It’s been almost a year since we last saw the main characters of Euphoria, and more than two since the show aired the finale of its buzzy, award-winning first season. That’s an eternity for any TV show in this day and age, let alone one about teenagers and the fleeting thrills of young adulthood. (Just think—the last time Euphoria put out a standard episode on HBO, you couldn’t even stream it on the yet-to-launch HBO Max!) With Season 2 delayed by the pandemic, writer-director Sam Levinson produced a pair of socially distanced special episodes, tiding fans over with updates on protagonists Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer). Those specials were, by necessity and design, limited in scope: no ragers, no set pieces, no appearances by the rest of Euphoria’s ensemble.
After all those months of lockdown, it’s hard to remember what’s happened in our own lives, never mind those of Euphoria’s fictional high schoolers. With Season 2 kicking off this Sunday, it’s worth circling back to the season that made Zendaya the youngest-ever Emmy winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. In the time Euphoria’s been away, the show has spawned a mini-wave of peers and would-be successors, a testament to its impact in just eight hours of running time. On HBO Max alone, both The Sex Lives of College Girls and the since-canceled Genera+ion have taken on similar subject matter, while USA’s Dare Me applied the same neon-hued lens to its teenage subjects. (Levinson also sold his second quarantine project, the polarizing Malcolm & Marie, to Netflix for $30 million, a valuation partly based on Euphoria’s success.) Still, only Euphoria has the kind of viselike grip on the zeitgeist that begets online tutorials for recreating its signature eye makeup.
Every episode of Euphoria begins with a focus on a specific character, an effective way to flesh out the cast that also makes the show a structural (and thematic) echo of Skins. (Naturally, the U.K. beat the U.S. to an authentically edgy teen drama by a good dozen years or so.) In that spirit, we’ll check in with the Euphoria crew one at a time, summing up their Season 1 subplots and speculating on what Season 2 might have in store. Most viewers remember Euphoria’s stylish lighting, attractive stars, and big-picture themes like addiction and first love; the story specifics are, understandably, a little harder to recall two years later. Let’s recap, starting with Euphoria’s narrator and driving force.
Zendaya’s droll, laconic voice-over is Euphoria’s center of gravity, the common denominator that binds its disparate elements together. And on a show that’s sometimes accused of prizing style over substance, it’s her character’s struggle to stay sober that serves as the series’ emotional anchor. Euphoria isn’t without its share of cheap thrills, but Rue gives it a core of sincere emotion, even if it’s often conveyed with a kind of deadpan omniscience.
We first meet Rue freshly out of inpatient rehab, attending recovery meetings and working with her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo). Once she meets Jules, the new girl in town, the two form an intense friendship that quickly becomes something more. (Credit where it’s due: Euphoria is refreshingly nonchalant about centering a queer romance. Rue and Jules have plenty of problems, but their mere attraction to each other is never depicted as one of them.) At first, her bond with Jules leads Rue to do what even overdosing in front of her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) cannot: give staying sober an honest try. But after Rue refuses to run away with Jules from their suburb to the big city, she has a serious relapse. In “And Salt the Earth Behind You,” Rue’s relapse is largely conveyed through an elaborate, abstract musical sequence; in “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” the first quarantine special, it’s explicitly confirmed in a diner chat between Rue and Ali.
Both “Trouble Don’t Last Always” and “Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob,” an hour dedicated to Jules, are set on Christmas Eve—a few weeks after the finale’s winter formal—and feature scenes that suggest Rue and Jules are back in each other’s lives. But it’s unclear if Jules knows about Rue’s drug use, or how she’d react if she did. Euphoria often shows that Rue treats their intense affair like just another high, a dopamine rush without the stability or maturity of a long-lasting relationship. Rue should probably address her long-term grief from losing her father at a formative age. For now, though, she’s knee-deep in her addiction, despite Ali’s efforts to pull her out of a spiral.
Rue isn’t the only one with deep-seated trauma from an absent parent. Before the events of Euphoria, Jules and her father move away from the city without her mother, who we learn in “Sea Blob” also struggles with addiction. (“Sea Blob” is structured around a session between Jules and her therapist, who points out the obvious parallels between Jules’ mother and her sort-of girlfriend.) It’s implied Jules’ issues with her mom, including checking her into a psychiatric hospital when Jules was 11, stem in part from her gender identity. Jules identifies as trans and takes puberty blockers via implant, though she expresses reservations in “Sea Blob” about continuing her medical transition.
Prior to meeting Rue, Jules explored her gender and sexuality through anonymous hookups with older men. Unbeknownst to her, one of those men, Cal (Eric Dane), is the father of her classmate Nate (Jacob Elordi)—and Cal, not realizing she’s underage, records their encounter, a McGuffin of a sex tape that still hangs over the plot. Later, Jules starts an anonymous flirtation with an online profile she knows only as “Tyler,” who turns out to be Nate, aware of Cal’s extramarital activities after finding his stash of recordings. Nate uses their message history to blackmail Jules, pointing out that sexually explicit messages involving a minor are technically child pornography. It’s unclear how much Nate is driven by an urge to protect his family versus rage at Jules for his own clear attraction to her, or possibly just pure sadism.
Jules has spoken of her past efforts to “conquer femininity,” either through her own self-presentation or conventionally masculine sexual partners. As the show has gone on, Jules’s relationship to both has evolved. She’s hooked up with both Rue and Anna (Quintessa Swindell), an older girl she meets on a trip back to the city; now, she’s questioning her relationship with herself as well as others. Jules may not be in the best place to give things with Rue another shot, but then again, neither is Rue.
