The Patience “Euphoria” Demands

The Patience Euphoria Demands

While the HBO show is polarizing and easy to critique, it still manages to expand the genre of teen drama in unimaginable ways.


The second season of Euphoria, an HBO show created by Sam Levinson and adapted from an Israeli show of the same name, resumes its story at a house party on New Year’s Eve. In separate rooms, self-contained dramas play out: a flirtation, a farce, a tragedy, a fight. In the living room, Lexi Howard (Maude Apatow) and Fez (Angus Cloud) shoot the shit about God; Lexi’s sister Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) hides in a bathtub, her hand clamped over her mouth, after nearly getting caught hooking up with the ex-boyfriend of her best friend Maddy (Alexa Demie). In the laundry room, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), the show’s narrator and protagonist, does an unidentified mix of drugs and feels her heart rate drop sharply, something she recognizes as a warning of cardiac arrest. Everyone’s looking for someone they can’t find—there are frenetic, disjointed shots of people dancing, drinking, just barely missing each other—until the party explodes in a sudden act of retribution and violence.

Euphoria is polarizing, and many of the common criticisms are hard to dispute. The show is unevenly paced, picking up and dropping subplots on a whim; central characters disappear for episodes; a jumble of narrators, interlocking timelines, and fourth-wall-breaking monologues immediately undermine any frame the story constructs for itself. The finale of the second season, which left a main plot arc unresolved, devoted three and a half minutes to an acoustic guitar ballad. The practical realities of being in high school—attending class, for example, or schoolwork getting in the way of hanging out—figure so tangentially in the lives of its characters that an online joke setup refers to the setting only as “Euphoria High School.” (The school does, in fact, have a name: East Highland High.) One of the earlier critiques of the show, that there is something perverse about the sheer frequency of teen sex scenes performed by a cast of twentysomething actors and written by a director in his 30s, doesn’t feel entirely unfounded. The Euphoria fandom is known for enthusiastically cataloging these shortcomings—with criticism often directed at Levinson specifically—while continuing to ardently follow the show.

Euphoria has enough moments of unusual insight that no matter how much it irks its audience, it’s hard to write off—like the party episode, where the overlapping scenes feel worthwhile despite not adding up to a neat, coherent whole. In this magazine, Ellen Willis described The Sopranos, another controversial HBO show, as “a postmodern Middlemarch,” and I’ve been thinking about Euphoria in similar terms, at first as a joke and then more seriously: a messy study of provincial life transposed as a teen soap opera. While the show can seem flat, superfluous, or ridiculous at times, it is distinguished less by its plot than by an ensemble that feels compellingly real despite being drawn from archetypes—cruel cheerleaders, burnouts, closeted football stars, sexually daring theater kids. It requires patience from its viewers, but at its best, Euphoria expands what we can expect from its genre.

Euphoria joins a well-established canon of gritty teen dramas (My So-Called Life, Skins, and the like) that depict sex, drug use, and other risky behavior within a particularly thorny narrative framework. Unlike the adjacent genre of teen sitcoms, which often deal with the same themes but facilitate in most cases neat, didactic resolutions (for example, the upbeat Netflix show Sex Education), the gritty teen drama is unsatisfying. It adopts the contradictory postures of nihilism and existential longing, the presumption of depicting harsh realities countered by the instinct to embellish, sentimentalize, and mythologize. You know you’re watching a gritty teen drama when a character does something embarrassing but relatable, like Rue binge-watching the reality show Love Island, and then in the next episode threatening to “fucking burn [someone’s] whole shit to the ground” by revealing a classmate’s father’s role in a complicated revenge-porn blackmail scheme.

In both seasons of Euphoria, the main plotline runs on soap absurdity: a web of crimes, lies, and threats covering up a previous set of crimes, lies, and threats. The series makes more sense if you accept that all of its characters, including the adults, orbit high school conflicts (both recent and historical) and are fluent in their endemic logic. The parents of the wayward cast of teens who appear with any frequency have limitless reserves of time and patience to meddle in their affairs, particularly Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), the father of Maddy’s ex-boyfriend Nate (Jacob Elordi), who figures centrally in the story line across seasons. Cal skulks around seedy motels and a drug-front bodega, showing a weird level of commitment to the task of intimidating young people. After a night of fighting and drinking, Cal explodes at his family in a scene with the comedic beats of a Tim Robinson sketch, in which he pisses on the floor and delivers the exit line “I’ll see you assholes later.”

