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How Does ‘Euphoria’ Keep Doing It?

The teen drama has always been a bumpy ride, both for viewers and behind the scenes. But its latest episode perfectly encapsulates the stronger side of its eternal highs and lows.

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

Six weeks in, there’s a lot that feels different about the second season of Euphoria. Much of that difference is due to factors outside the show itself, which has stayed relatively consistent from one volume to the next. It took nearly three years and an entire pandemic for creator Sam Levinson to produce a follow-up, so the characters seem less familiar than they might have on a more regular production schedule. TikTok has blown up in the meantime, so we get Euphoria High memes. Most importantly for HBO, the network now has a massive, youth-friendly streaming service to distribute its first teen drama, contributing to an equally sizable ratings bump. If your Twitter feed looks like Euphoria is more ubiquitous than ever, that’s because it is.

But in terms of actual story, what’s changed in Season 2 can be neatly summed up by the increased prominence of two characters: drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud), who keeps a watchful eye on protagonist Rue (Zendaya) even as he sells her drugs, and shy nerd Lexi (Maude Apatow), Rue’s former best friend and the younger sister of beautiful, popular Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). Starting with last month’s premiere, Levinson paired the two up in an unlikely friendship—possibly a budding romance. Depending how you looked at it, the combination was either a self-aware nod to how underused both characters were in Season 1 or a rote solution to how Euphoria could use them better.

In this week’s episode, the penultimate installment before next week’s finale, both Lexi’s and Fezco’s arcs come to a head. Unlike “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird,” the standout hour that focused exclusively on Rue and her nightlong descent to rock bottom, “The Theater and Its Double” works in updates that span Euphoria’s ensemble cast. Rue’s mother tells her that her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) has been struggling and she’s just too self-absorbed to notice it. Maddy (Alexa Demie) confronts Cassie about dating her awful ex-boyfriend and destroying their close friendship. Jules (Hunter Schafer) smashes the illicit sex tape of her and a classmate’s father, destroying the evidence of an encounter she’d like to forget.

Yet in a season that’s otherwise strayed from Season 1’s character-focused cold opens, “The Theater and Its Double” has a relatively focused structure. It’s an hour built around Our Life—the play-within-a-show that Lexi’s spent all season writing—and Fez’s conspicuous absence from the performance. On a show that features a sociopathic bully, a predatory parent, and a queenpin who threatens to sell Rue into sexual slavery, Lexi unmasks herself as Euphoria’s most terrifying villain of all: a theater kid with an ax to grind.

In doing so, she brings Euphoria into the stronger side of its eternal highs and lows. The show has always been a bumpy ride, both for viewers and, according to some recent reports, behind the scenes. (The role of Barbie Ferreira’s character Kat Hernandez has been noticeably diminished in Season 2. According to The Daily Beast, Ferreira walked off set multiple times during production following disputes with Levinson and did not attend the season premiere.) Euphoria is a disorienting mix of genres, tones, stakes, and overall vibes, a whiplash-inducing experience that’s chaotic by design. The show as a whole is narrated by Rue, who serves as our Virgil through the raging inferno of teen angst. But this episode ups the ante even further: In the world of Euphoria, Our Life is narrated, written, and directed by an actual teenager. And Euphoria’s excesses are a lot more endearing—which is to say, less exhausting—when they’re canonically rooted in enthusiastic immaturity.

Our Life is not necessarily a great play, or even a good one. Were Lexi to workshop it in the MFA program she’ll probably pursue while drowning herself in student debt, she’d be in for some justified critiques. For one thing, Our Life is less a “work of fiction” with “a story” and “characters” than an unadulterated screed in which Lexi airs her grievances about feeling overshadowed and left behind. Nor does it seem to occur to her, when venting her anxieties to an empathetic Fez, that there’s a middle ground between blindsiding her friends and family with her unflattering portraits of them and disinviting them from the play entirely. (I’m sure Cassie would’ve appreciated a heads-up. She certainly deserved one!) Whatever Our Life’s problems, though, budget isn’t one of them: Euphoria High seems to have an astronomical set and prop budget for a public institution in a blue-collar town. Lexi isn’t ready for Broadway yet, but those revolving lockers are.

But Our Life doesn’t have to be good to make its point: that Lexi resents her older sister’s popularity, much of it tied to her looks; and that she misses her connection with Rue, whose drug use turned into addiction following her father’s death when she was 13. “The Theater and Its Double” toggles between the staged reenactment of Lexi’s life and flashbacks to the real thing, a device that’s never more powerful than when Lexi reads a grieving Rue a Rilke poem, only for the camera to pan out and reveal the stage. Quoting Austrian romanticists may be the height of clichéd teen emotion, but Euphoria is at its best when it replicates the fresh, raw feeling of a new experience you’re too young to recognize as a trope. Lexi isn’t the first person to think of ninth grade as a fresh start, but we believe she thinks she is.

Even more than “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird,” the episode coproducer Jeremy O. Harris cited as proof Euphoria was made for viewers “with an intellect for CINEMA and not the impatience of TELEVISION,” “The Theater and Its Double” demonstrates why the show can be worth waiting out its more exasperating elements: the overwrought dialogue; the underdeveloped antagonists; the self-importance that leads to phrases like “an intellect for cinema.” Euphoria is a show whose worst instincts can also be its greatest assets, provided they’re presented in the right context—often with a meta wink. Apatow’s delivery of “I love the theater!” is so in on the joke it’s workshopping a tight five.

“The Theater and Its Double” isn’t entirely without traces of said instincts. Lexi’s envy of Cassie is framed entirely around Cassie’s breasts, a reductive presentation of a complicated sisterhood that only furthers the show’s unseemly emphasis on the character’s body. Actress Sydney Sweeney recently told The Cut that she had to request certain topless scenes to be removed from the initial scripts. Euphoria can veer between correcting for exploitative representation of teens and replicating those same dynamics, often within the same episode.

The most effective scenes in “The Theater and Its Double” thrive on a different kind of contrast. Even if we didn’t know he never makes it to the play, the scenes of Fez getting ready to leave his apartment with a bouquet of roses in hand have a menacing stillness. It doesn’t take a close-reading Redditor to guess something bad is about to happen to our favorite career criminal, or why Fezco’s vocation might put him in danger. But there’s nothing more Euphoria than contrasting the impending threat of lethal violence against an honor student executing her artistic vision, presenting each with equal intensity. For a teen drama, a lack of perspective is a perspective in and of itself.