Major spoilers for Yellowjackets season 1 below.
Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson are playing with us—and having a magnificent time doing it. The creators of the surprise Showtime hit Yellowjackets do, in fact, know exactly how their story ends, but they've mastered the art of strategic breadcrumb-dropping, leaving manic viewers spinning some truly hair-raising theories in their wake. Perhaps what is so brilliant about Yellowjackets is Lyle and Nickerson's ability to take a Lost-adjacent storyline—a ragtag ensemble is dropped into the wilderness after surviving a plane crash, and the survivors must contend with both practical and paranormal (?) adversaries—but elevate the pastiche by presenting two timelines: the wilderness-era past and the equally eerie present-day. We know some of these survivors make it back home. But what exactly did they do in the woods? (Short answer: Cannibalism. Long answer: Mayhaps lose their minds?) And who—or what—did they encounter in the interim?
The season 1 finale jabs at these questions with both visceral gore and spiritual ambiguity. This is the space Lyle and Nickerson love to play with: What is real? When something feels real, does “real” actually matter? Ardent Yellowjackets fans predicted the finale might create more questions than it answered, and if you made it through that last shot of teammates Lottie, Van, and Misty bowing before a gutted bear heart, you know that prediction was more like premonition. After Jackie's shocking death as winter creeps in, a sudden appearance from the “man in the opening credits,” Nat's kidnapping in the present-day timeline, Misty injecting those cigarettes, and the re-emergence of Lottie in 2021, there's an overwhelming amount of information to dissect. Thankfully, Lyle and Nickerson are game to do it—even if that means dancing around spoilers.
Below, the Yellowjackets creators tackle some heated topics (Jackie's journals! Taissa's visions! Jeff!!) and give us a few delicious hints of what's to come in season 2.
Before interviews like this one, do you have a showrunner heart-to-heart where you coordinate how much you're going to reveal?
Nickerson: [Laughs] That is a really good idea.
Lyle: We should do that.
Just a suggestion. To start, I'd love to hear the origin story of this series—and specifically how it came to exist in its current form.
Lyle: When we first started kicking around the idea, I think it's no coincidence we were working on Narcos on Netflix. And that was a really fun show to write for, but it is certainly a very, very different show. And it's one that's really steeped in the machismo of these cartels and the power struggles between them. So we knew we really wanted to do something really different than that.
That said, we really didn't want to make a show that was about being a woman in a man's world. We wanted to create a show where this was these women's world, for better or for worse. So it started from a simple place of the what if. What if a girls' sports team was involved in a plane crash and forced to survive? What quickly made it something that we latched onto was when the concept of being able to track in both timelines occurred to us. Where it wasn't just a straightforward wilderness survival story, but a 360-degree look at the experience: What it would mean for these characters and how it would change them and shape them.
Nickerson: One of the things that we really wanted to explore was this level of human experience that you don't always have access to. It is somehow more present and viscerally felt in the interpersonal. And I suspect that might be part of why this show is so technically exciting.
Do you two have the entire arc of the show planned out? Or is this a puzzle you're solving as you go?
Lyle: We absolutely have a plan and we have, I think, maybe most importantly, an endpoint. We know what we want to be building toward. As writers, we have to be flexible, especially now that we have this incredible writing staff and you have all these beautiful brains coming together to think about the paces that we can put these characters through. But we do have an endpoint, and we have tent poles along the way of things we know we want to happen. To some extent, the question is just, if we have an idea of how we get there, can we find a better idea?
Something that seems to endlessly fascinate Yellowjackets fans—myself included—is how you two toe the line between the logical and the supernatural. We see this most acutely with characters like Taissa and Lottie and Van, who all experience something that could be interpreted as a “vision” or could instead be psychosis. Was it always your intention to tackle these themes, or did they arise as a byproduct of the plot?
Nickerson: I don't think it was a byproduct of the plot. They were definitely themes we are profoundly interested in as humans and as a show. A lot of the things that are happening in the show, we don't want them, necessarily, to be ambiguous for a cleverness factor—I especially want them to be unknown. Because what exactly is happening in this sphere of spiritual experience? Regardless of whether you've used something like a possession as a psychosis or a genuine demonic presence, the person who's experiencing it—there is a subjective experience that is inarguably real to that person. What it means to be “real,” in a larger context, I think is an open question.
Like, I think most people would agree that love is real. I'm sure that someone who knows more than I do could attempt to reduce love to some sort of evolutionary psychology. But if you've ever been in love, that doesn't even begin to [capture] the experience. So I think that's a good analogy for a lot of different kinds of experiences, where it's both ephemeral and unreal and reducible, but also, in the midst of it, there is nothing realer. It generates real energy and action in the world.
I don't know that I've really seen a show tackle that question in the way this one has, with so much purposeful ambiguity.
