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Yellowjackets and the prologue cliffhanger

This increasingly popular narrative device, used to great effect in ‘Yellowjackets’, withholds elements of the origin story till as late as possible

A still from 'Yellowjackets'
A still from 'Yellowjackets'

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One of the best and most ambitious shows on TV, Yellowjackets, began its second season a couple of weeks ago (streaming on Voot Select). How do leaders emerge from a group of peers? How does society adjust to a massive, ongoing scarcity of resources? Do friends make for the best political allies? Yellowjackets is preoccupied with questions like these (indeed, the creators of the show said, during a 2021 interview, that they wanted to depict “how societies are made”) even as it sticks closely to its basic structure—following the titular high-school football team whose plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness in 1996, leaving everybody stranded in a forest for 19 months. We know the exact duration because the other timeline in the show features the girls as women in their 40s, 25 years after the crash, in 2021.

The show’s big narrative hook, however, is the opening scene that shows us how the survivors devolved into ritualistic cannibalism, trapping a young girl and eating her flesh (while wearing masks fashioned from animal parts). Every episode has given us slivers of what happened in the lead-up to this grisly feast.

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This narrative style—keeping elements of the origin story undisclosed till as late as possible—might be termed the “prologue cliffhanger”. It has started becoming a mainstay of writers’ rooms everywhere but especially in streaming’s “prestige TV” category. HBO’s darkly comedic thriller The White Lotus’ first season used it to great effect. So did Netflix’s neo-Goth coming-of-age mystery, Wednesday. Among big-screen releases, the Dwayne Johnson-starrer Black Adam went for the same gambit, as did the Marvel film Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania.

A big reason is the pressure exerted on showrunners by streaming executives—they insist that there has to be a cliffhanger at the beginning and end of every episode, something that keeps people clicking that “next episode” button. This insistence is often backed up by user data that shows the exact point people tune out of shows (data that is, of course, conveniently confidential).

The true pioneer of this trend, however, predates the streaming era. Lost (2004-10), created by Jeffrey Lieber (Lucifer), Damon Lindelof (Watchmen) and J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield), represents both the best and worst aspects of this technique. Like Yellowjackets, its narrative focuses on a disparate group of plane crash survivors. The South Pacific island they are marooned on keeps churning out clues about its connection to both the crash and the lives of the survivors—for the first four seasons, this kept viewers and critics on their feet. Seasons 5 and 6, however, were haphazardly written, particularly the concluding season. The prologue cliffhanger technique was used until the very end. As a result, just about every revelation felt like a deus ex machina. Some narrative strands went unresolved, others were resolved in stereotypical, deeply unsatisfactory ways.

The prologue cliffhanger is also, I believe, closely linked with what literary critic Parul Sehgal calls “the trauma plot”, in which “trauma has become synonymous with backstory”. Sehgal says this insistence on trauma-as-backstory (she uses Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life as her totemic example) obscures every other aspect of the characters’ personalities. In Yellowjackets, the character of Taissa Turner (adult version played by Tawny Cypress and high school version by Jasmin Savoy Brown) flirts with the trauma plot through season 1—and now in the second season as well. It is implied that when Taissa sleepwalks, it unlocks a darkness within her and she reproduces certain traits of the cannibal cult the girls were (allegedly) part of all those years ago. This story arc, ongoing in nearly every episode of Yellowjackets, feels curiously hollow because of the number of repetitions-without-progression.

Perhaps the most extreme example of the prologue cliffhanger was in the first season of the Amazon Prime Video series Hunters, starring Al Pacino as Meyer Offerman, a Polish-Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor living in the New York of the late 1970s. Offerman builds a vigilante squad tasked with finding and eliminating Nazis living in the US under changed identities. Throughout the first season, the technique delivers bits of Offerman’s backstory—how he befriended the show protagonist Jonah’s grandmother, Ruth, how the two of them were tortured by a Nazi doctor named Zuchs, who worked at Auschwitz. In a deeply misguided plot twist, season 1’s finale reveals that the man passing off as Offerman is, in fact, Zuchs. As penance for his evil acts against the dead Offerman and other Jews, he adopts the Jewish faith, goes under the knife to take on Offerman’s appearance and forms the “Hunters” squad in the US with Ruth’s help (Ruth thinks he is Offerman).

I understand that one of the points of the prologue cliffhanger is to play with audience loyalties—is the person you are rooting for “good”? Is the person you are rooting against really all that bad? While this can be a helpful impulse for screenwriters, making an Auschwitz doctor a Jewish person via plastic surgery and then have him become a Nazi hunter…this went too far. It made no narrative sense and was insensitive (the Auschwitz Museum was one of many Jewish organisations that said the show should not have been made).

Yellowjackets, luckily, is a far superior show and I do not anticipate their writers committing a faux pas like this. But if it is going to be around for four-five more seasons, it would do well to avoid the mistakes its forebears made repeatedly.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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