Warning: this post contains plot spoilers for the first season of HBO’s Euphoria. Please don’t read if you don’t want it spoiled for you.
In 2020, while looking for something new to watch, I turned my sights to Euphoria.
I wasn’t familiar with the plot other than it was about beautiful teenagers, covered with glitter, living in California. From the promos before other HBO shows, the lead Zendaya was constantly riding a bicycle and or running in slow motion down an alley. NPR may have had a story or two about it where they mentioned social media and drug addiction, and I shrugged – what teenager isn’t on drugs? I didn’t get through my teenage-years without sampling a few of my mom’s prescription medications – and I was one of the good ones. What could Euphoria tell me about GenZ that was new and unique that my generation didn’t experience?
Then, I read about the show winning awards and getting high praise from critics AND fans alike.
Fine, I thought. I’ll watch one episode just to see what’s up. Just for laughs. Maybe I’ll turn this into a hate watch.
I regret this motivation. Euphoria is not a hate watch. Euphoria deserves more respect on it’s name – for its acting, it’s writing, it’s stunning cinematography, and it’s heartbreakingly fresh takes on evergreen themes.
I fell in love.
While the series is inarguably about beautiful, glittery teenagers on drugs riding their bikes in slow motion around suburban California, it’s also about the same struggles all of us have faced (sexuality, gender identity, love, mental health, parental pressure, and yes – addiction) now with the added bonus of technology and lack of privacy that comes with that. The central character1 of the show is Rue (Zendaya), who is returning to her junior year of high school after spending her summer in rehab. Due to mental health issues as well as trauma from losing her father to cancer in the recent past, she has no plans to stay clean. That changes when she meets Jules, a trans girl, from “the city” (which I’m guessing is LA, but the show plays it vague), with whom Rue becomes smitten. From here, the two become interconnected with the other characters, including Nate (the highschool quarterback and psychopath, villain of the series); his on-again/off-again girlfriend Maddie (a cheerleader with severe battered girlfriend syndrome); Cassie, Maddie’s best friend (a pretty, sweet girl with self-esteem issues); Kat, Jules’ friend from summer school (a plus-sized girl coming into her own); and Fezco, Rue’s drug dealer (probably the best person to have as your drug dealer). There are a lot of twists and turns and the series gets complex, but it all flows together – smooth and easy, like a Xanax sleep.
I watched the first season in 2020 and then again this week to prep for the first episode of season 2. It’s phenomenal even the second go-around because I can catch things I missed or moments telegraphed to me that I didn’t see the first time. There’s humor in the show, both unironic and ironic. I caught myself laughing a little too hard on the second viewing because I knew conversations or events were going to happen before they did. For example, Rue’s montage of crashing into things on her bike, will never NOT be hilarious – I’ve never been drunk and got on a bike, but I imagine this would be how I would operate one, too.
My favorite dynamic in this show is how female relationships work. There are no real “mean girls.” There aren’t “bad girls” and “good girls;” so “saints” and “bitches.” Sure, Maddie is set up to be the Bad Girl (I’ll mention her in a minute), but she loves her friends, has another emotion other than “bitchy” and has an arc that ends in a mature emotional decision. The girls are friends with each other. They represent different body types and different ethnic groups. They get into arguments and call each other out on bullshit (Maddie and Kat, specifically), but they make up. When someone has sex for the first time, it’s a celebration rather than a teasing. When someone has their sex tape leaked, there’s no pointing and shaming. So basically, there’s no Millennial Mean Girling like there was when I was growing up – which is a refreshing change for television. I’m not sure if that’s reality or not, but to paraphrase the show, eventually everyone will have their nudes leaked so soon it won’t matter.
As far as which characters are my favorites, I can’t pick one. Again – a sign of a well-written piece of media is that the characters are all so well-rounded that you can’t or have a hard time picking favorites. That includes the villains, too. So instead of picking favorites, I’m going to hand out class superlatives to all the characters I can in the style of our least–favorite high school activity2.
