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‘Euphoria’ Doesn’t Need Shock Value Anymore to Make Us Keep Watching

While the graphic details are by no means absent in Season 2, the HBO hit is becoming less of a capital-s Show About Teenagers, and more of a show about these specific teenagers—to decent effect

HBO/Ringer illustration

Euphoria built its reputation on novelty. The first teen drama to ever air on HBO, the show also became the rare teen drama to show sexuality and drug use in explicit, albeit highly stylized, terms. Following its breakout success and now years of anticipation, the series had to evolve in Season 2—and creator Sam Levinson takes great pains to keep things fresh. The latest episodes feature new devices (flashbacks set before most of the cast was even born), new characters (a dealer played by Baskets Martha Kelly in her signature monotone), and new plot lines (a school play). Boredom and provocation are mutually exclusive, and the show that almost started with a dolly shot up a woman’s vagina loves to provoke.

For all the updates, though, some things haven’t changed. Not two minutes into Sunday’s season premiere, a woman struts through a strip club in slow motion. There’s bisexual lighting, a Euphoria standby. Billy Swan’s cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” sets the scene, the prominent soundtrack another staple. Finally, there’s the most Euphoria flourish of all: an exposed, erect male penis, jiggling slightly while its owner gets shot in each leg. It’s the reassurance some fans might be looking for—Euphoria is back, and so are the dicks.

In its first season, Euphoria could seem torn between conflicting desires, not unlike the typical teenager. There were obvious attempts to make waves and horrify parents with tales of leaked sex tapes and drug deals gone awry; at the same time, in a nod to one of the wholesome forebears it so pointedly isn’t, the show tried to tell grounded stories about the secret life of the American teenager. Sometimes, those two goals worked in concert, especially when it came to Euphoria’s portrait of addiction. When Rue (Zendaya) turns to pills or a new crush to numb the pain from losing her dad, it’s often harrowing, but never sensationalized. But Euphoria’s impulses could also feel at odds. In a cast that otherwise avoids stereotypes or at least shades them in, the blunt-force cruelty of villain Nate (Jacob Elordi) is out of place. And while Kat (Barbie Ferreira) has body-based insecurities rooted in emotional reality, doing online sex work for Bitcoin made more sense as a bid for notoriety than an in-character choice.

Yet the further Euphoria progressed, the more the built-in incentives of television nudged the show in the right direction. Eight hours is a lot of space to fill. Levinson used that time to flesh out his ensemble, focusing on a new player in each week’s cold open and deepening the relationships between different characters. This was evident in the extended break between seasons, when the auteur put out two contrasting quarantine projects. The Netflix movie Malcolm & Marie, also starring Zendaya, suffered from its namesakes’ existence in a vacuum, making their two-hour argument more of an abstract debate than a visceral fight. Euphoria’s two special episodes, checking in on Rue and her love interest Jules (Hunter Schafer), had no such issue earning viewers’ investment. We’d already seen Rue relapse and Jules run away, developments that jeopardized their intense, if fragile, bond; we were anxious to see how the pair were holding up.

Euphoria thrives not as a capital-s Show About Teenagers, but as a show about these specific teenagers. In Season 2, it leans into the latter, though that shift feels less like an intentional adjustment and more like the natural result of extending the narrative past its initial burst of intrigue. Once you’re done making a splash, it’s time to sink or swim.

There are plenty of open threads for Levinson and his collaborators to follow. Rue is using again, enabled by new friend Elliot (Dominic Fike), who also struggles with addiction; Maddy (Alexa Demie) has a sex tape of Jules and her ex-boyfriend’s dad; Kat has given up camming for an honest shot at a conventional relationship. There are also blank spaces left to fill, many of them pointed out by Euphoria’s own audience. The show has been absent long enough that it can respond to fan feedback, and the premiere wastes no time letting the Euphoria hive know it’s been heard. The first cold open belongs to Fezco (Angus Cloud), the dealer with a heart of gold who emerged as a soulful scene-stealer throughout Season 1. The woman in the strip club turns out to be his grandmother, who forcibly took custody of a young Fez and taught him the narcotics trade.

Levinson doesn’t stop there. A chance encounter at a New Year’s Eve party pairs up Fezco with Lexi (Maude Apatow), Rue’s former best friend and a quiet Goody Two-shoes often overshadowed by her peers’ misbehavior—especially her beautiful, popular sister Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). As Season 2 goes on, Euphoria gradually sheds the cold open format, toying with alternative structures in its quest to stay current. Instead of a short, five-minute spotlight, Lexi effectively gets an entire episode to herself late in the season. It’s natural to delay focus on a character whose defining trait is getting drowned out by squeakier wheels, but by combining her story with Fezco’s through an unlikely friendship, Lexi’s subplot has shades of a mea culpa.

Euphoria may address some of its weak spots in Season 2, but it hardly fixes all of them. If anything, the Nate problem only grows more egregious. As everyone else gets more nuance and depth—including his own father, a repressed patriarch who had sex with Jules, a minor, and recorded it without her consent—Nate remains a chaos agent, constantly starting conflicts out of unyielding rage. It’s increasingly striking how much Euphoria fundamentally likes, or has sympathy for, every character except Nate. The more spiteful decisions he makes, including a new romance that threatens to blow up several friendships, the more it feels like Euphoria makes Nate into a scapegoat, forcing him to set off all the soap-opera fireworks so the rest of the cast can avoid the blowback.

Still, it’s in Euphoria’s nature to be a mixed bag. Levinson tends to use fantasy sequences to illustrate his characters’ heightened emotions, conveying the sense that, as Rue puts it, “when you’re younger, everything feels so permanent.” (Sometimes it is! But as Fezco and Lexi’s new prominence suggests, this is a show that gives major felonies and self-discovery equal weight.) Some of those sequences work better than others; which is which will vary from viewer to viewer. I adored a scene where an armada of influencers invade Kat’s bedroom and order her to love herself, but found a few minutes’ worth of a fake mockumentary contrived; I have no doubt others will feel precisely the opposite. At this point, Euphoria’s bombast and unevenness are part of its charm—not to mention a perfect fit for protagonists hopped up on hormones, among other substances.

By its second season, Euphoria has outlasted the initial rush of curiosity. If you’re watching now, you’re watching to find out what happens next, not for an extended PSA on the antics of Gen Z. (That’s for the best, given the millennial-made show’s many anachronisms; in the new season, two Zoomers bond over their shared love of … Stand by Me. Maybe they heard about it from their parents?) On that front, Euphoria delivers. In many ways, it’s the same show it’s always been. We can just see it more clearly without all the headlines in the way.