On Sunday, February 27th, the most tweeted about show of the decade aired its Season 2 finale, leaving fans with a very heavy heart. HBO Max’s Euphoria is the company’s second most-watched series since 2004, following Game of Thrones and, with each weekly episode, the discourse around the show’s themes and characters have taken over almost every social media platform. When it first aired in 2019, many were shocked at the enthralling role played by executive producer and lead character, Zendaya, who up until then had mainly been known for her acting on Disney Channel and as the latest Spider-Man love interest. The public had seen her begin to challenge herself as a more mature actress in dramatic films, like The Greatest Showman and Malcolm & Marie, however, her roles in those movies were just mere introduction to Zendaya’s talent as exhibited through the high-school drug addict she plays on Euphoria.
On the surface, Euphoria seems like just another high school drama, with your typical mean girls and underdogs; but season 2 has proven that this show tackles much more as it displays the darkest aspects of modern American suburban life. While the shallow love triangles and tainted familial relations can sometimes feel like satire, these tropes allow the show’s writer, Sam Levinson, to explore the effects of various types of relational trauma. Euphoria relies heavily on its constant back-and-forth between the characters’ immoral actions and their tragic backstories in order to challenge the audience’s empathy. Most characters are never hated for too long, nor can they be unconditionally loved by viewers and this frustratingly realistic complexity is what keeps viewers coming back, even after episodes which never feel as long as they are. If there’s one thing Levinson excels at it’s his comprehensive characterization that holds the spotlight, often compensating for the somewhat incoherent storyline.
The show’s first season was filled with meticulous character introductions narrated by Zendaya’s character Rue, alongside a fast-paced storyline that revealed their biggest obstacles. Season 2, by contrast, takes an entirely different approach. Picking up from Rue’s relapse, the new season has a much slower pace as the audience follows Rue through some of her lowest moments. Instead of a story-like presentation, we no longer have Rue’s consistent narration to carry us through a timeline of events, which leaves many original plotlines unresolved. The attention drastically shifts from Rue’s struggle with addiction beginning in the background of everyone else’s lives during season 1 to gaining prominence in season 2, opens up the opportunity to zone in on what the show is really about: the effects of drug addiction.
What stands out from the mix of malevolent bullies, neglectful fathers, and backstabbing best friends are the incredibly powerful scenes that display the prevailing effect of Rue’s addiction on her own life.The lengthy scenes that present Rue’s breaking point are truly what fuels this season. Rue’s withdrawal period was truly one of the most painfully disturbing things I’ve seen on television and also some of the best acting I’ve seen. Zendaya’s impressive ability to relay the entire spectrum of her character’s emotions as a suicidal teen deciding to make addiction her lifeline plays with the audience’s ability to empathize with someone whose humanity is so heavily clouded. The best parts of this season were the intimate moments displaying Rue’s psychological journey as a forlorn child dealing with adult consequences.
The flipside of this is that scenes with the remaining characters feel, at times, repetitive and irrelevant. Like Rue, in season 2 each character is faced with a situation that forces them to take responsibility for their actions. While we may have made excuses for them in the past, this season shows us that any hope for redemption lies in the opportunities they are given to correct their wrongs. The two-part finale felt like a disappointingly rushed attempt to bring an abrupt end to each plotline with very little character development to back it up. Then again, this seems inevitable with the amount of time spent digging deeper into Rue’s emotional state. The best parts of this season were the intimate moments displaying Rue’s psychological journey as a forlorn child dealing with adult consequences.
I don’t know if Euphoria is worth all the hype, but I will say that the emotional chaos that comes with exploring the raw effects of adolescent trauma and the constant questioning of our capacity to love, along with Zendaya’s acting, will keep you coming back for more.