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What the ‘Euphoria’ Special Episodes Accomplished

“Jules” resembles “Rue” in many ways—but it’s the ways that distinguish it that might present a new, exciting future for the show overall

HBO/Ringer illustration

HBO’s button-mashing teen drama Euphoria is filtered through Rue (Zendaya), who narrates each episode. Every chapter centers on a different character—candy-sweet Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), toxic male Nate (Jacob Elordi)—but Rue’s voice-over and jaded point of view colors all of them. Last month’s Christmas special broke the show’s mold in many ways, isolating a couple characters at a diner for an hour-long heart-to-heart. But in one sense, it stayed true to form: Titled just “Rue,” the episode stayed grounded in the heroine’s rocky road to recovery.

On Friday, HBO released the counterpart to “Rue” via HBO Max. (The installment aired on HBO proper on Sunday night.) “Jules” is billed as Part 2 of an inter-season update and a check-in with the other half of Euphoria’s central relationship. Yet it’s also a genuine first in Euphoria’s short history: a part of the story in which Rue appears, but doesn’t frame the action.

“Jules” is directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson but cowritten and co-executive produced by star Hunter Schafer, another first for the show. (Levinson wrote each of Season 1’s eight episodes.) And where its companion was carefully calibrated to feel substantive without advancing the plot, “Jules” does some real scene-setting for a pandemic-postponed Season 2. Following the season finale’s cliffhanger, when Jules runs away from home and Rue declines the chance to join her, we learn that Jules has returned to Euphoria’s dreary suburb. Subtitled “F*ck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob”—“Rue” was captioned “Trouble Don’t Last Always”—“Jules” is framed around the title character’s first session with a new therapist (Looking’s Lauren Weedman), when she discusses the events of last season, her relationships with Rue and her mother, and whether to stop the puberty blockers she takes via implant as part of her medical transition.

Partly as a result of its scope, “Jules” is less formally ostentatious than “Rue,” which was largely an old-fashioned bottle episode set at a single, sparse location. (A cold open showed Rue and Jules together in a city apartment living out a fantasy of connubial bliss.) Produced under coronavirus protocols, “Jules” is still claustrophobic by Euphoria standards, a constraint Levinson leans into; it’s a full seven minutes before his camera cuts away from a tight close-up on Schafer’s bare face, a stark departure from the elaborate eye designs that were Jules’s signature in Season 1. But there are still scenes with partners other than the therapist, set in locations other than her tastefully appointed office. Like “Rue” and its exploration of recovery, “Jules” expands Euphoria’s purview—but unlike “Rue,” “Jules” builds up a viable contender for co-protagonist of the show going forward.

Hearing Jules speak at length about what she generously calls “a really hard six months”—her accurate synopsis of Euphoria Season 1 is that “a bunch of shit all happened at once”—highlights how novel her vantage is, both within Euphoria and entertainment at large. For all the traumas we’ve seen Jules endure, from her ups and downs with Rue to getting catfished by a violent sociopath, we’ve never really seen her stop to process them. (We know exactly how Rue feels, because she tells us; Jules is more opaque, often portrayed as the object of Rue’s obsession.) Once she does, she gives voice to feelings and experiences that are genuinely unprecedented for a high school drama, a genre otherwise ridden with clichés.

For starters, Jules is a trans character whose story line centers neither on her transition nor her gender. By the time she and Rue meet as teenagers, Jules has already come to terms with who she is—and pointedly, none of her new classmates make an issue of it. Her social outsider status, which she shares with Rue, comes instead from her own quirks and passions. Jules’s identity certainly influences her experience with hookup apps and romantic fantasies, but it’s also gone largely unstated, at least until now. “My entire life I’ve been trying to conquer femininity,” she tells the therapist. “And somewhere along the way, I feel like femininity conquered me.” So she debates giving herself over to the “deepening” of puberty, distancing herself from a version of womanhood she sees as too responsive to men while retaining her own sense of self. “For me, being trans is spiritual,” she explains.

“Jules” uses the relative quiet to work through some nuanced, knotty ideas, the kind not easily heard through Euphoria’s typical sensory overload. Jules talks about how her romance with Rue, her first with another girl, has encouraged her to stop defining herself by how men perceive her: “I’m no longer interested in men. Like, philosophically.” She reflects on how her imagination and intensity can get the best of her: “I fall in love so easily, because half of every relationship is in my head,” a thought illustrated by an imagined sex scene with an unseen partner. And she applies this insight to her dalliance with “Tyler,” the internet pseudonym who turned out to be Nate abusing her trust: “We used to sext forever. It was the best sex I ever had, just total imagination … I’m still in love with Tyler, and I don’t know when that’s gonna change.”

These revelations about Jules’s inner life aren’t exactly overdue. Euphoria has built goodwill through its restraint, allowing Schafer and Levinson to filter in new themes without letting them dominate Jules’s character. “Jules” is also the product of a true collaboration. Much of Rue’s story is inspired by Levinson’s own biography, drawn from his history of addiction as a teen. Jules’s is not, leaving room for Schafer to fill the space between Levinson’s initial sketch and the four-dimensional result. (Schafer calls her role in the special “the most cathartic artistic experience I’ve ever had.”)

The Euphoria specials aren’t Levinson’s only high-profile quarantine project: Next week, Netflix will release Malcolm & Marie, a black-and-white two-hander featuring Zendaya and John David Washington as a glamorous couple—he’s a buzzy director, she’s his younger girlfriend—who have an argument after a film premiere. But the differences between them are oddly instructive. Malcolm & Marie has already been criticized for the way Levinson appears to use the characters as mouthpieces for his own grievances, particularly with the press. It’s true that each protagonist appears to represent a figment of Levinson’s own personality: Marie, like Rue, is in recovery from addiction and her trials appear in Malcolm’s work, while Malcolm is an auteur just breaking into mainstream acclaim. The effect of such an echo chamber is stifling.

“Jules” excites because it’s not just one voice, letting a breath of fresh air into quarantine-tight quarters. The hour offers some material hints as to what’s to come in Season 2: Rue and Jules back in the same place, and per a teasing final scene, possibly reconciled. But it also implies that Euphoria may be able to broaden itself beyond Rue, and by implication, Levinson’s sole authorship. Collectively, “Rue” and “Jules” serve their core purpose, keeping Euphoria in the zeitgeist in the long wait between seasons. But they also add new tones and perspectives to the show’s repertoire, a promising sign as we await a proper follow-up. Maybe someday, Jules can get a voice-over of her own.