Yellowjackets season 2 review: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an even scarier forest

Newly elected New Jersey state senator Taissa Turner (Tawny Cypress) snaps awake in the front seat of her car. Confused and disoriented, she grabs her phone and looks at the pulsing dot on her GPS, which hovers silently on a road she doesn't recognize.

Twenty-five years earlier, Tai's teammate and fellow plane crash survivor Nat (Sophie Thatcher) returns from a hunt with a drawing scribbled on the back of a history quiz. She and Coach Ben (Steven Krueger) are trying to map the brutally cold and snowy mountain terrain they've been stranded in for months. Meanwhile, Tai's girlfriend, Van (Liv Hewson), begins following her into the woods at night, marking down all the places she wanders during her sleepwalking fugue state. What Van finds thrills her, but all teenage Tai (Jasmin Savoy Brown) sees is "a bunch of random points."

Be it the past or the present, everyone on Yellowjackets is still lost. The eerie and propulsive second season of Showtime's horror thriller takes the characters deeper into the literal and emotional wilderness as they struggle to survive myriad dangers: a harsh winter, a police investigation, and the vise grip of trauma that refuses to be ignored. In both timelines, the Yellowjackets continue to barrel forward in search of escape, and the journey remains compelling — though there are a few worrisome signs that the writers aren't quite sure where their true destination lies.

Nuha Jes Izman as Teen Crystal, Samantha Hanratty as Teen Misty, Alexa Barajas as Teen Mari, Sophie Nélisse as Teen Shauna, Courtney Eaton as Teen Lottie, Nia Sondaya as Teen Akilah, Sophie Thatcher as Teen Natalie, Jasmin Savoy Brown as Teen Taissa, Steven Krueger as Ben Scott and Liv Hewson as Teen Van in YELLOWJACKETS, Season 2
Nuha Jes Izman as Teen Crystal, Samantha Hanratty as Teen Misty, Alexa Barajas as Teen Mari, Sophie Nélisse as Teen Shauna, Courtney Eaton as Teen Lottie, Nia Sondaya as Teen Akilah, Sophie Thatcher as Teen Natalie, Jasmin Savoy Brown as Teen Taissa, Steven Krueger as Ben Scott and Liv Hewson as Teen Van in YELLOWJACKETS, Season 2

Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME Nuha Jes Izman, Samantha Hanratty, Alexa Barajas, Sophie Nélisse, Courtney Eaton, Nia Sondaya, Sophie Thatcher, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Steven Krueger, and Liv Hewson in 'Yellowjackets'

When we rejoin the erstwhile soccer stars, things are not going well in the woods. The frozen forest is smothered in endless snow, food supplies are running short, and tempers are even shorter. Nat's daily hunting trips with Travis (Kevin Alves) — both to find game and his missing brother, Javi (Luciano Leroux) — are proving to be fruitless, and factions are beginning to form among the girls. Some, like Van and Misty (Sammi Hanratty), have put their faith in Lottie (Courtney Eaton), who seems to maintain a mysterious spiritual connection to their surroundings. Others, including Nat and a now very pregnant Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), find Lottie's "weird f---ing tree cult" unnerving and counterproductive.

The situation is equally bleak for their future selves. Adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) isn't in the clear for killing Adam (Peter Gadiot) in a PTSD panic last season. And the indiscretions of her daughter, Callie (Sarah Desjardins) — who is really angling for a spot in the Annoying TV Teen Hall of Fame alongside Dana Brody and Kim Bauer — aren't helping. Misty (Christina Ricci) reluctantly teams up with Walter (new cast member Elijah Wood), a fellow "citizen detective" she meets on the message boards, to find the missing Nat (Juliette Lewis), who was abducted at the end of last season. And with her dissociative episodes becoming more frequent and urgent, Taissa tracks down the one person she thinks can help: Her long-lost ex, Van (Lauren Ambrose).

Season 1 of Yellowjackets left viewers with a lot of questions, a handful of which are answered — at least partially — in the first six episodes made available for review. We learn how the starving girls come to, erm, add a new form of protein to their diet, and there's a significant development in the mystery of what happened to Javi after he fled the mushroom-soup orgy. Spoiler sensitivity prevents me from writing much about the arrival of adult Lottie (Simone Kessell), but let's just say she's living a deceptively tranquil life on a large plot of land in upstate NY.

As we wait for bigger revelations, the most compelling thing about Yellowjackets is its exploration into the fundamentals of survival — physical and emotional — and the ongoing aftermath of trauma. Even with the cops circling her for Adam's disappearance, Shauna is finding it harder to deny the dizzying power of primal violence. Confronting a carjacker with a gun, she calmly disabuses him of the notion that she's too scared to shoot. "My hand wasn't shaking because I was afraid," she says, her voice vibrating with repressed excitement. "It was shaking because of how badly I wanted to do this."

Christina Ricci as Misty in YELLOWJACKETS Season 2
Christina Ricci as Misty in YELLOWJACKETS Season 2

Kimberley French/SHOWTIME Christina Ricci and Melanie Lynskey in 'Yellowjackets'

Lynskey conveys her character's ongoing inner battle with an impeccable blend of grief and rage, though it's also nice to see her have more sweet, silly moments with Warren Kole (as Shauna's husband, Jeff). Ambrose is another one of Yellowjackets' strokes of parallel casting genius; she matches Hewson's dry wit and tough mien, and brings a subtle melancholy to adult Van. Ricci is a consistent comic standout as Misty, whether coaching Shauna for a potential police interrogation with a cookie cake that reads "I want my lawyer" in festive frosting or bickering with Walter over Starlight Express.

At times, the strain of maintaining two concurrent mysteries is evident in the writing. Some plot developments are telegraphed and/or too convenient, primarily in the present-day investigation into Adam's disappearance. Nat's Goth pal-turned-police officer Kevyn Tan (Alex Wyndham) has a new partner played by Search Party's John Reynolds, who is almost too successful at making Officer Saracusa a smarmy, obnoxious ass. A new character in the survival timeline is so clearly marked for death from the jump, they may as well have been wearing a red Starfleet uniform.

We seem to be a long way from cracking this puzzlebox's code, and at the moment all roads lead to that ominous, stick-figure symbol the girls found scattered throughout those dangerous woods. Yellowjackets still hasn't shed any light on what it means, though the new episodes nudge the explanation ever so slightly toward the "supernatural" end of the spectrum. "There's no such thing as false hope," young Lottie tells Nat. "There's just hope." To be fair, she's been right about a lot of stuff up until this point, so I won't lose hope in Yellowjackets yet. Grade: B+

Yellowjackets season 2 premieres Sunday, March 26 on Showtime.

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