“Euphoria” is one of the more polarizing dramas on television today. Despite plenty of fans, critical acclaim and nine Emmy nominations (so far), skeptics have consistently argued that a series centered on a teenage drug addict unnecessarily glamorizes substance use.
These detractors have a point. While some season one's episodes did show Rue (played by the excellent Zendaya) experiencing real consequences for her habit ranging from blackouts to kidney infections, the show’s glittery drama and dance scenes often made her dependency feel more like a minor snag than a life-threatening disease. Fortunately, in its second season (which wraps on February 27), “Euphoria” took a necessary step back from the glitz to share the darker truths of addiction with young fans especially, from the physical pain it can cause to the relationships it can ruin.
Skeptics have consistently argued that a series centered around a teenage drug addict unnecessarily glamorizes substance use.
The show’s key change in tone started ahead of season two, in a December 2020 special episode featuring a relapsing Rue admitting to her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), that she was both suicidal and reliant on drugs to feel alive. It was the 17-year-old character’s most vulnerable moment yet, highlighted by the straightforward, no-frills framing of the special. That potency carried over into this current season, which premiered with a powerful double punch: Rue being forced to strip naked at a drug dealer’s house to prove she wasn’t wearing a wire, and, not long after, her briefly going into cardiac arrest after taking an assortment of substances. While she ended the episode relatively unscathed, the message of those close calls was clear.
And the show’s depiction of the dangers of dependency has only grown more stark. Over the course of season two, Rue’s willingness to do anything to stay high has landed her in increasing jeopardy. She has lied to her devoted mother and sister, lashed out at both her sponsor, Ali, and her girlfriend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), severely damaging those relationships, and, most disturbingly of all, has become involved with Laurie (Martha Kelly), a manipulative, high-level drug supplier who is more than happy to take advantage of a client’s desperation. Through Laurie, Rue hit true, excruciating rock bottom. In one unforgettable episode, she violently fought with her despairing family, fled a car in the middle of traffic to avoid going to rehab, stole pills and jewelry from both friends and strangers, and, at her lowest point, shot up with morphine — her first time using a needle.
As brutal as Rue’s descent has been to watch, her struggle to get clean is in some ways even more painful. Suffering from withdrawal, the teen has experienced physical pain unlike any “Euphoria” portrayed before. And in keeping with the style of this writer's room and Zendaya’s strengths as an actor, viewers weren’t spared a moment of the agony — from cramps and fevers to shakes so extreme she couldn’t open a Jolly Rancher.
And just like with their physical toll, the emotional costs of Rue’s actions have been painstakingly detailed. In her worst moments, She has cruelly preyed on her loved ones’ insecurities and fears, blaming her mother (Nika King) for her addiction and telling Jules she regretted ever meeting her. Wisely, “Euphoria” hasn’t let Rue off the hook once sober, instead forcing both her and viewers to witness the consequences of her behavior head-on. Her apologies cannot, at least not yet, repair the devastating loss of trust that now undermines Rue’s relationship with her mother, sponsor and even her patient sister (Storm Reid). The heartbroken Jules, similarly hurt by Rue’s malice, may never be able to forgive her.
Of course, this might change in the season’s final hour — “Euphoria” is a drama about teens, after all, and creator/writer/director Sam Levinson is unlikely to leave his protagonist (and viewers) with so little hope after beginning her path to redemption. But even if Rue and Jules reunite, the road ahead will be enormously difficult. There’s the question of rehab, for which she may or may not be accepted. Even if she goes, the vast majority of opiate addicts relapse within one year, according to multiple studies. Her mental health, too, is still extremely fragile; in season one, it was revealed that Rue suffers from bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, and over the course of the series, we’ve seen her experience multiple bouts of incapacitating depression. Support will be key — and mostly likely more than what her overworked mom or remaining friends are able to give.
This is a lot of potential territory for “Euphoria” to cover in its just-announced third year and beyond. But recently, the show has proved that it’s capable of tackling tough subjects without sugarcoating their impact. And even if it would have been nice to see this finesse earlier on, season two is averaging close to 3 million viewers an episode, almost 100 percent more than the number who tuned in for season one.
To be clear, despite its increased depth, season two still indulged in a few too many fantastical situations. There are still moments where it feels as if the writers are overloading on glamour or de-emphasizing realism for the sake of TV drama. It's hoped, though, that the strong reviews from this season, particularly for its darkest episodes, will give creator Levinson and Co. all the encouragement they need to keep things centered. “Euphoria” is strongest when it strips away the excess. Simply telling the truth is more than enough.