This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Yellowjackets season 2 on Showtime in its discussion of cannibalism as a form of intimacy.
Yellowjackets opened with a striking and unsettling inference. A teenage girl runs through the snowy wilderness seemingly fleeing something. She finds herself surrounded by macabre and occult decorations. She stumbles and falls into a spike-laced pit, as a masked figure looks on. The premiere then closes with a sequence in which the teenage survivors of a horrific plane crash, dressed in animal skins and ritual attire, gather around to feast on meat.
The implication was clear. The teenage girls who had survived the crash had engaged in ritualistic cannibalism. While some viewers argued that this was just an attempt at misdirection to mislead the audience, the production team was quite candid. Co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco has stated that the show isn’t interested in those sorts of red herrings, warning fans, “I think sometimes you should take what we do on face value.”
This plays out in “Edible Complex,” the second episode of the show’s second season, which makes that subtext explicit. The first season ended with the death of Jackie (Ella Purnell), the popular captain of the eponymous soccer team. Her best friend, Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), has been keeping the dead body on ice. At the end of the second season premiere, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” Jackie’s ear breaks off and Shauna consumes it.
In “Edible Complex,” the other girls grow increasingly uncomfortable with Shauna’s relationship to the corpse. Because the ground is too frozen to dig a grave, they decide to cremate Jackie’s remains. They construct a pyre. However, that night, something disturbs the trees over the body, knocking snow onto the fire. As a result, the body is cooked rather than incinerated. Shauna is drawn to the meat. “She wants us to,” Shauna assures her friends. There is a ruthless feeding frenzy.
In that moment, Yellowjackets makes the cannibalism that was baked into the show’s premise an explicit part of the text. After all, the series was “loosely” but “absolutely” inspired by the infamous real-life crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, in which members of a Uruguayan rugby club and their families were stranded in the Andes and forced to resort to cannibalism. It would be a bigger surprise if Yellowjackets weren’t about cannibalism.
Yellowjackets exists as part of a larger wave of modern media exploring cannibalism, which has been described as “mankind’s oldest taboo.” Discarding slightly less recent examples like Julia Ducournau’s Raw or Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, or even zombie-adjacent takes like Victor Fresco’s Santa Clarita Diet, last year saw the premiere of Yellowjackets alongside the release of Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer, Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, Mimi Cave’s Fresh, and the House of Hammer documentary.
Of course, there have always been stories about cannibalism. The subject holds a macabre fascination. After all, multiple actors have played the charismatic cannibal Doctor Hannibal Lecter. Like most primal fears, cannibalism is not a single easy-to-explain horror. The general public’s fascination with (and anxiety around) cannibalism can be rooted in different (and even mutually exclusive) things, depending on the context.
During the 1970s, it was tied to worries about consumer culture. Soylent Green imagined a world where humans were raw material to be processed into food, while the flesh-craving zombies of Dawn of the Dead were drawn to the mall. These stories can also be about the fear that human beings are ultimately just animals — predators and prey, monsters and meat. “It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals,” boasts Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen).
These fears haunt the modern wave of cannibal culture. In Fresh, Brendan (Sebastian Stan) seduces young women so that he can harvest their meat to sell to an exclusive clientele. In Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) is a real estate agent before she transforms into a flesh-hungry monster. The girls of Yellowjacket descend into animalistic anarchy. Characters in both Yellowjackets and Hannibal are haunted by the Wendigo, a beast cursed with a craving for human flesh.
However, there’s something even more unsettling at play in these more recent entries in the genre. “Because ultimately, the show is not about if cannibalism, it’s about why cannibalism, and how cannibalism,” Lisco explained of Yellowjackets. “But it may not be just because of scarcity. It may be because of something much more complex: the new micro-society that they need to build, and the rules that they need to form to survive. Not just physically, but psychologically and mentally.”
In these more recent cannibal stories, the act of consumption is presented as an act of intimacy. In Fresh, Brendan meets his victims through the dating scene. Dahmer is fixated on the killer’s cannibalistic tendencies and his psychosexual desires. The title of Bones and All refers to an intensely intimate act of communion between the movie’s two lovers (Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet), in which one completely consumes the other. House of Hammer explores the intersection of Armie Hammer’s cannibalistic fantasies and accusations of sexual abuse.
Hannibal is about the title character’s desire to consume Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), physically and emotionally. “If you love someone fully the most extreme you can go with that is to digest them and make them be part of you,” Mikkelsen stated of his take on the iconic character. “It’s a super selfish thing, but it’s a big part of cannibalism. For that reason he wants to possess Will.” These are tales of monstrous desire. It seems notable that much of this wave comes from women and queer creators.
