Review: The beauty and the horror of 'Yellowjackets' Season 2 will consume you

There's something about "Yellowjackets" that just eats at you.

Showtime's drama about a group of high school girls stranded in the remote Canadian wilderness after a plane crash – and their lives as adults 25 years later – gnaws at the edges of your mind even when you're not watching. Its puzzles are tantalizing, its characters so deliciously complicated. Every episode leaves you hungry for more.

Puns aside, "Yellowjackets" (Sundays, 9 EDT/PDT, streaming Fridays on Paramount+ with Showtime, ★★★½ out of four) is one of the most engrossing TV shows around. And the second season reaches the heights of the first, with a negligible bump here or there. The new episodes are packed with more of what fans want: Maybe-mystical mysteries, big Melanie Lynskey monologues, and, of course, cannibalism: The three pillars of any great TV show, right?

Courtney Eaton as Teen Lottie, Sophie Nélisse as Teen Shauna and Jasmin Savoy Brown as Teen Taissa in "Yellowjackets" Season 2.
Courtney Eaton as Teen Lottie, Sophie Nélisse as Teen Shauna and Jasmin Savoy Brown as Teen Taissa in "Yellowjackets" Season 2.

But it's not (just) the sensationalism of the subject matter that makes "Yellowjackets" a critical darling and internet obsession: it's the way the show captures the universality of female rage and despair. It's how the directors spin graphic violence into emotional set pieces that knock you out. It's how the exceptional actresses, teenagers and adults turn in shattering performances week after week. And it's so tasty to have it all back for Round 2.

The new season adds layers to the foundation built in Season 1: New characters, new perils and more ambitious stories. The narrative jumps back and forth in time between the girls' first winter in the wilderness in 1996 and the present, with a sprinkling of illuminating scenes set elsewhere in the timeline. In the past, the survivors are tired, dirty and very hungry as the harsh Canadian winter rolls through their little camp.

Subsisting on a bear that Lottie (Courtney Eaton) killed in Season 1, tensions are high and the psychological effects of starvation and isolation are starting to appear. No one is OK. And yes, the savagery promised in the series premiere is coming, just not when you expect.

Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in Season 2 of "Yellowjackets."
Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in Season 2 of "Yellowjackets."

In the present, no one is really OK, either. Shauna (Lynskey) is dealing with the familial and legal fallout after she killed her lover Adam (Peter Gadiot). Taissa's (Tawny Cypress) sleepwalking alternate personality is gaining more power over her psyche, and she seeks out her ex-girlfriend Van (Lauren Ambrose), another Yellowjacket, for help after she hits rock bottom. Natalie is also with a teammate, Lottie (Simone Kessell), who now runs a cult-like "wellness center" and forcefully brought Natalie to her abode. Misty (Christina Ricci), befriends Walter (Elijah Wood), a fellow "citizen detective" from her true-crime forum, for an amateur investigation into Natalie's disappearance.

"Yellowjackets" is particularly accomplished at balancing a plethora of storylines and characters, and it doesn't buckle under the weight of all the new characters and subplots. Unfortunately, adult Shauna's story is the weakest, as her attempts to evade the police feel foolish for one of the more vicious women on the team. It's a shame and a waste of Lynskey's full-throated performance.

But save for a few moments that drag, "Yellowjackets" vibrates with energy in almost every scene. The new cast members are all great, but Ambrose is uncannily good as Van, a mature mirror of her young counterpart's (Liv Hewson) performance that outpaces her co-stars. Every scene she's in is a must-watch, and there aren't nearly enough, at least in the first six episodes made available for review.

Lauren Ambrose as Van in "Yellowjackets" Season 2.
Lauren Ambrose as Van in "Yellowjackets" Season 2.

The adult actresses get the most attention, but the work of their younger counterparts (Sophie Nélisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher and Samantha Hanratty as the four main characters) cannot be overlooked, as their material gets more difficult with each passing trauma. In one scene in Episode 2 that will have "Yellowjackets" fans buzzing, the young ensemble cast works seamlessly in one of the most intense, affecting and all-consuming scenes I've ever watched on TV. It's a good thing this series airs and streams weekly because viewers would do well to decompress between its installments.

Plenty of TV shows, movies and books portray the worst parts of humanity, but "Yellowjackets" feels like it has something more to say than simply how depraved we are at our cores. For all its roots in series like "Lost" and books like "Lord of the Flies," there is nothing quite like it.

And we can't look away.

How to watch: ‘Yellowjackets’ Season 2

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Yellowjackets' Season 2 review: Beauty and horror will consume you