Misty (Samantha Hanratty) and Taissa's (Jasmin Savoy Brown) significant other Van (Liv Hewson). Meanwhile Natalie and Travis (Kevin Alves ) reunite, forging the "us against the world" bond that appears to continue into adulthood.

This explains why we haven't seen the 2021 version of Jackie. Then again, we haven't encountered 40-something Lottie either, which creates more questions.

Lisco was game to answer a few of them as accurately as possible in the moment while keeping the larger secrets about where the second season is headed close to the vest. Here are highlights of our wide-ranging conversation.

What is the show really about?

According to Lisco, there isn't meant to be a single, concrete answer to this partly because aspects of the long-term plot are still coalescing as the story unfolds. "'What is society? What is morality?' are questions that we will definitely be playing with, both in the 1996 story, but also in the 2021 story," going forward, he said.

But the drama's metaphor about what Lisco describes as in-group, out-group politics, "and with the growth of that, how inevitably you have to marginalize someone, to sort of like or demonize someone, to kind of find your place in a social circle," concretizes with Jackie's death by exposure, the result of the group kicking her out of the cabin.

"We're much more interested in kind of mushrooming your consciousness and getting you to invest in these characters, to see yourself in these characters as they make their very difficult choices," he added. "But it was interesting to us, I think, that we got this reputation for being kind of brutal, which is of course true."

Killing off a main character with a passionate following underlines that.

Is Jackie dead or alive?

Ella Purnell as teen Jackie in "Yellowjackets" (Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME)

While the writers and directors of "Yellowjackets" enjoy messing with the audience's perspective and its characters' heads, the only part of Jackie's fate that's a dream is the one she has about being welcomed back inside as she's slipping into the great beyond. She really did freeze to death in an overnight snow storm.

"A lot of people will probably say, 'How could you kill off Jackie that way? That's Ella Purnell!'  Or maybe, 'They should have eaten Jackie!' Whatever their theories are," Lisco mused.

However, Jackie's death intimately shapes Shauna's story. "Here are two people who love each other, who just can't cross a line in the sand because of their obstinance," he explained. "So it's a tragic accident based on a female friendship where both parties are stubborn. Neither one will even say one word of apology to each other. 

"And that's the burden that Shauna has to carry with her for the rest of her life," he added.

Is Jackie really gone?

With a show like this, those are two different questions.

"I think something that was really embedded in [Jackie and Shauna's] relationship is this idea of rupture and repair," Lisco explained. "Like a lot of friendships, you get mad, but then you apologize and come back together. And this was a big rupture, and then no ability to repair. So I think if we're going to see Ella-slash-Jackie, again, it's going to be because of Shauna's desire and search for repair."

Was revealing Lottie as a "cult leader" the plan from the start?

YellowjacketsYellowjackets (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)

From what Lisco told us . . . not exactly.

For the record, he also took issue with my usage of the term cult to describe, um, what really happened out there. As for the lavender-clad hooligans who busts into Natalie's motel room and kidnaps her at the end of the episode . . . maybe they're just a very exciting fan club.

But Eaton's performance inspired them to move her forward as a force that factionalizes the group. "We always had this idea that we wanted to play with the idea of the supernatural and explore what the supernatural even is," he said, "and whether or not the darkness, so to speak, the existential dread that all humans feel at some point comes from outside of us or within.

"We always knew that Lottie was going to be a linchpin character for us, because we knew that she was taking meds for a certain mental illness," he continued. "So whether or not that then blossoms into something that is just a result of her mental stressors . . . or whether or not that darkness is external to her and the girls is something that we always wanted to explore."

Are there other survivors we haven't met yet in 2021?

Lisco teases there may be. (Our guess? Of course there are.) 

"That's something we've thought about from the beginning . . . There may be other people out there who've been keeping quiet for whatever their particular reasons are . . . but we don't want to tell you exactly who those people are right now. And frankly, I don't think Ash, Bart and I are even one million percent sure. We'd like to see how they complement the other stories that we want to tell before we decide exactly who those people are."