“Cannibalism is the consumption of someone else,” argues Mary Wild, “so, as a Freudian psychoanalyst, I see that as a longing for intimacy, a longing for psychological or emotional closeness, that is actually taking the form of a physical reunion or keeping that person as close to you as possible.” Yellowjackets co-creator Bart Nickerson wonders, “What portion of our revulsion to these things is a fear of the ecstasy of them?”
This fear plays out in Yellowjackets. Shauna’s consumption of Jackie is not merely a physical act. Shauna was having an affair with Jackie’s boyfriend, Jeff (Jack DePew). “You know Jeff only had sex with you because I made you into someone else,” Shauna’s imaginary version of Jackie explains. “And you only had sex with him so you could imagine being me.” Ingesting Jackie is a literal manifestation of that idea, allowing Shauna to absorb Jackie into herself.
Yellowjackets cements this association by cutting the sequence in which the snow falls on the pyre, and in which Jackie’s body is transformed into meat for consumption, against a sequence in which Nat (Sophie Thatcher) and Travis (Kevin Alves) have sex inside the cabin. It creates an equivalence between the two acts. In its own sick and perverse way, the act of consuming another person is the ultimate act of intimacy — to taste, to possess, to devour.
It isn’t a surprise that modern pop culture has been drawn to this particular reading of cannibalism. After all, spitting was the hottest pop culture trend of 2021, in the wake of a global pandemic caused by a virus that required people to stand six feet apart and spread primarily through oral secretions. Sex and intimacy have always been prime fodder for horror, particularly for queer communities during the AIDS crisis. However, that was especially and universally true in the era of COVID.
It has been suggested that the pandemic changed the way that a generation understands intimacy. Reportedly, half of young single Americans were not physically intimate with anyone during the pandemic’s first year, with two-thirds stating their preference for virtual rather than physical intimacy even afterwards. However, this may also just be part of a larger trend, with experts noting physical intimacy was already in a general decline among younger people.
After all, cannibalism as a monstrous metaphor for physical intimacy is hardly new. The current trend arguably dates back to Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, a film that has undergone something of a deserved critical reappraisal in recent years. In fact, Kusama directed that first episode of Yellowjackets, cementing the connection. Still, the trend towards cannibalism-as-monstrous-intimacy only accelerated during the pandemic.
Even outside of cannibalism, physical and emotional intimacy is a recurring preoccupation for Yellowjackets. Characters are constantly lying to one another and pretending to be things that they are not. Travis sleeps with Nat after giving up hope of finding his lost younger brother Javi (Luciano Leroux). He only does that because Nat stole some of Javi’s clothes and covered them in blood as a way to convince Travis to let go of his search. At their most intimate, Travis knows nothing about Nat.
Rejoining the cast as adults, the show stresses how difficult it is to ever fully know somebody and how complicated trust can be. As an adult, Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) navigates a troubled marriage with Jeff (Warren Kole). She cheats on him with an artist named Adam (Peter Gadiot), whom she later murders. Meanwhile, Jeff concocts an elaborate plan to blackmail Shauna to get money to keep his business afloat, afraid to ask her directly.
In the first season, the two try to rekindle their marriage through roleplay, with Jeff asking Shauna to pretend to be a British customer at his furniture shop. It goes disastrously. In the second season premiere, the two break into Adam’s loft to destroy any evidence, only to enjoy a spontaneous moment of intimacy. Both Jeff and Shauna stare at Adam’s impressionistic renderings of Shauna, often shorn of flesh. This is cut against flashbacks of Shauna considering Jackie’s detached ear.
This theme plays out repeatedly in “Edible Complex.” Misty (Christina Ricci) sparks a relationship with a fellow internet sleuth named Walter (Elijah Wood), who tracks her down to her place of work. He leaves an invitation to join him in an envelope on top of her packed lunch; intimacy and appetite collide again. Shauna’s daughter, Callie (Sarah Desjardins), strikes up a conversation with a guy named Matt (John Reynolds) at a bar. He’s really a police officer investigating her mother.
This is perhaps the true horror of the cannibal narrative at the heart of Yellowjackets and so much modern pop culture. Trust and intimacy are difficult and risky propositions, especially for women. It’s impossible to ever completely know or understand another human being. Even attempting to do so places one in grave emotional danger of being devoured whole. Better to eat than to be eaten.