Sam Levinson’s Euphoria follows Zendaya’s Rue Bennett, a teen dealing with drug addiction and mental health disorders (she is diagnosed from an early age with “obsessive compulsive disorder, attention defect disorder, general anxiety disorder and possibly bipolar disorder”). The series starts with Rue coming out of rehab, but it immediately becomes clear that she has no intention of staying sober. So she’s instantly not the most trustworthy of narrators, which she herself acknowledges. The HBO 8-part series, (most episodes coming in at roughly an hour), feels darker than the usual teen drama. Watching the first episode I felt very tense at the tone, male aggression and setting (visualise a seedy motel room late at night). My apprehension was not unfounded, as the show does have moments of unsettling violence, but this is balanced with gentle and tender scenes of intimacy and affection. The show has a lot in common with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. The two deal with male predators, drug abuse, explore the complexities of friendships and feel very current. But Euphoria still stands on its own as a unique experience. It has a gorgeous colour palette and aesthetic that are complimented wonderfully by Labrinth’s soundtrack, which sets the mood and tone for the whole series. The energy of the music matches the show, and I’ve found myself listening to it since. Zendaya is captivating in the show, and has received praise for her performance – she’s the youngest woman in history to win the Emmy for Best Actress. The rest of the cast also give great performances, namely Hunter Schafer (Jules Vaughn), Jacob Elordi (Nate Jacobs), Storm Reid (Gia Bennett), Angus Cloud (Fezco), Alexa Demie (Maddy Perez), Barbie Ferreira (Kat Hernandez), Sydney Sweeney (Cassie Howard), Maude Apatow (Lexie Howard), Algee Smith (Chris McKay) and many others.
The visuals and cinematography of the show are stunning and the camerawork and editing engaging. Not only is the show full of vivacity through the radiant colours, but other techniques are utilised that help put us in Rue’s frame of mind. In the Pilot Rue’s drug-use causes the room to literally spin. While everyone else is unaffected by the gravity shift Rue is experiencing, she scrambles along from wall to ceiling to wall, back to the floor – very Inception-esque. It’s at this party that Rue meets Jules, a new girl in town that she quickly becomes consumed by. Their friendship (/romance) is central to the series and the web of secrets Jules becomes entangled by is the catalyst for a lot of Euphoria’s drama. In the seventh episode the style of the show changes to that of a 90s thriller. Rue’s now a fast-talking “Morgan fucking Freeman” trying to crack a case wide open – the scene bursts with vigour. The mystery is why Jules is acting out of character, which Rue is able to crack. But what’s tragic is that no-one believes Rue’s theories, thinking her mania is playing up and that she’s losing touch with reality.
There are other instances in which the filming style changes to accommodate a different tone. For instance in episode 3 “Made You Look” where Rue breaks the fourth wall to give a lesson on the criteria concerning ‘dick-pics’, (slides included). There’s also a visual drug fuelled glitter trip, an animated version of some One Direction fan-fiction and a clever split screen sequence involving Jules and online user
‘ShyGuy118’/ Tyler/ actually Nate. Every shot is framed with intent and stylised for a specific purpose. The look and feel of the show extends to the wardrobe, which feels very expressive. The make up these characters are wearing feels apt and in line with their personalities. Even down to the fact Rue always seems to have glitter residue around her eyes, which is symbolic of her lack of self care (she hasn’t washed since) and also can be easily confused for tears amongst the striking lighting of the show.
At the start of each episode we have a glimpse into the childhood of one of the characters. Usually disturbing past trauma they’ve had to deal with, usually as a result of their parents. This context helps to build and explain the way they are. From weight insecurities with Kat, to Jule’s being institutionalised, each of these past experiences are disturbing in their own way. They show how the external gaze doesn’t align with the internal and how this usually has disastrous results. Parents are shown in many of the cases to be the catalysts for the habits their children later develop. Nate, the epitome of unchecked aggression and abuse in the show, at age 11 finds a collection of videos of his dad (Cal Jacobs, played by Eric Dane) having sex with boys and trans girls. Giving us an insight into Nate’s twisted views on sex, women and ‘masculinity’. Which seems to be things a lot of the male characters at the school are dealing with, as the women are treated mainly as sex objects, as we see with both Cassie and Kat. From Nate’s dysfunctional relationship with his father stems his violent and controlling persona, which bubbles into extreme acts of aggression in the show. He strangles Maddy and is abusive towards her in their relationship, viciously beats a man and blackmails & manipulates people and situations. In episode 5, “’03 Bonnie and Clyde”, we watch as Cal talks openly to a one night stand about his fear of having corrupted his children. He knows they have an anger inside them and wonders if it’s too late to mend their relationship. This all culminates in an explosion of emotion and rage in episode 8 “And Salt the Earth Behind You”, where Cal’s attempts to control his son result in screams of pain and a self destructive fit.