To the extent that Euphoria, a largely empathetic show about the trials of high school, has a villain, Nate is it. He’s a familiar type: a celebrated athlete—though his football skills are, according to this website, debatable—with a beautiful, popular girlfriend, repressed desires, and an allergy to introspection. Nate is aware of the power he holds in high school’s rigid social hierarchy and largely uses it for ill.
At the start of Season 1, Nate is in a toxic, abusive relationship with Maddy (Alexa Demie), who hooks up with an older boy named Tyler (Lukas Gage) in the premiere to make Nate jealous. Not only does Nate use Tyler’s name to catfish Jules; he also beats Tyler to a pulp and later blames him for Maddy’s visible bruising, using the threat of a statutory rape charge to convince Tyler to take the fall. Nate also calls the cops on Rue’s drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud), a fan-favorite character who acts as a kind of protective big brother to his favorite client. There isn’t a cast member on Euphoria Nate hasn’t pissed off or seriously wronged, but nothing’s come back to haunt him just yet. Straight white male privilege sure seems nice to have!
In slight fairness to Nate, he’s only repeating the cycle of repression and lashing out initiated by his dad. But while Season 2 would ideally have the two of them work through all that in family therapy, it seems unlikely Nate will stop terrorizing the people around him to maintain his sense of control. Hopefully this time, karma—or Fezco, who’s openly threatened to kill him—intervenes before things get too ugly.
Maddy’s cold open, revealing her past as a child pageant queen, may have been the highlight of Season 1. She’s a girl who learned very early on that beauty, and later sexuality, is the primary form of power society affords to young women, and she consciously tries to use that to her advantage. In a refreshing take on the queen bee stock character, Maddy isn’t cruel or a bully; she isn’t exactly close with a social outsider like Rue, but they’re friendly. She’s just laser-focused on using what she has to get ahead—joining the cheerleading squad, watching porn as a how-to manual, and wearing outfits that stretch the definition of “clothing,” sometimes literally. (She wears a lot of spandex, is what I’m saying.)
The events of Season 1 lead Maddy to the long-overdue realization that what she and Nate have isn’t healthy for either of them. By the finale, the two seem broken up, but that’s happened before in their on-again, off-again dynamic. The biggest question isn’t whether Maddy will ignore her better instincts and get back with her ex, though that’s one of them; it’s what she’ll do with the sex tape of Cal and Jules, which it’s strongly implied she watches while Nate is in the shower. Maddy doesn’t have anything against Jules, but she may not mind some collateral damage if she’s angry enough at Nate.
Maddy’s best friend, Cassie, is played by Sydney Sweeney; she’s one of two Euphoria cast members (along with Gage) to appear in The White Lotus, another HBO hit. Among other things, The White Lotus is a display of Sweeney’s range: On that show, she’s a snide, bitchy college student; on Euphoria, she’s the most guileless and innocent of her peers, most of whom are jaded well beyond their years. Though more popular and socially adept than her younger sister Lexi (Maude Apatow), Cassie doesn’t have the stomach for Maddy and Nate’s twisted power games. When Cassie falls for someone, she falls hard—and for most of Season 1, that someone is Christopher McKay (Algee Smith), a former high school football star who is now in college.
Euphoria depicts Cassie as a kind of tragic figure, someone who doesn’t have a strong enough sense of self not to outsource her self-esteem to male attention. (Her and Lexi live with their single mother after an acrimonious split with their dad, completing Euphoria’s trio of physically and emotionally absent fathers.) Unsurprisingly, her relationship with McKay doesn’t hold up well to the pressures of long distance, with an accidental pregnancy proving the final straw. In the finale, Cassie gets an abortion, a scene Levinson intercuts with a childlike fantasy of ice skating. We haven’t seen Cassie and McKay discuss the abortion or officially break up, but presumably it’s only a matter of time.
Rounding out Euphoria’s core cast, Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) bonds with Jules during a mutual stint in summer school. But the two have something else in common: exploring their still-budding sexuality via the internet, sometimes empowered and sometimes endangered by what they find. Kat is plagued by insecurity about her weight; her first-ever boyfriend dumped her after she drank too many virgin piña coladas on a family vacation. But when footage of her having sex at a party circulates without her consent, she decides to take control of her image, experimenting with anonymous online sex work like camming and domination. (This wasn’t Kat’s first brush with virtual notoriety; she’d previously run a viral Tumblr dedicated to One Direction slashfic.)
Kat’s after-hours exploits give her a renewed sense of confidence. At the same time, she strikes up a flirtation with her lab partner Ethan (Austin Abrams), a relatively sweet and inexperienced boy who offers a more straightforward kind of affection. Following a traumatic encounter with a camming client known as “Johnny,” Kat appears to be off her exhibitionist streak and ready for a conventional high school relationship. But it’s possible her double life won’t stay secret forever, or that Ethan may not turn out to be as nice as he seems.
We know relatively little about Fezco or Ashtray (Javon Walton), the child sidekick who helps him sell drugs out of a convenience store. We do know that fans are craving a Fezco cold open, and that flushing drugs from supplier Mouse (Meeko) down the toilet after Nate calls the cops will doubtless lead to trouble. (Fezco subsequently robs one of Mouse’s minions and pays him off with the spoils to make up for the loss, but the finale is ambiguous on whether Mouse accepts all that blood-soaked cash.) Pray for Fezco; also, please give us more Fezco.