I came into the Yellowjackets season finale expecting it to be brutal. Well, it was brutal alright, just not in the way I hoped it would be. Folks, we need to talk about needledrops, specifically all the ones on this show. Simply put, Yellowjackets has the worst music supervision on television, and it’s fucking the rest of the show up, bad.
Seriously. “Zombie” by the Cranberries as everyone staggers back to the cabin with Javi’s corpse in tow, eyes glassy, completely drained, shuffling around like, you guessed it, zombies. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead as Natalie hallucinates being back on the crashing plane as she dies from an accidental lethal injection by Misty before, you guessed it, fading out. “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen, one of the most overused music cues of the past two decades (which should have been retired after its pitch perfect usage by Richard Kelly in Donnie Darko), as the surviving kids stand outside their burning cabin, looking forward to a future of, you guessed it, killing people under the moonlight.
Every song is hugely famous already, carrying tons of preexisting emotional weight, and used to the most literal effect possible, like a sort of musical Cliff’s Notes for what’s happening and how we’re supposed to feel about it. It’s all so blunt, so artless. It makes Stranger Things sound like The Sopranos. (Nora Felder, who took over from Euphoria’s Jen Malone on music supervision duties this season, also handled Stranger Things, to which I can only say no shit.)
It’s a shame, too, because the teenage material, always the show’s best stuff, keeps getting better and better. This is a fascinating episode for the wilderness storyline. Lottie comes to regret being the ringleader of the kids’ budding cult and renounces her position as chieftain. This instead is passed on to Natalie on the grounds that she survived being the target of a hunt when the wilderness chose Javi to die in her place. You can see the mixed feelings all over actor Sophie Thatcher’s face as every kid approaches her and shows obesiance, some kissing her hand, her ex-boyfriend Travis, who ate his brother’s heart earlier in the episode, placing her hand over his own heart. As a smile flickers in and out of focus on Natalie’s face, there’s an eroticism to this collective coronation of a new queen, an infusion of power into a powerless girl who you can all but see swelling with newfound vigor. It’s a tremendous sequence.
The fallout is just as interesting. Shauna, the person who took it upon herself to butcher Javi’s body for everyone to consume, writes in her journal that she should have been named leader, that the invisibleness she previously blamed on being in her best friend Jackie’s shadow has somehow persisted.
Coach Ben, who had previously approached Natalie and Natalie alone to join him in Javi’s secret tree cave only to be told he should go off on his own since he’s a good person and she is not, watches the whole ceremony in horror…and sets the cabin on fire with everyone inside. This is, of course, crazy in its own way, and more murderous than anything the kids have done, but he surely sees it as an act of righteousness, an attempt to stop their evil from spreading. It’s reminiscent of some of the best Stephen King, and it guarantees a major shakeup for the third season, with the cabin no longer the default location for the kids’ misadventures. Great stuff.
For a while there, it seems like the adult material might follow suit. Into the already volatile mix of the reunited survivors, writer Ameni Rosza (PSA: Writers are responsible for everything we watch and love and the studios should pay and treat them fairly, solidarity forever) introduces a whole cavalcade of outside investigators: Misty’s cheerfully psychotic buddy Walter, local cops Kevyn and Mike, and Shauna’s husband Jeff and daughter Callie. Walter, in fact, kills Kevyn in front of Jeff, uses Jeff to help hide the corpse, then pulls some kind of cyber shenanigans in order to make it look like Kevyn was the killer all along and involved in some serious police corruption to boot. He persuades Mike to go along with the coverup under threat of framing him instead.
Callie, meanwhile, gets an earful and eyeful of the antics of her mom and her weird circle of friends, and is an eyewitness when Misty accidentally jabs a needle full of phenobarbitol into Natalie’s neck in an effort to kill Lottie’s disciple Lisa instead. (Natalie put herself in harm’s way to protect the younger woman, whose kindness she appreciated.) I think it’s high time she be brought up to speed on the full fucked-uppedness of her mother, so I’m all for this development.
But in the end, the adult material felt less like a crescendo and more like a jumble. There are some logical holes, for one thing, such as why Lisa didn’t tell the police the correct version of events; I get why everyone else went along with the story that Natalie simply OD’d, but Lisa not only knows it was a murder, she knows she was the intended victim. Similarly, I’m not sure why Mike thought going along with Walter’s cockamamie scheme was easier than telling his fellow cops everything he knows. I mean, who are they gonna believe, another cop or some messageboard weirdo? The thin blue line exists to protect its own, first and foremost. So you wind up with this feeling that all the characters were brought together not for some big climactic moment but for a series of murders and mix-ups and meetings that don’t really cohere into anything.
That’s where we stand at the end of this surprise hit’s second season. Natalie is dead. (Goodbye, Juliette Lewis; they should have bleached your hair blonde to make you look more like Sophie Thatcher.) Lottie has been re-committed. Shauna and her family are off the hook for Adam’s murder. Walter seems like a part of the gang now. And back in the past, the kids are truly on their own in the wilderness, with Natalie the presumptive Antler Queen and Coach Ben as an antagonist.
But so much of the episode’s emotional power is sapped away by the atrociously obvious use of found music. The fascinating Taissa storyline spent the whole season spinning its wheels. The adult killings are still more in the Murder Hijinks vein than connected to the grim tone of the teenage cannibal killings. It doesn’t click, it doesn’t cohere, it doesn’t create the sense that the creators and showrunner are building to something steadily rather than running around doing this and that here and there and hoping it all comes together. Yellowjackets remains a show that seems intent on stopping itself from becoming great. You can’t blame the wilderness for choosing that.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.
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