I noticed that throughout the show a lot of the female characters call each other sluts, clearly reclaiming the word right? Yet it left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. There’s a lot of discourse around the term and whether or not it should be reclaimed, but as the show deals with slut-shaming, I felt disconcerted when the female characters said it about themselves, as in some instances it felt forced and intwined with their ‘reputation’. As we see in the Pilot, where Kat ardently claims she is a slut, very much trying to distance herself from being considered a prude. The show deals with slut-shaming and misogyny and presents this in the very real context of today, in which technology makes it impossible to erase images/ keep things private. There are instances in the show where male characters exploit women by taking videos of them during sex without their consent and later use this to shame them publicly, a completely violating and disgusting act, which we see happen to several of the women in the show. I found that there weren’t many positive portrayals of sex in the series. Although there are many sex scenes, a lot of them felt aggressive and none really dealt with female pleasure, bar a few. Kat’s character has a story arch that centers on sex, as a sex video of her is circulated early on in the series and she tries to control this narrative by changing her style, actively creating porn content and engaging on this online platform. She begins to earn bitcoin from it and feel empowered, but shuts herself off from any real connection, as a coping mechanism. But by the end of the show she lowers her guard and puts her faith in the one guy that seems to be genuine.
Rue’s mental health and drug use is at the core of the show as we watch how her being an addict affects her relationships with friends and family. The show feels real in its portrayal of Rue’s mental health through the highs and the lows. Episode 7 is called “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed” and it literally deals with just that. Rue gets a kidney infection from her inability to physically make it to the toilet, showing how all consuming her struggles are. There are scenes like this throughout that feel very gritty and grounded that show how her life has been turned upside down from drugs. Rue’s drug dealer Fez has a complexity to him. Even though we don’t learn his full story, we know he cares about Rue and will do anything to protect her, even at his own detriment. In episode 2 “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy”, when Rue is coerced into taking fentanyl by a drug lord, Fez pays to make sure she isn’t sexually assaulted. His character shines throughout the show in the subtlest of ways, as Angus Cloud gives a very understated, but hugely powerful performance. He refuses to sell Rue drugs from then on, much to her despair. Despite the fact she she bangs on his door and spews cutting remarks, desperate for drugs, he refuses to sell to her and quickly establishes himself as a secure and comforting presence for her, which is very endearing.
I don’t think we were given enough scenes with Colman Domingo’s Ali, a fellow Narcotics Anonymous member, but his advice and ability to call Rue on her bullshit (attending a NA meeting high, but pretending she’s sober) give her another outlet to turn if things get too much. He suggests that Rue has replaced drugs with Jules and that she needs to remain independent in order to have control over her substance abuse. Despite his warnings, Rue and Jules become closer, (they get ‘RULES’ tattooed on their inner lip), which leads to Rue’s plummet in the season finale when Jules leaves town solo, after Rue decides she can’t follow.
Sam Levinson draws upon his own experiences as an addict and fundamentally shows the intricacies of those relationships surrounding someone with substance abuse issues. Euphoria explores Rue’s anxieties and vulnerabilities, and it’s heartbreaking to see the way she views herself – as a burden. The show works so well because we explore all areas of Rue’s life and it feels real. Her drug use effects her relationship with her family and friends and is so hard-hitting because of its grounded nature. Her relationship with her mother Leslie (Nika King) is strained and the trust is gone – Leslie constantly asks Rue to take drug tests. We also see how it affects her sister Gia, who is the one that found her when she’d OD’d. Storm Reid gives an incredible performance as her loving younger sister, that I hope we see more of in Season 2.
I’m excited to watch the two specials and eager for the release of Season 2. The show is impactful, topical and handles a lot of issues, like gender-based violence and the effects of social media. It’s not the easiest watch, but it’s definitely fascinating and there is a lot to be unpacked. It’s a visual spectacle and tender portrayal of substance abuse.