HBO’s wonderchild, Euphoria, returned this past Sunday night to premiere its much anticipated season two finale. The show, which centers around a group of destructive high school students, has become popular among younger viewers due to its explicit content, viciously emotional storylines, and generational relevance. The story is ultimately one of pain, and as we follow our young protagonists, we see how each of their distractionary vices leads to the horrendous yet captivating consequences.
Director Sam Levinson picks up where he left off in season one, following the life of Zendaya’s Rue Bennett. Perhaps her most ambitious and successful performance to date, Zendaya portrays a young teen battling a substance use disorder with hauntingly beautiful poise and agonizing accuracy. We reunite with Rue after a devastating split from her long-term friend Jules Vaughn, played by Hunter Schafer, sends her back deep into the throes of her drug addiction. Part of the show's brilliance is its ability to portray even the worst characters in an understanding and sympathetic light. As Rue lies to every person in her life, including Jules (who she is now in a romantic relationship with), we still can’t help but root for her.
While Jules and Rue willfully ignore Rue’s aggressive degradation into opiates, the show’s other characters struggle with their own addictions. Toxic football player Nate Jacobs, played by Jacob Eldori, stifles his homoeroticism by flitting between best friends Maddy Perez (Alexa Demi) and Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney). This season we gain an even deeper understanding of Nate’s tumultuous and homophobic psyche informed by the internalized rage directed at his closeted and apathetic father, Cal (played by Eric Dane). In an evocative and bewitching prologue, audiences learn about the heartbreaking narrative of adolescent Cal’s denial of his own queerness. Nate’s anger at his father is expelled as hyper-masculinity and gender-based violence, which ultimately calls attention to patterns of cyclical-violence that plague minority communities everywhere.
The brunt of Nate’s aggression is targeted at ex-girlfriend Maddy, and treacherous side-piece Cassie. As Cassie struggles to define herself in accordance with the male validation that Nate provides, she mimics (whether consciously or not is still ambiguous) the delightfully explosive Maddy. While, thankfully, still displaying her signature duplicity, we notice that in season two, Maddy steps away from being Nate’s submissive counterpart as her independence and sense of self continues to grow. Ultimately, Nate chooses and values Cassie, the white-washed version of Maddy, over the archetype herself and perpetuates notions of white validation triumphing over POC originality. To highlight the acceptance and reverence of white-washing, especially in popular culture and among younger generations, Cassie receives recognition from Nate only when she is appropriating Maddy’s style and sauve. The depiction of Maddy as the devious and toxic counterpart to Cassie’s innocence and authenticity shatters in the face of Cassie’s revealed deception and instability. Ultimately, both the created stereotype and Nate’s fantasy fall apart with one guttural “What the FUCK is wrong with you?”
The show fell under criticism, however, for its negligence of a multitude of major character arcs. Actress Barbie Ferreira plays the enigmatic and undiscovered character Kat Hernandez whose season one dominatrix, sexual liberation story arc is lost to season two’s boring and cliched body positivity tokenism. Similarly, college football player Chris McKay (Algee Smith) warrants only a minimal amount of screen time in the first episode of the season. Although this negligence could be attributed to his graduation from high school, it bears the question of why these storylines needed to be started if they were never intended to be finished. The brutally vivid and egregiously explicit sexual assault of McKay in season one seems unnecessarily provocative and abrasive without proper exploration or resolution in season 2.
Although both painstakingly enthralling and emotionally jarring, the themes and characters represented in Euphoria extend far beyond the bounds of television. Conversations regarding race, gender, sexuality, class, violence, and trauma reverberate through the plot and are carried out elegantly by the talented cast. Euphoria stands alone as it not only brings about complex conversations gracefully, but also humanizes the selfish actions of the young characters who are too wrapped up in their own immaturity and recklessness to see beyond themselves. Under director Sam Levinson’s artful expertise and guidance, the emotional and psychological complexities of (most) of these characters are described in a way that allows both accountability and forgiveness, all while appealing to an audience who can see too much of themselves reflected in the characters. Season two of Euphoria stands as not only a showtime hit but a generational biopic.