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Modern Excess: ‘Euphoria’ Got Better With Every Passing Week

As the TV show’s medium demanded that it fill time, ‘Euphoria’ began to color in the backgrounds and emotions of its characters—and unlocked its full potential

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best part of almost every episode of Euphoria was its cold open. Like Skins before it, every beginning of every chapter of Sam Levinson’s provocative teen drama centered on a character’s particular flavor of teen angst. Jules (Hunter Schafer), a trans girl who’s just moved to town with her dad, dreams of transcending her traumatic childhood in the big city. Kat (Barbie Ferreira), inexperienced and insecure, struggles to balance taking pride in her body with using male attention to bolster her self-esteem. Even Nate (Jacob Elordi), the token brutish jock, gets a chilling look into exactly what women look like from his entitled, privileged point of view. Every week, before the title card flashed, these ensemble members were refracted through Rue (Zendaya), the heroine looking at high school through fresh—though still deeply jaded—eyes now that she’s taking an honest crack at sobriety.

Sunday’s season finale didn’t have such an overture. Instead, after Rue narrates a brief stay in the hospital following a depression-related kidney infection, her voice-over duties are largely ceded to her mother, in the form of a letter read aloud to Rue’s addiction support group. As Euphoria’s troubled youth congregate at a winter formal and reflect on the tumultuous last few months of their lives, Leslie (Nika King) offers a parent’s perspective on what it’s like to watch a child face obstacles you can’t clear for them. The speech is both a callback to and a reversal of the series’ premiere, in which Rue looks back on her own birth and frames it as the beginning of her unending struggle. Leslie does the same, but with a lot more joy and optimism.

“And Salt the Earth Behind You” tries to do for Euphoria’s entire cast what those bite-sized openers did for its individual members: make their problems seem as dramatic, and organic, to us as they are to them. Like the show it wraps up until an already guaranteed Season 2, the episode is unwieldy and uneven, yet endearingly so. Loose ends are left gaping open: What about Kat’s ill-advised foray into online sex work? Will we ever see Rue’s sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), again? Some aesthetic flourishes overplay their hand; an aerial shot of debauchery-filled bathroom stalls injects needless voyeurism into an otherwise intimate scene. But the overall effect accomplishes what matters most: giving these kids’ inner lives the sort of stakes high school has for everyone, with the understanding most could use at the time but never get.

Euphoria earned mixed reactions from critics when it premiered seven weeks ago. The trials of adolescence in a placeless suburb was both a rich subject for an HBO show and, in the context of a largely older-skewing network, a novel one. Without the censors that muzzled American TV’s past efforts to emphasize the “adult” in “young adult,” Euphoria could actually deliver the intrigue, and the headlines, previously reserved for imported fare like Skins. But creator Levinson, who wrote all of the first season’s eight episodes and directed most, took a somewhat conflicted approach to his underage subjects. Sometimes, Euphoria wanted us to look past the panicked trend pieces and music video staging to the confused, conflicted people underneath. And sometimes, Euphoria was happy to camp out right there on the surface, leering at intoxicated kids and their impaired judgment like a Dateline correspondent facing a deadline.

Fortunately, television is a medium whose sheer volume requires story to fill space and well-realized characters to enact it. The brevity of features can encourage stunts and simplicity, as in Levinson’s Assassination Nation. The same goes for pilot episodes. But as Euphoria went on, the show started to double back and shade in figures who initially lacked the nuance Rue’s centrality, and Zendaya’s star-cementing performance, afforded her. Maddy (Alexa Demie) isn’t just the needy cheerleader on Nate’s arm; she’s a former pageant girl who’s savvily internalized what society expects of her, often with porn as her playbook. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) isn’t just the prettiest girl in school; she’s a hopeless romantic who desperately wants to believe men who say they want her for more than her looks, and does. Rue’s drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) hasn’t gotten his own spotlight just yet, but his appearances gradually deepened him into a surprisingly soulful guardian angel. Once the shock value wore off, Euphoria had no choice but to take its world on its own terms.

Not that all of Euphoria’s pleasures lie at its periphery. The instant bond between Rue and Jules, two charismatic wild cards who transcend their school’s John Hughesian hierarchy, was enough to power many doubters through the season’s wobbly start. (Though, Seth Rogen comparisons aside, Rue’s deadpan tone and tomboy outfits owe quite a bit to Ally Sheedy.) More than the high production value, Drake-assisted soundtrack, or kaleidoscopic lighting, it’s the Rue-Jules dynamic that makes Euphoria seem truly contemporary. Levinson doesn’t shy away from the sexual overtones of their intimacy, as a conservative show might; nor does he spoil the innocence of two girls playing dress-up in a childhood bedroom, or flinch at knotty concepts like codependence they aren’t yet equipped to work through. Zendaya and Schafer have several kinds of chemistry at once, communicating the natural rapport that comes from finding, and clutching onto, your life raft.

Compared with such discoveries, it’s puzzling Euphoria felt the need to rely on a villain as traditional as Nate. Levinson’s imagination has created a world in which a queer, interracial romance is treated as a matter of fact, with Rue’s addiction and overreliance on Jules a more significant roadblock to their relationship than sexuality or gender identity. In this context, Nate’s depiction as yet another toxic bro who’s in the closet feels all the more stale. His violent, misdirected self-loathing just isn’t necessary—the same principle applies to Kat’s camming, whose IRL hookups with random guys are much more gutting because they simply feel so much realer. And in the finale, Cassie’s abortion is played almost completely straight, a wise choice that pays off. The less Euphoria has relied on cheap tricks—the more it realizes its protagonists are enough to stand on their own—the better it’s become.

Euphoria has been compared to Degrassi, but it’s a very different kind of teen show. Where others are guided by the issues, from eating disorders to suicide, they want to address, Euphoria is propelled by the people at its center and what makes them tick: Rue’s substance use in the wake of her father’s terminal illness; Kat’s need to not let her weight define her; Maddy’s compulsion to stay in a relationship she knows isn’t healthy. The show’s remaining weak spots are the characters for whom Euphoria hasn’t fostered a similar understanding, whether Cassie’s good-girl sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) or Fezco’s juvenile sidekick Ashtray (Javon Walton). At least the question is no longer whether Levinson could make these players into more than a precocious prude or kid drug dealer, but whether he’ll choose to.

Because it’s a series made by millennials about Generation Z, it’s easy to fact-check Euphoria on the particulars. Would a 2019 high schooler really reference Casino or dress up like a character from True Romance? Is a Bush-era Arcade Fire track really the ideal soundtrack choice for Trump-era emotion? But even if its details can be second-guessed, Euphoria gets the big picture. High school feels a lot like Rue’s season-ending lip sync, which illustrates her post-relapse spiral with the help of a full-blown church choir: excessive, a little embarrassing, and absolutely life-or-death. Euphoria isn’t the right word for it, but it’s one of them.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.