The freshman finale of HBO’s EUPHORIA ended over a week ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Not only did creator and showrunner Sam Levinson leave several story threads dangling to tease directions for the second season, but he also satisfactorily concluded various cliffhangers to let his audience breathe a sigh of relief over what was concluded. No one died, including the main character Rue (Zendaya), whom many believed to be narrating the story from the grave, and many of the show’s troubled characters were shown grace, even if they didn’t deserve it. Most importantly, the show went out the way it came in – big, bold, and spectacularly entertaining, yet slyly showing the path of righteousness the whole time. Despite its story of drug addiction and troubled teens, the series has a morality at its core that is breathtaking.
From the opening moments of the series, Levinson strapped us in for a series that was sure to be a wild ride. Not only was the story centered around an unrepentant drug addict, but the actress playing Rue used to be one of the biggest stars on the Disney Channel. The show wore its audacity on its sleeve at every instance too. Why, the very first images in the pilot episode followed baby Rue being pushed out of her mother’s cervix, followed immediately by a shot of the second plane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9-11. Rue, as she tells us in the voiceover narration, was born just three days after that earth-shattering event, and her feeling is that it doomed her from the start.
As Rue’s narration continued, her words are blunt and chilling. She overdosed at 16, went into rehab, bluffed her way through it, and was now returning home no wiser for the wear. The fact that Levinson had Zendaya read all of her voiceovers in a world-weary monotone as well, finding no silver linings, and telling only ugly truths, made things feel all the more brazen. Her teenage character and the world she described are jaundiced, unable to wash away the taint of a generation already lost to terrorism, eco-disasters, and political ineptitude.
Yet despite that cynicism and Rue’s zombie-esque descriptions of the banality in her existence, Levinson ensured that we didn’t buy whole-hog into the doom and gloom. Instead, his show belies cynicism at almost every instance. EUPHORIA believes that life is worth living, worth fighting for and that even the beleaguered can triumph. It’s not a “Rah Rah” Hallmark Channel type of show, but it’s surprising how much it wears its heart on its sleeve.
Levinson ensures that that comes through continually in two very distinct ways. First, he does so in how the series is produced, and second, in how deeply the characters are written. From those beginning images, Levinson utilized production design and all its details with a skill on par with Scorsese and Spielberg. His camera moves and zooms and tracks, never resting, always infusing each frame with a sense of verve and energy. Sure, his storytelling may involve negative things such as drug overdoses, violence, and blackmail, but everything around those plot points crackles with energy.
Kinetic production values belie all the despair, and nowhere was this more apparent than the series fourth episode which took place primarily at a carnival. There, on the fairgrounds, the inhabitants of the city were dealing with several awful, horrible things. Rue discovered that her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) was doing drugs. Her best friend, the trans teen Jules (Hunter Schafer) was threatened with exposure by BMOC Nate Jacobs who had in his possession underage sexual images of her. College athlete McKay (Algee Smith) betrayed his girlfriend Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). The sexually liberated Kat (Barbie Ferreira) trysted with a carnie just a few feet away from the public on the midway. And worst of all, Rue and Jules discovered that her Grindr hookup was Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), the biggest wheel in town, not to mention Nate’s dad.
Yet, despite all of the angst, the show snapped, crackled and popped the entire hour. The camera rocked and rolled all over the fairgrounds. The editing connected all the different story threads with precision and vigor. Best of all, the wondrous orchestral underscore added a cheeky sense of humor to the proceedings, cueing us into the show’s sly sense of self-awareness. It knows it was melodramatic, and the bombastic brass underlined that fact.
Again, Levinson made sure that energy pulsated through it all, and it, in turn, seemed to help drive the characters towards trying to manage their angst, or at least not let it destroy them. Rue pulls her stoned sis away from her toking friends without it becoming violent. Kat walks away from her impromptu sex act with more self-esteem as she made her partner climax while keeping hers for worthier lovers.
Most impressively, Jules’ cool head prevented bodily harm when both Cal and Nate confront her. The potential for violence was there in both scenes, and yet Jules rules as she takes control of the conversation and escapes with her life and dignity. It’s one of the reasons that Jules has become such a breakout character. She refuses to be a victim. She’s smart, kind, funny, and lovely. And Schafer’s incredible screen debut is Emmy-worthy. (So is Zendaya.)
Here, is where Levinson works further miracles with his characters by usurping stereotypes. Yes, the show is about addiction, and Rue isn’t clean, but she is trying. And the young woman is trying to keep her sister from following the same road to hell. Jules lives dangerously by fornicating with one-night -stands in cheap motel rooms, but she isn’t self-loathing and betters everyone who knows her. Even Cal has his moments. He’s living a lie, but he still tries to keep his dangerous son from wreaking too much havoc.
Levinson strives to find humanity amongst all the carnage. Despite characters being heavily flawed, both the adults and the teens, no one is black or white. Nate’s girl Maddy (Alexa Demie) is a conniving, spoiled brat, but she just wants to be loved and has a lot of it to give the right person. Kat may be camming to pervs to make coin and feel vindication for schoolyard taunts about her weight, but she’s smart enough to bond with good guy Ethan (Austin Abrams) at the homecoming dance. Cassie may let boys use her too often, but her bond with her sensible sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) ensures that there will always be solid love in her life. And even when Rue snorts drugs in the show’s penultimate scene, she sings of her regret as Levinson showcases her dancing amongst a chorus of addicts all dressed like her.
That ending was as outrageous as most anything in the first season, but it showcases a Rue that is less cynical than we first meet. She’s found some inner morality and is starting to make better choices left and right, even if she’s still stumbling in her struggle with addiction. Ultimately, EUPHORIA has faith in its misfits, fuck-ups, and lawbreakers. And it believes that we will see them for all that they are. The HBO show may have started as a cynical examination of Gen Z’ers struggling to matter in a world that is fraught with chaos, but by the finale, we see that an indomitable pluck resides in most of them. It will be fascinating to see how these lost souls find their way back in season two and beyond.