By Jacob Smith, Staff Writer
Is Euphoria an arthouse masterpiece, or is it a soap opera parading as one with its moody lighting and pretentious A24 cinematography?
For most of Season 2, I was leaning towards the latter. Not that I was complaining. Best friends in a love triangle with a psychopath, a pants-less dad drunkenly ranting to his horrified family, a character’s intense external insecurities that make her dress like she’s auditioning for a stage production of Oklahoma — every episode had a ridiculous, cringy, hilarious, jaw-dropping scene that fueled conversations with friends and coworkers each week.
These TikTok-beloved, meme-able, guilty pleasure moments are the reason I watched the show, not the depressing depiction of an addict failing time and time again or the cycle of abuse a father passed on to his offspring. A once “too real” and “difficult to watch” show seemingly became a parody of itself, and as a result, its enjoyability skyrocketed in my eyes. But the audience doesn’t watch Euphoria with their own eyes, they watch it with Rue’s, played by the Emmy Award-winning Zendaya.
The show’s unreliable narrator, opens many episodes dissecting the lives, desires and flaws of her friends and enemies, describing each with surprising understanding and empathy. The ditzy and naïve blonde, the fearless cheerleader and the sadistic jock archetypes all become three dimensional characters with insecurities and emotional baggage through Rue’s monologues.
After being abandoned by her girlfriend at the end of Season 1 and relapsing, Rue’s character studies become less frequent. As she stops caring about her own well-being, she becomes less observant.
During this time of recklessness, all the other characters become increasingly, and comically, less rational. The characters lose their complexity because Rue isn’t paying attention. She begins to realize this mid-Season 2 after learning she’s oblivious to the hardship and trouble in her sister’s life. “You only ever think about yourself,” her mom states.
The finale begins with a theatric (in the most literal sense) cumulation of the season’s juiciest drama with sisters, best friends and one wine-loving mother airing all their dirty laundry in front of the entire school. Few scenes in narrative history have better satisfied the human desire to watch a train wreck.
It’s what the viewers and the in-universe audience of the stage production came to see: reality show level drama. But reality shows aren’t about reality; they’re about taking real people and editing out their depth to create easy to understand heroes and villains.
The audience in the show boos Cassie, and she acknowledges she’s now the villain of the story. However, Lexi never saw Cassie as the villain, because Lexi knows Cassie in a way that the audience never can. She watched Cassie be abandoned by their father, be dehumanized as a sex object by her peers and deal with the heavy decision to get an abortion. Cassie isn’t a character to Lexi; she is her sister.
Right as the long-awaited brawl between Cassie and her friend Maddy is about to peak, the show cuts away. The rest of the episode focuses on Rue learning to care about herself, and the audience learns to care about Rue again. Rue is rarely shown in a positive light, especially in Season 2. That’s because she’s the narrator, and she hates herself. Yet through this autobiographical play written by her childhood friend, we see Rue at her most sympathetic.
Lexi doesn’t show Rue taking advantage of their friendship to pass a drug test, rather she shows Rue’s heartbreaking eulogy at her father’s funeral. Lexi portrayed her as a beautiful yet damaged person deserving of love. Rue commented earlier in the season about how she hates when people are reduced to their mistakes instead of being seen as a full person, and through Lexi’s play, she realizes that she’s guilty of doing that to herself.
In a post-performance conversation with Lexi, Rue tells her that the play was the first time in a long time she was able to look at her life and not hate herself. Rue tells Lexie it’s a problem when a person only wants to be better for the ones they love and not themselves. Rue hurt her family not because she stopped loving them but because she stopped loving herself.
The theme of self-love is carried over into two other beautifully directed storylines in the episode. One usually detestable character does a truly brave and noble action after episodes of self-reflection. Another character devastatingly loses everything he cares about because he was never able to put his own future above helping the toxic people in his life. By the time we finally see Maddy and Cassie again, the fight is over and they’ve realized the same thing as the audience: They’re humans, flawed but beautiful and deserving of forgiveness.
I hear your complaints. What happened to the Laurie storyline? Jules deserved better. Kat wasn’t even a character this season. These are all valid frustrations that will hopefully be addressed in Season 3 (when it returns in 2032, or so it feels).
This season, however, is merely a chapter, and it succeeded in telling a story of characters attempting to overcome their trauma.
Does the show occasionally have gratuitous melodrama? Yes, and thank God, because it’s entertaining as hell. But the show is much more than girls screaming at each other about a boy. It’s a semi-autobiographical window into the world of high school from a former drug addict trying to show how to succeed at being a better person.
The finale ends with a final character study from Rue, this time of herself. She says that she’s realized that to stay a good person, she has to view herself as a good person. There’s finally hope that Rue might stay sober, because for the first time, she’s not trying for her mother, her sister or Jules; she’s staying sober for Rue.