Euphoria is a show of extremes. Throughout its debut season, creator Sam Levinson’s angsty HBO teen drama detailed high highs and low lows—whether it be through drug use, fraught relationships, or any other of the myriad difficulties young people find themselves encountering in this modern era—all wrapped up in a gilded sheen. Euphoria’s strength was how it intentionally stripped away at the veneer of its ensemble cast to expose a compelling underlay. While Euphoria had dark moments, overall, the show felt like a bit of a party; there was some drama, but nothing which would significantly harsh the vibes.

If the first season was all about letting the good times roll, then the much anticipated (and delayed) sophomore effort is decidedly about the comedown. Picking up a few weeks after Rue’s (Zendaya) relapse and the Christmastime-set special episodes, Euphoria opens up with a New Year’s Eve fling—one last good time—before a descent into darkness. Throughout the seven episodes sent for review, Levinson (still responsible for the lion’s share of the series’ directing and writing) doubles down on the introspection, dedicating his attention to further fleshing out his expansive cast—with the same melodrama and stylish glamor the series cut its teeth on during its debut.

The broadened scope immediately benefits two characters needing further establishment: Fezco (Angus Cloud) and Lexi (Maude Apatow). Cloud’s soulful take on Fezco continues to be one of Euphoria’s secret weapons, and getting him more into the mix makes the show all the richer when he gets to interact with characters who aren’t just Rue. Lexi, previously resigned to an observational role, recognizes her own passivity in the story (in a playfully knowing acknowledgment from Levinson) and begins to take steps to wrestle control of her narrative. The increased screen time means Apatow comes into her own as a performer, becoming one of the season’s biggest surprises. Anyone who watched all five hours of This is 40 in 2012 knew she had a gift, but it’s taken about a decade for it to become fully realized.

Levinson smartly gives Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie another meaty arc to tussle with this go-round. Hot off her star turns in The White Lotus and The Voyeurs last year, Sweeney finds new depths to mine with Cassie, turning a relatively internal and cerebral take on the character into an explosive powerhouse of a performance as she barely holds it together in the wake of a new and shocking status quo. Zendaya and Hunter Schafer are certainly the leads of the show—and their exceptional performances certainly warrant that status, but Sweeney solidifies herself as worthy of inclusion alongside those two as she steps up her game once again. 

Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria Season 2
Image via Eddy Chen/HBO

The increased focus on other characters comes with a trade-off, as prominent personalities from the first season have to take a back seat. Even with Levinson balancing three or four character arcs at a time in a given episode, there’s decidedly less to do for Barbie Ferreira and Algee Smith. Smith’s McKay is essentially jettisoned out of the series after the premiere, while Ferreria’s Kat is saddled with a plot that keeps her wheels spinning for most of the season. It’s an unfortunate circumstance and the first suggestion that Levinson may have too much talent on his hand to service everyone on his show effectively.

As disappointing as this news is, Euphoria finds new ways to surprise. Musician Dominic Fike makes a splashy impression as Elliot. What exactly he’s up to and who he ends up crossing paths with is better left unspoiled, as Elliot’s inclusion makes a substantial part of Euphoria’s main narrative this year. Fike—a first-time actor—acquits himself wonderfully, as he naturally fits in with the collected ensemble around him. Additionally shocking is the way in which many of Levinson’s lingering plots are wrapped up, a speed that may cause some whiplash. While it’s nice to have closure, the rapid rate at which Levinson circles the square may cause some incredulity. 

Dominic Fike in Euphoria Season 2
Image via Eddy Chen/HBO

For as expansive as Euphoria becomes in Season 2, make no mistake, this is still the Zendaya show, serving as a wondrous showcase of her talents. Levinson doesn’t shy away from driving right into the skid of Rue’s relapse from last year’s finale, resulting in the overall darker turn. Anchoring it all is the captivating actor, who continues to command the screen as she challenges viewers to find her likable. The relapse and Rue’s resulting behavior are brutal and tragic to behold; Zendaya’s pre-season warnings about Season 2 being “difficult” were spot-on as Rue careens into the death wish she articulated to Ali (Colman Domingo) during the show’s holiday special. Rue’s inevitable spiral starts quietly before exploding outward, threatening to swallow up everything around her like a black hole. Her work is at its finest in a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking mid-season episode, which will likely garner her another Best Actress Emmy win.

Euphoria’s extreme nature makes it easy to compare the series to a rollercoaster ride. We’re on the other side of the drop now, and there’s a certain level of stillness that comes with realizing you’re falling. It’s in this quiet space where the show’s sophomore season solidifies itself as the best showcase of young acting talent on the air right now. These performances crackle with unparalleled vividness, making the show essential viewing, even when the story flounders. Euphoria is at its best when it digs deep to find new dimensions to these layered characters—and what a gripping experience it is to see what Levinson and his skillful performers uncover throughout the course of this season.