‘Our dearest apologies’: ‘Yellowjackets’ showrunner answers our many, many finale questions

After one of the most rip-roaring, obsession-worthy debut outings in modern TV memory, Yellowjackets Season 1 has come to a close.

On Sunday, Showtime aired “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” the epic survival horror series’ tenth and (for now) final episode. We went into the finale with a mountain of theories and questions, then somehow left with even more. Luckily, Yellowjackets Season 2 has already been greenlit so we can plan to talk mysterious antler queens, non-existent books clubs, and vicious pet birds again in the not-so-distant future.

But the promise of more Yellowjackets won’t necessarily make the wait for more Yellowjackets any easier. So we sat down with showrunner and executive producer Jonathan Lisco, known for Halt and Catch Fire and Animal Kingdom, to pick his brain (read: beg for clarity) about our favorite new show. There’s lots to read into, so we’re presenting basically everything he told us.

Game on, theorizers. And as always: Buzz, buzz.

The following interview has been edited only for length and clarity.

On joining the Yellowjackets team

Executive producer Karyn Kusama let me know about the project. Karyn and I go way back. She directed a Halt and Catch Fire for me, when I was running Halt and Catch Fire. Cut forward to a year and a half ago.

She said, “Jonathan, I’ve directed something that I think has got potential. But more importantly, I’m working with these two married series creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who are your kind of people and you are going to love. You’ve got to meet them and read the script.” I said, “You know, Karyn, I’m in a deal and I’m probably not able to do it.” She says, “Just meet them and read the script.” So I read the script.

To quote the writer Jorge Luis Borges: “Art is algebra plus fire.” I read the pilot script that Ash and Bart wrote, and it was algebra in the sense that it was perfectly constructed and well put together. But it also had that ineffable quality, that right-brain thing that just is beyond logic that pulls you in by the lapels and doesn’t let you go.

From that point, I felt like, “This is a show I really have to work on.” So I met [Ash and Bart] and [Karyn] was absolutely right. Her instincts were good. We had an immediate love fest, which doesn’t mean we agree all the time, but these were the kinds of people that I could become fast friends with and trust and collaborate with. So I became their partner and we decided to go on this crazy journey together.

On working with Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson

I don’t want to speak for Ash and Bart, but they certainly had their reservations when they heard about me because this was their baby and they’d been working on it for three years with the other executive producers, Karyn and Drew Comins. It was like, “Who’s this guy who’s coming in, and why would we need this?”

But with great respect to Ash and Bart who are super talented and very capable, I know running a TV show is a whole thing unto itself. Writing is one thing. But I remember from when I ran my first TV show that you sort of go from being a writer to being the CEO of an airline, metaphorically speaking, because it is a huge entity. Since then, the three of us have formed this triumvirate. We call ourselves JAB: Jonathan, Ashley, and Bart.

The 'Yellowjackets' adult main cast in a scene from the Season 1 finale, wearing smart outfits at an event..

Credit: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

The three of us genuinely run the show together in the sense that we reach consensus on almost every decision. When I say that, I’m talking about the 67th iteration of the VFX shot, the hairstyles, the costumes, the music, the scripts. When we disagree, what’s great about it is, we’ll bring that disagreement back to the writer’s room and an even better idea will come.

When that better idea comes, to go back to the Borges analogy, it’s fire. Most people feel it immediately, and we say, “That’s the most compelling and riveting story. We’re doing that.” It comes from a lot of work, a lot of banging your head up against the wall, and a lot of walking down the wrong roads. That’s why you need to trust your collaborators. Because when you’re in a writer’s room, it’s got to be a best idea room.

On reading fan theories and seeing the show find its audience

It’s been very humbling. People always say, “Oh, if you create and run a show that takes off, won’t that be a great thing?” But the truth is that it’s also very stressful. As our very enthusiastic audience — and I say this with great respect to them — starts to allow the narrative to mushroom in their own consciousness and goes on flights of fancy with their own theories, it’s no longer just your show. Then, it’s everybody’s show.

But there’s no multiverse here; we’ve got to make decisions. So we can’t hit everyone’s theory palpably and perfectly each time. Ultimately, we have to hear all that, absorb it, respect it, love it genuinely, and then look at each other and say, “What are our instincts telling us?” We hope that the audience that’s being so gripped by the show will go on the ride with us as we knock ideas around and decide what the most compelling narrative is.