Is "Yellowjackets" a supernatural story?

YellowjacketsSophie Nélisse as Teen Shauna in "Yellowjackets" (Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME)

The jury is still out, and that is intentional, as we see in the finale, when Lottie's unearthly prognostication that the starving band wouldn't be hungry for much longer comes true. The spooky part is how that happens: a bear wanders up to Lottie, lays down and allows her to stab it in the base of its skull. Whether that's a sign of something mystical afoot or because the bear was already dying divides the group.

"I'm not saying we never will answer that," Lisco says about the supernatural question, "but a lot of what is happening is in the mind of the beholder, right? So, not to get all 'Rashomon' on you, but people have different perceptions of the same truth."

With that in mind, defining what constitutes the supernatural is a theme the show's writers are keen to run with. He points to Taissa's being haunted by a man with no eyes and that specter's connection to the memory of her grandmother's death, as we saw in the third episode.

"Whether or not that will become more of a bugaboo for her in the wilderness that then infects and sort of infatuates, in a dark way, the rest of the crew is something that we're exploring," he said. "But even if it does, does that mean that No-Eyed Man is real? Or does that mean that No-Eyed Man is real enough?"

What does the emergence of Taissa's alter ego tell us about what it takes to win in politics?

Biscuit the dog on "Yellowjackets" (Showtime)

Lottie's mental health struggles are a known factor, but Taissa's sleepwalking habit of eating dirt catches everyone by surprise – including her. When it resumes in 2021 during her run for office she struggles to keep it under control but not before the personality affixed to it terrorizes her son. Soon enough that persona surfaces in her waking hours too. And that sinister smile she pulls out after her unexpected win in her uphill race for a state senate seat borders on demonic.

"She's now aware, truly conscious, of her bifurcated self and the advantages of that," Lisco explained while being careful to add that Taissa's plot isn't saying anything specific about American politics. "But the truth is, politicians are bifurcated real people who are attempting to often achieve good things in the world, and they have to use these cruel means to do so. And I think that's emblematic of something like it's truly afoot in our society right now."

He also expressed concern about the audience forgiving Taissa's dark self for committing one of the most grievous sins in all of entertainment. 

"We all love our animals. And the fact that her alter ego has done something terrible to Biscuit is something that we really need to redeem her from," he said. "We hope that the audience will go on that ride with her and us and realize that she's not fully in control of her own capacity."

Listening and reading for extra credit

"Yellowjackets" is a fertile show for Easter Egg gatherers. Theorists are fond of poring over the credits sequence, which is spiked with images that make more sense the further one goes into the season.

Some of the less obvious references are literary. While "Lord of the Flies" is an obvious influence on the story, Lisco also points to John Fowles' "The Magus" as a major influence. "It sort of [asks] the question of whether or not the supernatural was happening outside of you or in your head. Then it got very 'Eyes Wide Shut' at the end, so it also dealt with ritual," Lisco said.

"We put that in the show, actually. Coach Scott (Steven Krueger), I believe he's reading it near the stream as Natalie comes up.  Of course, that's one of the Easter Eggs that maybe people won't notice. But now they will."

Another book he mentions is "The Keep" by Jennifer Egan, one of many texts the writers consult in their quest "to play the perception of reality, and what is horrific, what is real."

And if you fell for the soundtrack, that's by design. "The needle drops are not casual on our side of things," Lisco confirms. "We're not trying to be completely logical or left brain about this, we want you to be moved on a kind of infrared, right brain level and not even know why you're moved."

A favorite of his Enya's "Only Time," which plays in the finale,"We actually wrote a letter to Enya, because we wanted to use the song so much. We tried a million different things. None of them quite transported us enough . . . [it] linked that photo montage at the reunion beautifully with what was happening in the cabin, and then segues into the big fight between Jackie and Shauna. When you find that particular needle drop that moves you at that level, it's so . . . your fingertips just get all warm, and you just go with it."

All episodes of "Yellowjackets" are available to stream on the Showtime app or with an upgraded Paramount+ subscription.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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