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The ‘Euphoria’ Special Barely Resembled the Show. That’s Why It Worked.

With the pandemic delaying Season 2 and preventing the kind of kinetic energy ‘Euphoria’ is known for, the show found a powerful, elegant solution in a Christmas special

HBO/Ringer illustration

Holiday specials are a tricky proposition. The format isn’t as common in America as it is in the U.K., where shorter seasons—sorry, “series”—have always been the norm. (Also, based solely on my scientific findings of shotgunning eight straight rounds of The Great British Bake Off in quarantine, Christmas just seems like a way bigger deal over there.) Network and streaming series often blow straight through the holidays, obviating the need for a seasonal reunion. But with the rise of shorter runs on cable and streaming, there’s more pent-up demand from audiences to check in with the characters they miss, plus pressure on platforms to keep up their endless streams of content. Enter the balancing act.

On the one hand, a special has to be substantive enough to justify fans going out of their way to take in the supplementary viewing. On the other, it has to be technically skippable; while their events are part of the show’s canon, holiday specials also exist apart from the primary text. It’s therefore unwise to fill them with events that meaningfully shift the status quo of the series; this is a difficult box to check while also trying to make a special seem, well, special. The production restrictions of COVID-19, meanwhile, mark an additional hurdle: Any new material has to be filmed without unnecessary crowds and at great additional expense.

Last summer, Euphoria brought HBO hub into the world of YA and won star Zendaya a surprise Emmy this fall. Sam Levinson’s opus on addiction and ennui ended its promising, uneven first season with Zendaya’s troubled loner Rue experiencing a relapse, hinting that the already ordered Season 2 could be even darker (though obviously still neon-lit) than the first. But the pandemic shut down production on the follow-up before it even started. Euphoria proper won’t be back until late next year at the earliest. Until then, fans will have to make do with a good old Christmas special—a Euphoria chapter that feels nothing like Euphoria, partly out of necessity and partly out of intention.

This Sunday, HBO aired “Rue,” the first of two follow-ups on that cliffhanger ending. (“Jules” will likely air next Sunday, with each hour following half of Euphoria’s central friendship/coping device/kinda-sorta couple.) After a cold open in Jules’s city apartment—a look at what might’ve happened had Rue run away with her—Rue crushes and snorts a pill with practiced ease and returns to reality. From there, “Rue” takes place almost entirely at Frank’s Restaurant, the Burbank diner where Rue meets with her sobriety sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo). (Euphoria keeps its actual setting deliberately ambiguous, but the series is shot in L.A. and includes the occasional landmark for locals in the know.) Ali can tell Rue has fallen off the wagon, and while their conversation meanders from Jules to Black Lives Matter to family life, it always comes back to the primary theme: Ali urging Rue to recommit to her sobriety.

Levinson—who wrote and directed the episode, as he did most of Euphoria’s first season—finds some ways to break up the visual monotony of two people talking in a booth. In an intermission of sorts, Ali takes a phone call while Rue listens to Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years”; at one point, Ali enlists the waitress to explain why relationships can be hard to balance with recovery. For the most part, though, “Rue” is stubbornly quiet and still, the polar opposite of a show near synonymous with music and motion.

There are obvious practical reasons why Euphoria had to limit the scope of the special, itself a contingency measure to bridge the unexpectedly long gap between seasons. A high school rager hardly allows for social distancing, while a quiet sit-down in a diner keeps exposure nice and contained. Still, there are unexpected upsides to Euphoria’s forced hand. If anything, the conspicuous absence of background players only heightens the intensity and intimacy of the scene when Ali is, in a very real sense, attempting to save Rue’s life.

“I love talking to you because we talk about the real shit,” Ali tells Rue. “Shit that matters.” Said shit boils down to the core of addiction, Euphoria’s least sensationalist and most affecting motif. Euphoria’s first season effectively established how Rue’s infatuation with Jules was at times a substitute for drugs, a futile half-measure that inevitably fell short. “Rue” underscores that idea—Ali pokes fun at her for bragging about their relationship before they’ve actually defined their relationship—while also digging deeper. First, Rue argues she has everything under control. Then she starts voicing deeper fears: What if she’s already hurt her loved ones so badly there’s no point trying to be better? Ali points out that’s the disease talking: “You’re not a drug addict because you’re a piece of shit. You’re a piece of shit because you’re a drug addict.”

We also learn a bit more about Ali, an adult character often underserved by a story about misbehaving teens. First of all, his birth name is actually Martin, and he converted to Islam and left South Philadelphia for what may or may not be Southern California. And while he doesn’t divulge any details, he says he’s done things the self-indulgent teen across from him can’t even imagine, giving his counsel extra weight. “Rue” is insular and contained, but it also widens the world of Euphoria just enough to include a grown-up who’s not a concerned parent. It’s important work to ensure Rue’s myopia doesn’t become Euphoria’s as well.

“Rue” isn’t Euphoria’s flashiest hour—and that’s an understatement. But it is a neat solution to the Christmas special conundrum. Not much necessarily happens as a result of the heart-to-heart, which ends with Ali driving Rue home to Labrinth’s remix of “Ave Maria.” Future fans who skip straight to Season 2 won’t be completely at a loss. But they will have missed out on an artful contrast, one that expands Euphoria’s range even as it brings its default into sharp relief. The holidays are a time for togetherness, but they’re also quiet and lonely, often eerily so. “Rue” leans into the discomfort and finds something worthwhile.