On Shauna and Jackie’s tragic friendship

Some people may disagree with the way in which we dispatch Jackie. Some people may say like, “Oh, I thought they were going to eat her!” or whatever. They may have their ideas for what they wanted to have happen. But we’re not just about the concrete plot. We’re about the emotional and psychological plot first.

So when we were looking at that storyline and everything that we built, we looked at the relationship between Shauna and Jackie — which was ultimately about repeated rupture and repair, one living in the other’s shadow, jealousy, and resentment, but also deep love for one another — we asked ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be the most satisfying if it’s not like she was murdered or they ate her, but rather a tragic accident occurs because of their mutual stubbornness?” They have this fight, which is truthful and organic. Then, just because neither one of them can utter a single word of apology because they’re both so fucking stubborn, Jackie freezes to death in the woods.

That’s one of those moments of revelation where we’re like, “That is the story” because there’s no other burden as deep and as traumatic for Shauna to carry into the 2021 storyline as that. If she had just gone out and given an olive branch to her best friend, she could have avoided her death. So to us that felt very rich and very real. We didn’t just want to go for the shock value of an event in the show, because we’re not just about incident sensationalism or shock value.

Jackie and Shauna in the 'Yellowjackets' finale.

Credit: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

It’s been interesting to us that the audience initially started out saying that the show was very brutal. We don’t deny that it has its brutal moments, but we certainly weren’t attempting to make a merely savage show. We were attempting to make a very specific show about characters under great duress. We were trying to make a show about true freedom and its consequences in the woods, as the social conventions come down and this social hierarchy devolves. We weren’t trying to shock people. Yes, sometimes it’s shocking because in order to give you this reality of what they’re going through then we have to show you some of the truth of what they’re experiencing.

But with the Jackie of it all, we weren’t just trying to shock and surprise. These surprises in the show have to feel gripping, but also inevitable and like they emanate from the DNA of the relationships in the show. So we think that was a really moving storyline and we hope the audience agrees. That said, for those who don’t and for those who would’ve liked to see something a bit more bloody in that moment, our dearest apologies. But we’re always going to kick the tires on these storylines and do what we thinks serves the characters and the ultimate narrative the most.

On Taissa’s dark side and surprise election victory

You could back up from the 30,000 foot view and say, “Oh, they’re trying to make a comment about politicians, how bad politicians are, and how two-faced they are” because Taissa’s got this alter ego. That’s an easy thing to do. That’s not necessarily what we’re trying to do.

What is more interesting to us is Taissa is someone who is so driven, so type A and ambitious, that for the longest time she’s been trying to suppress — if not repressing unconsciously — this alter ego, this dark force within her. When we began the story, she wasn’t even aware that she was the lady in the tree, right? She wasn’t aware that she was who Sammy was seeing out his window or that this sleepwalking-channeled trauma was still plaguing her in 2021. Now, the question is: Did she really not know it?

Adult Taissa in the 'Yellowjackets' finale.

Credit: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Once we go through the arc of her season and reach that beautiful shot, where Taissa has that look of reckoning and understanding on her face as she is realizing that she has this altar in her house just as Simone discovers it, I think what we’re asking is, “Should we be really worried about her now?” Because now Taissa is seeing the advantages of having this dark alter ego, whereas before she was thinking it was merely a bad thing. But now moving into Season 2, is it something that she could selectively tap into to achieve certain things in her life?

That’s very terrorizing because she’s also going be a state senator. So what lies ahead for a person like that, who actually has the ability to tap into — almost on a habitual, selective basis — a true darkness? A darkness that some of us can’t even understand based on the trauma that she went through in the woods?

On Lottie and that bear

Lottie was always a potential super secret weapon. I say “potential super secret weapon” because when you’re making a TV show, of course you have great plans for how things are going to go. But you also have to open yourself up to the feedback loop of television. It’s like when you’re trying to create a great romance, but then realize that the two actors have no chemistry on screen. What do you do you, right? So we wanted to see how the ensemble gelled before we actually made the decision [to have Lottie play a major role].

