For an ostensibly straightforward teen drama, HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ moonlights under many guises: a raw addiction drama; a lurid, overheated psychosexual soap opera; a repository for a seemingly bottomless supply of ornate, glitter-doused make-up looks; a prolonged music video for an experimental Labrinth concept album.
Above all, Euphoria is a contradiction, striving for earnest empathy with its wayward protagonists while outfitting them with the sticky neon glow and scant clothing of leering exploitation. To watch any given episode of Euphoria is not only to receive a heady dose of its meme-ready aesthetic gaudiness, but to oscillate wildly from the sincere to the sleazy; from soul-baring to shock tactics. When a character rages, “It’s like you have a split personality disorder!”, it’s hard not to apply it to the show itself, and never was this divide clearer than in two pandemic-imposed bottle episodes created to bridge the gap between seasons. In the first, troubled teen drug addict Rue (Zendaya) spent Christmas Eve with her tough love sponsor Ali (the invaluable Colman Domingo), with the latter on a night-long mission to show his young charge the value of forgiveness (in its way, the whole thing was rather festive). The second followed the new girl in town, and Rue’s love interest, Jules (Hunter Schafer) to therapy for a fraught confrontation with past and ongoing trauma. In their quiet minimalism, the two specials seemed the polar opposite of the show they heralded from, yet they stood as welcome proof of the tender soul hidden behind the copious excess. They also raised an exciting possibility: if Euphoria was capable of slamming its foot on the brakes for two whole hours of introspection, perhaps it could do it again, and with greater frequency. Might creator Sam Levinson take this more mature iteration of the series forward, fully realising the emotional depths within? Well, three episodes into season 2, the jury’s out.
In the dreamy stretch of Nowheresville California where Euphoria takes place, every step forward is an open invitation to take another five back. Thus, at the outset of season 2, characters and creators alike prove much more comfortable substituting the appearance of change for the real deal. Rue and Jules have given a real relationship a shot, but Rue is still using behind her loved ones’ backs. The improbably adorable drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) has survived a narrow brush with death and caught feelings for Rue’s introverted former bestie (Maude Apatow), but is still in way over his head with dangerous forces. And evil mega jock Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) has suffered a much-deserved setback, but it has only served to make him even more insufferable in the long run.
Ah, Nate. The hulking, brooding, very boring antagonist of whom Euphoria, for some reason, simply cannot get enough. Viewers may recall that in the first season, a tape of an, uh, illicit encounter between Nate’s bad dad (Eric Dane) and Jules was discovered by Nate’s ex in a book in his bedroom (a moment that carried the amusing implication that the Jacobs clan had been undone by the simple fact that there is no way in hell Nate would ever read a book). Thus, a sizable chunk of these new episodes is spent on father and son’s very embarrassing quest to find their missing family heirloom. Many questions are raised in the process: will either Nate or his dad honestly reckon with his suppressed queer desires? Will they just kiss already? Most pressingly of all, do I care? This storyline has long epitomised all of Euphoria’s very worst traits, from its lurid exhibitionism to the silliness of its plotting and the overweening interest in a character who does not warrant the closer look. In Levinson’s conception, Nate is an unpersuasive cocktail of the masculine hyper aggression of Biff Tannen, the plotting genius of a teenage Lex Luthor, and least convincingly – and indeed, most problematically – the tortured romanticism of Edward Cullen. As Nate sets his sights on a new target (Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie is stranded in the truly thankless role of being leered at by Nate and the camera in equal measure) the series steers straight from the overcooked into the outright pornographic.
In moments like that – and they are, dispiritingly, plentiful – it’s easy to question what it is about Euphoria that keeps one coming back in spite of them. Off the top of one’s head, there are a few candidates. There’s the genuine mad audacity of the series’ visuals, for one. The entirety of this second season was shot on an essentially moribund 35mm film stock, meaning nary a moment of this ostensible high school drama passes that isn’t burning up money for no damn reason other than looking cool. There’s a commitment in it that one can respect. There’s also the playfully unpredictable humorous streak in the otherwise bleak series, which can see the show transformed on a dime into a meta mockumentary or cop show pastiche. But the real answer is – and I suspect, will remain so through the show’s lifespan – Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, who remain the heart and soul of the whole enterprise. There is a specificity and genuine depth of feeling to Rue’s battle with addiction that the surrounding series has never matched. Part of the reason for this may be that Rue is the only character in Euphoria’s ensemble of teens played by twentysomethings who genuinely seems like a kid. Instead of foregrounding the existential angst (though there’s plenty of that to go around), Zendaya consistently leans into the character’s relatable, shambling anxiety and goofy humour, amplifying the innate tragedy of her predicament in the process. The bright charisma of Schafer continues to provide a welcome counterbalance, though the actress has so far been disappointingly sidelined in the new episodes, with Jules largely playing second fiddle to a new character, a pot-stirring prankster played by Dominic Fike.
In some respects, the dynamic between Euphoria and its audience can’t help but recall Rue’s dynamic with her loved ones. They long for her to get better because they know she can be, though they often find themselves on the verge of giving up, resigned to the promise of improvement being just another way to get their hopes shattered. However, therein is a key component of what makes Euphoria so oddly addicting. The series’ storytelling feels constantly suspended on the edge of a ravine, with every regaining of balance with an inspired scene swiftly followed by a careen over the edge with a terrible one. This very unevenness may be the most authentically adolescent thing about it. The series is as brashly, petulantly immature as any of its angsty subjects (not to mention just as boner-obsessed), but there’s heart underneath. Still, Euphoria’s most genuinely transporting moments come when the restless camera finally sits still. To paraphrase a line from the series, in moments like that all the chaos fades away, and nothing matters but the person in front of you.