Still, there are places where Euphoria’s melodramatic instincts are put to better use. In the first season, a hazy, dim hallway begins to spin sickeningly after Rue gets high, an effect Levinson achieved with a rotating set that required extras to be strapped to the ground while Zendaya stumbled from surface to surface. Backstories are cut together with the frenetic, free-associative style of editing pioneered on YouTube; fantasy sequences are washed in soft light and neon and costumed in aspirational luxury fashion. An expository scene in the first season, in which Maddy analyzes porn like an actor learning a new dialect, is one of the funniest depictions of performative sexuality I’ve seen. In the best of these moments, it feels like a character’s inner state takes over and the camera is just trying to keep up. “We established early on that each scene ought to be an interpretation of reality or a representation of an emotional reality,” Levinson told Vulture in a 2019 interview. He said a question asked frequently on set was,“How can we create a world that reveals the hopes and wishes of the characters that exist within it?”

The second season concludes with a self-referential manifestation of Levinson’s theory of the show: Lexi Howard, a supporting character in the first season, is sick of living in sister Cassie’s shadow and writes, produces, and stages a high school play about the lives of several of Euphoria’s main characters, told from her own perspective. Lexi’s play—the presentation of her own emotional reality—is the only break in Euphoria from Rue’s narration, and is interrupted when Cassie storms onstage and airs her grievances about her portrayal. (“If that makes me a villain, then so fucking be it,” she says, like a Real Housewives cast member.) A multi-person brawl ensues, the high school actors battling with their real-life counterparts, fighting for the version of reality that feels right to them.

When I was in high school, the gritty teen drama series of the moment was Skins, a British program that followed overlapping groups of teenage friends and classmates in Bristol. It feels taboo to admit that the show, and in particular a character named Cassie (no relation to Euphoria’s Cassie), played by Hannah Murray, provided me with a lush, tragic pathos I used to bolster an eating disorder I had developed around the time I began watching. I was thrilled to have Cassie; watching her drift through her days with gentle, tortured grace made what I was doing feel less mundane and incoherent. Even if both lives—my real one and Cassie’s fictional one—were unhappy, the show gave me a way to cast myself briefly in a more dramatic light, one that made things feel more dire and more important.

A cultural anxiety about gritty teen dramas is that they glamorize and thus facilitate dangerous behavior, or even call into existence risk where there had previously been none. While there are certainly irresponsible and exploitative ways to portray themes of teen sex, substance use, and self-harm—the novel and Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which involves sexual assault and suicide, comes to mind—I’m not sure Euphoria is so easy to categorize in those terms.

Many stubborn problems begin in young adulthood; many of the circumstances behind them are, for the time being, out of your control. What a teen drama can achieve is a sense of kinship—making, even temporarily, one’s struggles feel meaningful and worthy of attention. In fact, Euphoria’s unwillingness to resolve these struggles in a tidy fashion can be oddly cathartic. Maddy, the show’s most self-reliant character, has a realistically hard time disentangling herself from an abusive boyfriend; in the second season’s strongest episode, Rue flees an intervention and crashes a path of destruction through the homes of friends and strangers as she attempts to stave off withdrawal, ending up at the apartment of suburban drug dealer Laurie (Martha Kelly) before escaping through a window. The details are melodrama; Rue’s effort and desperation in running away from an inevitable reckoning is familiar.

In placing these conflicts into a framework that makes their incoherence into something epic and spectacular, scenes like this remind me elliptically of the Enūma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth in which a primordial mother goddess is killed and her body fashioned into a canopy that holds up the sky. It’s gruesome, but who wouldn’t want that as the fate for their losses? This is what Euphoria sometimes offers, and it’s difficult to admit, beyond teenagerhood, that we still want a story that can make our sadness into something so big it fills the sky.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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