But from the very beginning, we thought Lottie could be a seminal character because one of the themes of the show is to play with the question of “What is the supernatural?” You could be walking in the woods and feel an energy beyond yourself and be really scared that something’s going to come out of the brush. You picture some terrible monster, some unspeakably terrible thing that’s lurking in the darkness. But then, it turns out that it’s just dark.

Lottie in the 'Yellowjackets' finale.

Credit: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Where does that energy come from? Is that produced by the ones and zeros in our neurotransmitters in our heads? Or is there an actual darkness that is plaguing these young women? The question of whether the supernatural emanates from forces external to them or from forces within them is something that we’re exploring in the show.

Now, take Lottie. Lottie is someone who we know was on meds for some kind of mental illness [when the plane crashed] and ostensibly has been suffering from mental illness for a long time. She’s now a person who’s run out of her meds and is under great duress in the woods. She’s also a quiet type who internalizes people’s emotional states. She’s very absorptive, very keenly observant. So as we started to watch the ensemble gel, we thought, “Lottie is the kind of person who could start to have an energy that affects the other people in an almost supernatural way.”

Is there an actual darkness that is plaguing these young women?

That’s what we tried to achieve when the bear came into frame. That scene is also based on science, right? If you approach a wild animal and you exude no fear — and when I say no fear, I don’t just mean your affect; I mean, you’re not giving off the pheromones and chemicals of fear — that animal might not attack you. Because the animal thinks, “I’m being met by an equal, or at least a force that I understand.” What we’d love in that moment is for you, the audience to think, “She’s got a gift. She’s somehow supernaturally channeling a darkness, and that’s why she was able to stab the submissive bear.” But in fact, maybe it’s just that she approached the bear in a way that the bear is rarely approached by a human being.

Therefore the bear got down on its haunches and she stabbed it. The idea of two different explanations for the same thing — these two pistons running simultaneously — is something which we’re going to continue to explore in the show.

On “Misty Fucking Quigley”

One of the main things we love about Misty is that there’s a wish fulfillment quality to her arc. Over the course of Season 1, Misty realizes, “Oh my god, I’ve been so brutalized through my adolescence that things are changing for me now that I’m out here. A lot of the skills that I have actually become indispensable. I’m actually being Seen with a capital S for the first time in my life.” I think what people are identifying in Misty is someone who has no boundaries because she’s a bit of a sociopath.

But the idea that you would just do anything you could to make things better and be seen and be valued as an adolescent is something that I think everyone can identify with. It was so gratifying to me that when she rips the wires out of the tracker at the end of that episode 2, you’re like, “What are you doing? This is the only chance you have for rescue!” Then at the same time, you kind of get it because for the first time in Misty’s life, the other girls are actually seeing her for who she is and valuing her. By the end, I would just ask you this question — and I’m not trying to be cagey here — but it’s very interesting to us as writers that she shows up as one of the acolytes as Lottie is placing the bear heart on the altar at end of episode 10.

Young Misty in the 'Yellowjackets' finale.

Credit: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Because a lot of our viewers will say like, “What’s Misty doing there?” Misty hasn’t really been talking about the darkness, but Van has been. Van has been sort of infected by this idea that there’s a supernatural quality of what’s happening here, but Misty hasn’t been. So I think one interesting thing to play with in Season 2 will be whether Misty is truly becoming an acolyte of said darkness, or whether she’s seeing which way the wind is blowing and deciding strategically that it makes more sense to be here with Lottie today, as opposed to with the other girls in the cabin. So I think that’ll be an interesting thing that’s kind of plastic for us to play with heading into Season 2.

On Natalie and her lavender-wearing abductors

Adult Natalie in the 'Yellowjackets' finale.

Credit: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

One of the hallmarks of the show is to ask the question of whether or not trauma defines us, and whether we can ever escape the shackles of the trauma that we experience in our younger years, right?

So the idea that after everything you’ve seen in the woods so far comes back to haunt the Yellowjackets in 2021 with these weird lavender-wearing people who come in with that symbol around their neck and then they take Natalie…It doesn’t take a genius to suggest that whatever started in the woods, whatever dark forces are going to be dramatized in the course of Season 2, never really died there. They are still alive and with some of the survivors in 2021. Maybe they’ve just been on a slow simmer, but now as we move forward in subsequent seasons, it’s really going to explode and become more vivid.

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