Lyle: It's a really interesting Rorschach test. Because some fans are absolutely convinced that [the characters' experiences] are fully supernatural, and other people are equally convinced that there is not a single supernatural thing actually occurring on the show.
When it comes down to it, any sort of belief system is just that: It's a leap of faith. And I couldn't tell you anything about the stats on how many people believe in ghosts. We did take a poll in the [writers' room], and we were pretty divided. But ultimately, a belief in God or some form of a higher power is something a vast majority of people do have. These things have had an absolutely profound impact on how people behave, how they treat one another. So every time something in the show happens that could be classified as supernatural, we've had really in-depth conversations in the writers' room about both sides of it: how it looks if you're coming at it from a believer's point of view, and how you might explain it away if you were a skeptic.
If you had to boil it down, why do you think this series has attracted the fan (and critic) devotion it has?
Lyle: We did not see this coming. You just don't dare to dream that you will get this kind of response and engagement and passion from the people who are watching. We do feel a profound sense of responsibility now to keep earning their engagement and their enthusiasm over and over again.
In terms of why it struck a chord the way that it has...it's a bit of a hard series to define, I think, tonally. Some people might describe it as messy. It does still feel like, sometimes, serious shows feel like they need to be serious, and funny shows feel like they can't get too dark. And I think our willingness to try our hands at both seems to be appealing to people.
Nickerson: I certainly have some guesses at why it's been so resonant. But I also think there could be, for me, and I think for the show, a bit of a hazard in trying to figure it out too much. Because the way that Ashley and I and all of our writers approach things, is as though the story wants to come into existence. So we try to allow it to do that. If we start to get in the way of it by saying like, “Oh, well, it needs to be more like this because that's what people like,” I think that will really let people down.
Let's leap into the finale with perhaps one of the biggest reveals of the season: Jackie's death. When did the two of you decide this was how Jackie would leave us, especially since she was initially set up as the girl (supposedly) eaten in the first episode?
Lyle: [Jackie's death] was actually part of the original pitch for the show. I remember because, Bart and I, when we pitch something, we have to script it out and then memorize it. The last part of the pitch was, “And as the first snow begins to fall, end season one.” So we did stick to the script as far as that goes. Ella [Purnell, who plays Jackie] knew going in that this would be her fate, and she was very good at keeping that close to the vest. Even the crew is always like, “Oh, what's going to happen?”
We realized, in retrospect, that maybe we should have seen all the theorizing coming—because there was a fair amount of that happening on set. Our script supervisor is like the original citizen detective. Every day, she'd have a new theory for me, and some of them were pretty wild. So now that I think about it, she might be on those boards.
She's the Reddit ringleader.
Lyle: I do feel like Jackie's death is both a tragedy and an event for the rest of the group. We wanted it to be a turning point, emotionally, for everybody. It's sort of symbolic of the last vestiges of the life that they knew and the social structure and the rules of home falling away.
I know that there's a certain amount of anticipation about the cannibalism amongst viewers. And we, first and foremost, want to make sure that—if we're going to go there, and we're going to go to such an extreme place—that we really earn it, and we earn our characters getting to that point and making that choice.
Nickerson: Ella actually did a lot of practice being dead. I think it adds so much [to the scene], because she's just so spent and she's so lifeless. I think the tableau of it is so powerful.
Well, and the makeup, the costume design, the set design—it all feels so visceral.
Lyle: Patricia Murray, who's our head of makeup, I remember when we were first meeting with her, we talked about Ben Scott [played by Steven Krueger] losing his leg and she went, “Beautiful.” That's how we knew we had found the exact right person to take along with us.
One more Jackie question before we move on: I have to ask about her journals. I know you've addressed it in previous interviews. We know Jackie's not a time traveler, which I'm very happy to hear. But is there a plausible reason why those movies from the 2000s were in her journals?
Lyle: There are certain things in the show that are Easter eggs for the writers. There are character names; there are little details throughout that really speak to who we are as people and what we've talked about in the room.
There is a plausible explanation. We feel like it is much more of a character thing than a plot thing. We intend to, eventually, in the show, cover some of the ground of the space between these two timelines. We see the [Yellowjackets] in '96, and we see them in the present day, but obviously there's 25 years in the interim.
Nickerson: I think that this is an important point: We, as a show, are pretty careful. We spend a lot of time on a lot of things, probably to our detriment, personally. We are going to attempt to answer all things. But first and foremost, a lot of the mystery stuff is about elaborating on the characters. So there are things that are breadcrumbs that are as much about tone and theme as they are about the ultimate questions around plot.
Lyle: Like, I am a big fan of escape rooms. I go with some friends, and we've done an absolutely obscene number of escape rooms. When we started doing them, we would overcomplicate them. And I think it's interesting to see a slightly similar thing happen sometimes [with Yellowjackets fans]. It's not to say that there aren't little clues. Obviously, there is a mystery component. But it's fascinating to see people sometimes analyze details that are so small.
