But the sixth episode, “Qui,” which aired Sunday and hit streaming Friday, amounts to something like a horror turducken, stacking one psychologically scarring outcome after another for the show’s one pregnant character, Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), until you’re as unsure about — and demolished by — what’s happening as she is.
The long and the short of it is that Shauna nearly dies giving birth and has a series of horrifying hallucinations about what happened — including one where her friends eat her baby — that turn out in hindsight to be somehow better than what actually did.
The effect is fascinating. I can’t stop thinking about it. Not because the tragic outcome is remotely surprising (viewers have always known this pregnancy was doomed), but because pregnancy and childbirth are rarely treated as horror (or indeed, as cannibalism!) even though they at least theoretically fulfill the conditions for both. (“Don’t worry, the baby will take what it needs” is something many a doctor has said to many a person weak from exhaustion and concerned they can’t eat — or keep anything down — because of morning sickness.)
The opening of “Qui” drives this point home: In a flashback to a time before the plane crash that lands the team in the middle of nowhere, Coach Ben (Steven Krueger) plays a video for the class in which a woman gives birth. Some students titter, but most ignore it. The screen pauses on a particularly gory scene, but no one reacts much except for Misty (Samantha Hanratty), who would like to know how much blood there is “on average.” The takeaway is clear: We’re all socialized to make this particular kind of body horror “not count.” To be casual about it, even dismissive. It’s what’s supposed to happen, so all of it — the pain, the ripping open, the screaming — gets priced in and normalized to an astonishing degree.
“Qui” strips that protective scaffolding away. It gets primal. While I was watching Shauna trying and failing to get her screaming baby to latch (and having flashbacks to my own struggles on this front), my partner burst into my office. “What IS that?” he said, eyes darting around the room. (We are, and I say this in the spirit of disclosure, new parents to twins who were born premature.) “It’s the sound of a baby starving to death,” I said. We looked at each other for a beat. He looked at my screen. He left. “I am never watching that,” he said from the other side of the door.
The sound was so relentless I found myself missing the sounds of Shauna’s screams.
You’ve hopefully watched the episode (if not, stop reading now!) so you know what happens: Shauna finally gets the baby to nurse. (The viewer experiences her relief with her; the baby’s silence is magical, a respite, a gift.) She wakes up later to discover she’s been drugged and wanders in a terrified stupor to the other room, where she finds her teammates guiltily gorging themselves on her baby.
Then she wakes up — she’d nearly died from hemorrhaging — and discovers that none of it had happened. Not the screaming, not the starving, not the breakthrough, not the latch. Not the betrayal, not the cannibalism. The baby had died in childbirth, and Shauna nearly, did too.
Because “and then I woke up” is a notoriously cheesy move, I’d never given much thought to what the trope could do in skilled hands. It happens several times in this episode: Shauna “wakes up” to find all her friends smiling at her, eager to introduce her to her son. She “wakes up” again to find Lottie “feeding” her baby. She “wakes up” alone and discovers her friends have stolen, killed and eaten her son.
She wakes up again to find her friends clustered around her, panicked and weeping.
That this last instance is “real” doesn’t initially register for the poor viewer. What really lands, however, and establishes the last horrible scenario as the true one, is when Shauna — groggy, still trying to process what she’s been told — repeats, as the episode ends, “I can still hear him crying, can’t you hear him crying? Why can’t you hear him crying?” We hear nothing now — except how much Shauna (kudos to Nélisse) longs for that unbearable sound.
It’s all very effectively done and absolutely awful. But what fascinates me in hindsight is the “ordinariness” and simplicity of what actually happened, plotwise: A pregnant teenager’s baby died in childbirth and her starving, traumatized friends did their best to help her while truly freaking out at what they were witnessing. (Even Misty.)
The episode hinted at a bunch of much more technically troubling outcomes. It was absolutely stuffed with sinister portents. “You can save our baby,” Lottie (Courtney Eaton) says to Misty, trying to get her to snap out of her panic so she can help Shauna through labor. That “our” is juicy. All kinds of horror tropes suggest themselves, and it doesn’t help that Shauna hallucinates Lottie holding her baby to her own breast to feed it. “The wilderness recognizes your sacrifice,” Lottie tells Travis (Kevin Alves) after he cut his hand over an animal skull as an offering to help Shauna as she labors. “So do I.” Not good! These are hints — creepy ones — that something terrible is about to happen to the baby. Not something sad but something monstrous, unforgivable.
The present-tense timeline isn’t reassuring either. Reflecting on a range of unspecified but awful things they did “out there,” Natalie says, “Yeah, maybe it was to survive. Maybe. But I don’t think we deserve to.” Lottie wonders aloud to her therapist whether her “madness” was no such thing. “I wasn’t the only one who felt it out there. It was all of us. It was a part of us.” “What is it, Lottie?” the therapist asks. “The power of that place. The god of that place. We did terrible things in its name.”
This is all preparing the viewer for grisly revelations. For the kind of horror that gives pleasure because it’s monstrous and exceptional rather than random or merely sad.
It’s a fake out, of course (for now, anyway). And a lesson of sorts about degrees of psychological torture. It is infinitely more distressing to watch a new mother trying to soothe her baby screaming as it starves than it is to watch the horror-movie baby-eating scene.
By channeling ordinary childbirth and loss through genre cues we all know how to read, “Yellowjackets” elevates our experience of the former to the narrative status of the latter. Is it “better” that Shauna’s baby died rather than being killed and eaten by her friends? The answer must logically be “yes,” but somehow the sadly unexceptional reality feels much, much worse.
Yellowjackets (nine episodes) returned March 24. New episodes stream Fridays at 3 a.m. Eastern time on the Showtime app and air Sundays at 9 p.m. on cable.