‘Yellowjackets’ and ‘The Wilds’ reveal what castaway fictions are wrong

In the first season of The Savages, a plane crashes, stranding a group of teenage girls on a desert island. In yellow jackets, another plane, flying in Seattle, crashes, leaving the members of a high school girls championship football team to fend for themselves in the Canadian wilderness. In both shows there’s the usual assortment of archetypes – the jock, the loner, the rich kid, the poor kid and so on. Both shows were conceived and created by women, and largely written and directed by women as well.

Telling stories of survival through the eyes of teenage girls, The Savages and yellow jackets offer a new twist on a familiar genre. Humans, in history and literature, have been abandoned for millennia, from Homer to Gilligan. Odysseus is tempted by the sirens on the rocks; Robinson Crusoe reproduces society as he knew it with an exoticism and Eurocentric prejudices. In William Golding’s famous 1954 novel, lord of the flies, a group of stranded British schoolchildren go savage and murderous. The dystopian story, which affirms a Hobbesian view of life as “wicked, brutal and short”, has become a touchstone of modern survival fiction. With yellow jackets, the creators challenged themselves to make a female version of it. The series is darker and more violent than The Savages, a teen drama aimed at young adults. But the idea that humans are naturally monstrous without the nurturing influence of society doesn’t ring true. Tales of real-life survivors present a more optimistic picture of human nature than Golding’s vicious band of castaways. In their depictions of young women supporting each other through calamity, The Savages and even yellow jackets recognize that too.

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Each episode of The Savages is told from the perspective of one of the girls, reciting her version of the days on the island. Toni (Erana James) is the Native lesbian with anger issues; Shelby (Mia Healey) is the conservative Christian beauty pageant queen; Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) is the bookish brooder; Rachel (Reign Edwards) is the elite athlete, with Nora (Helena Howard) her protective sister. The emotional life of adolescents is complex, confusing and full of contradictions. They struggle with their identity and self-esteem. Their anxieties cloud the way they see their life and the way they see themselves. One of the great pleasures of this series is the richness of these characters.

The accident in yellow jackets is set in 1996, with the action moving between stranded teenagers and the adults they become a quarter century later. Teen Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is hyper-competitive; adult Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is in a tight race to become a senator. Young Shauna (Sophie Nelisse) is the most popular girl’s ordinary friend, though she has a secret adventurous side. She grows up to be a frustrated and angry housewife (Melanie Lynskey). Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) is the social pariah; his adult self (Juliette Lewis) spends years in rehab. Part teenager (Sammi Hanratty) and part adult (Christina Ricci), Misty is smart and menacing. Today’s four women have had little contact with each other, preferring to get away from the trauma of the wilderness. They are reunited when one of the other survivors mysteriously dies.

There are convoluted storylines in both shows, filled with intrigue and twists. Individuals can be mean and wicked, and yellow jackets has bloody scenes, including a gruesome sequence in the pilot episode that shows a girl being hunted down, roasted, and eaten by a squad of girls in animal skins. The violence unleashed in the desert follows the survivors into their adult lives. “When did we become these people who lie and cheat and do horrible things? 40-something Shauna asks her husband after stabbing a man to death with a kitchen knife. “We’ve always been those people,” he told her.

Teenage girls are stranded on a desert island The Savages. (Photo: Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios)

This stark take on human nature creates compelling drama, but it doesn’t reflect the actual survival stories. In 1972, an all-male Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes. Twenty-nine of the 45 on board survived; 13 more died before the team could be rescued over 70 days later, some cannibalized by the survivors. They did not go wild and the decision to eat the dead was not made out of collective madness but out of necessity. Teammates worked together in extreme weather conditions. (Their story was later made into a 1993 film Alive.)

In 1965, six boarding school boys from Tonga, tired of the same old cafeteria meals, decided to embark on a sailing adventure. They left in fine weather, which turned into a thunderstorm the first night. The sail and the rudder broke. They drifted for eight days, landing on an island, which was to be their home for the next 15 months. When they were finally rescued, the teenagers had very long hair and were naked. They also had a community garden, water tank, gymnasium, badminton court, chicken coop and fire pit. The boys worked in teams, resolved conflicts and ended each day with songs and prayers.

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These real events are very different from the pessimistic view of humanity in the fictionalized versions. The pessimist says he is realistic when he is simply fearful. Still, optimism is a lot of hard work. Abandoned by the pandemic, many of us have also felt despair. There were times when we were exhausted by our loneliness, tired by the seeming indifference of others. Almost all of us, at one time or another, have felt abandoned. There were no adults to help us.

Juliette Lewis (left) and Christina Ricci play adult survivors Natalie and Misty in yellow jackets. (Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime)

There are no adults in tales for teenagers; and if there are, they are ineffective. Teenagers must rediscover the world with each generation. The young women of The Savages and yellow jackets are lost before their planes crash. They are alone together, like all teenagers. They survive their trauma by working together.

In the fifth episode of yellow jackets, the girls’ menstrual cycles all sync up. They must collectively manage practicalities without relying on store-bought products. It works as a powerful metaphor for their situation: even before they figure out how to deal with what happens to them in nature, their bodies have already created a community. It is their nature in action; the rest they have to take care of.

The Savages stream on Amazon Prime. The second season is released on May 6. yellow jacketsa Showtime production, is available in Canada on Crave.


Andre Faiz is a writer in Toronto.

This story first appeared in Wide view’s June 2022 issue with the title “Lost together”.

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