Nickerson: I do think there are little synchronicities, almost like the show has its own subconscious that is maybe revealed in some of these details. Like I said, we are a very careful show, but to be completely honest, we didn't think about how song lyrics would appear in the closed-captioning subtitles. But fans are freeze-framing them, and I've actually been shocked at how the [captions] have predicted things. I'm just like, “How did this happen?”
Lyle: I can't believe you just outed us on that one.
Nickerson: You really want to pretend that we're planning the closed captions? How would we even do that, technically?
Lyle: It would make us look like such geniuses.
Nickerson: [Laughs] We can't do that.
Lyle: Maybe, if nothing else, it helps strengthen a relationship of trust [with fans] when we do admit when things are unintentional. I will say that, the moment that the screengrab made its way onto Reddit and then eventually into our writers' text chain—the closed captioning of the Liz Phair song, when it said, “You walk in clouds of glitter” with Jeff—I was like, “Oh my God, we look like geniuses.” How does a coincidence like that happen if the universe isn't kind of looking out for you?
Nickerson: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. You are talking to two people that, like, read tarot and believe in the power of the subconscious/the great beyond, I guess. I don't know that we planned it, but I think we deserve credit for facilitating.
Speaking of our lovely glitter-covered Jeff, I'm so pleased to see his ascendance from deadbeat husband to fan-favorite. He knows what happened in the woods; he read Shauna's journals, and he's still married to her. He doesn't seem horribly distraught about it. But he's definitely carrying some secrets. Is he now an honorary Yellowjacket? Is his story going to expand?
Nickerson: I would definitely say that Jeff is an honorary Yellowjacket.
Lyle: Yes, his story will expand. We joked the other day that he has now accidentally joined book club. When we pitched the first season to the network, we said that it was a love story, but Shauna would not realize until the end of the season who her love story was truly with.
We love the idea of having two people who are so fundamentally estranged from each other in so many ways, who at this point start to really see each other for the first time and be honest with each other. We'll see how that might completely change their perspective of each other, but also complicate their lives in a lot of potentially dangerous ways.
Also during the finale, Taissa learns she actually won the election she was expected to lose. How does this change things for her going into the next season?
Nickerson: I think that's going to be the big question for her. What the intention was in that last shot of her [in the finale] was—although she might not literally know the details of how this has happened, she has made the connection between what we'll call “the wilderness,” whatever force was out there, and this improbable election upset. So how she navigates that will very much be a big question for her in season 2.
Is there a reason why there are so many unnamed Yellowjackets in the wilderness, ones we don't know much about? What can you tell me about them, if anything?
Lyle: [They're] a function of both storytelling but also practicalities. We knew there would be a certain number of people on the plane, because there's a certain number of people on a soccer team. And ultimately, we want to leave ourselves more stories to tell.
But then, on a practical front, it really can be challenging when this is already a really enormous cast, and we have a certain limitation of resources. I've seen people online say like, “What happened to them? Where have they been?” Here's the thing with featured extras: You genuinely cannot guarantee that you will be able to book the same people all the time. So there's a little bit of a dance that you do.
We're hopeful that, if we approach it in the right way, there's a little bit of a suspension of disbelief that's happening here. We hope to be able to expand our cast of characters as the story calls for it.
The '96 class reunion is such an energetic, nostalgic part of this episode. I specifically wanted to ask about Allie, the girl whose leg Taissa broke back in episode 1. She makes her first reappearance in the finale, and so many fans have speculated she might have an important role to play. So, if I may ask, does she have a role beyond hosting high-school reunions?
Lyle: To some extent, we were just so entertained by the idea of this person who was meant to be on the plane that crashed. And yet, in the greater context of our world and our characters, it's like—well, who gives a shit? The inherent dark comedy of her predicament is very funny to us. We also think that [actress Tonya Cornelisse] is hilarious; I love every moment of her on screen. I think, to some extent, it remains to be seen, but we would love to see more Allie moving forward.
Another major finale moment: We finally meet the mystery man from the opening credits. I won't ask who he is; I know you can't tell me. But he appears during Jackie's fever dream as she dies, telling her “We've been waiting for you.” Yet it's Shauna who awakens with a start in the next scene. So was it Shauna's dream? Jackie's dream? Was it meant to be ambiguous?
Nickerson: Yeah, I think it is meant to be open to interpretation. Because yeah, there is an interpretation where this was Jackie making some kind of transition, and there is an interpretation that this was Shauna subconsciously making a prediction. There's also an interpretation where it is some version of both of those things. That there is a sort of sphere or space moving adjacent to what's happening in the wilderness, that at different points we're starting to see a crossover or a bleed-over of.
But again, I think that's going to be something that is interpreted individually by the characters, and hopefully by the audience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.