Worst Couple: If you think I’m going to give this to Maddie and Nate, you’re wrong; at least Maddie and Nate had the sense to declare their relationship toxic and end their relationship at the end of season 1. This award goes to Rue and Jules, who are codependent and lack basic communication skills. Jules should not be the reason Rue stays sober. Jules is not just a teenager, she’s a bit of a flighty, manipulative one. She’s declared many times that she’s leaving the town to go to New York for college and that she finds the town boring. And none of that is wrong – she has every right to want those things. Rue saddling her baggage to Jules is dangerous and I’m sure that’s why recovery programs suggest not getting into a relationship the first year of recovery. And Rue, even sober you’re a hot mess. Have you been to school more than 3 times this semester? I’m pretty sure you’re going to fail and repeat your junior year. Both of you get your shit together.
Person I Wanted to Be/Be Best Friends With in High School: This is Maddie. I love everything Maddie says and wears. My favorite scene in the show is Maddie, high on molly and wearing that amazing purple outfit, pushing over that pot of chili, and responding (when Mrs. Jacobs goes, “What is your problem!?”) “YOU, CUNT!” The first time I heard her say that line, her finger pointing and her mouth biting off those words, I crawled up the couch and screamed “Oh god daaaaamn!” Because I wish I had Maddie’s confidence, looks, and wardrobe in highschool. To be BFFs with the bad girl in school, or to be the bad girl in school would have been my greatest achievement. But Maddie’s life…no. I don’t think my mind would have thought that far.
Person I Was In High School: I was never 100% any of these characters in part because they’re characters and in part because I took pride in never being 100% anything in high school. The closest I’d say I was, as in I’m 93% this character, is Lexi. She’s the girl who sits quietly by, supporting her former best friend Rue with a clean urine sample and her older sister Cassie with her myriad of boy troubles. She voices her objection, but never complains. Dependable and trustworthy, I hope Lexi gets her minute to come out of her shell.
Person I Am Today: That honor goes to Lexi and Cassie’s mom. At least, spiritually.
Biggest Piece of Trash: No, this isn’t Nate. Nate’s a piece of shit. Trash is different. It’s mundane and boring and uninteresting. Shit gets on your shoes and sinks into your soles and you can’t scrub it off. Trash you can avoid stepping in and you can just kick it away and it blows away in the wind. That’s McKay for the way he treated poor Cassie. Getting angry at her for not respecting herself for her nudes and sex tapes, then demanding nudes and sex tapes? Upset that she tries to cheer him up with sex when all she’s been made to feel like is a sexual object her whole life? Dude is all sorts of trash. Go back to college, stop hanging around high school kids, and continue failing to get on the field.
Person You Want At Your Side: This is easy, it’s Fezco. If I had a dealer, I’d want my dealer to start cutting me off when he saw me turning into Rue. But also, if I’d been dosed by fentanyl and narrowly escaped sexual assault, I’d want to feel comfortable enough with my dealer to call my friend and take me to her place for a while. Fezco really cares about Rue, enough to threaten Nate and get his house raided for it. That’s the type of loyalty most people would love to have (even if it’s terrifying).
Person I Feel Sorry For But is Starting to Get on My Damn Nerves: I’ve defended her a lot up until now, but Cassie – for all her qualities – just keeps making the same mistakes despite knowing it. Girl needs some maturity and fast. It seems like every single episode someone hurts her feelings or betrays her, and she starts crying, and then it happens all over again. Girl cannot catch a break but somehow, she just can’t stop getting involved with stupid boys. Daniel’s vicious rant at her was the most brutal of the series because it was partially true – she is just relegated to being someone’s girlfriend. She deserves better, but are the writers going to do something about that?
Best Character Not in the Main Cast: This is a tie between Ashtray and BB. I honestly don’t know what is scarier – a pre-teen with face tattoos or a teenager with a Juul. If pressed, I’d say the former, but the latter would probably say something mean to me and fade away in a cloud of vape. I’m not ready for that.
Last but not least, Biggest Piece of Shit: Nate’s dad. Yes, sorry for the switcheroo. Nate has done some seriously bad things, but he doesn’t have statutory rape under his belt just yet. Don’t worry, Nate’s own special reward is Tallest Piece of Shit, so there’s that.
Season 2 began this week and I’m already in it. What’s going to happen to Rue and Jules? Will Fezco get revenge on Nate for the raid? Will Maddie get back with Nate, or will they stay apart? Will Kat and Ethan become the best couple of the show?
I’ll get my answers. This time, I’m not waiting over a year to watch the show.
1I use this term because this show is an ensemble piece, I’d argue. While Rue is the central focus, the other characters are certainly just as important and are not relegated to the side lines.
2Besides changing clothes in the locker room.