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How HBO's second 'Euphoria' special episode sets up Season 2

Although both specials were narrowly focused, they actually may help broaden the show’s world when it returns this year.
Image: Euphoria
It's all about Jules in "Euphoria's" second "holiday" special.Eddy Chen / HBO

Considering the way time has stretched and compressed during the pandemic, it’s only fitting there are still holiday specials arriving in late January. Seemingly unconcerned by the passage of time, HBO is premiering the second part of a pair of “Euphoria” special episodes created to tide audiences over in the wake of the teen drama’s pandemic-delayed season two.

Both specials focus on the fundamentals: startlingly realistic writing and mesmerizing performances by Zendaya (in part one) and Hunter Schafer (in part two). As it turns out, the first installment really did need its second half. And both together complement “Euphoria” far more than your average holiday special.

Both specials focus on the fundamentals — startlingly realistic writing and mesmerizing performances by Zendaya (in part one) and Hunter Schafer (in part two).

When HBO announced it was making its first teen drama, it seemed like a dangerous fit. But the resulting series found a way to combine the sex, drugs and nudity one would expect from an HBO title with the raw emotional challenges of teen life, including addiction. Even if at times that rawness felt a bit extreme, the show’s gorgeous visuals and strong acting made for a solid debut.

From a traditional standpoint, “Euphoria” wasn’t that big a hit: Linear ratings were just over 575,000 for the premiere. But the show did better on HBO Go and HBO Now (it premiered mid-2019, in the pre-HBO Max era). The show was also a critical darling, with most of the praise going to lead actress Zendaya, a formerly squeaky-clean Disney pop princess. Zendaya’s portrayal of the troubled Rue Bennett was rewarded with an upset best actress win at the Emmys.

Perhaps reflecting the buzz, “Euphoria’s” first special, which premiered on HBO Max on Dec. 4, turned the camera on Zendaya to the near exclusion of all else. Season one ended with Rue experiencing a drug relapse after her girlfriend, Jules (Schafer), runs away. Viewers were left wondering if Rue was hallucinating or experiencing an overdose. “Part One: Rue” clears that up, as a very high Rue sits down to have breakfast with her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), who sees through her self-justification and cuts right to the heart of Rue’s self-destructive impulses. The episode is just an hour of these two actors, sitting in a diner, discussing the addiction mindset over pancakes and bacon.

Zendaya’s understated performance was the highlight, but the special felt like a slice of “Euphoria” rather than a standalone episode. One could appreciate taking the “with minimal cast” part of the “filmed under pandemic conditions” seriously, but it was also a reminder the show is called “Euphoria” and not “Rue.”

Like Rue’s special, “Part Two: Jules” is also framed as a one-on-one. Here, Schafer’s scene partner is Lauren Weedman, playing the therapist Jules is sent to after returning from running away. But the cast is also more expansive, bringing in Jules’ father, the fantasy online boyfriend who turned out to be a classmate catfishing her and other first season storylines. Paired with part one, it brings along much of the plot the Zendaya-focused hour was missing. But it also fills in the parts of Jules’ story fans never saw, shedding new light on the character’s choices, making her less of someone who happened to Rue and more of a person in her own right.

In this way, the show self-corrects an issue that hadn’t yet become obvious in the rush of praise. The show is very empathetic toward Rue’s challenges, but it doesn’t spend as much time showing how her behavior impacts her support system. If the first special focused on the narcissism of addiction, the second spotlights the self-effacement of the enabler.

Jules’ story is already tough enough — a transgender teen and the daughter of someone struggling with addiction, she’s primed to believe that love means being needed. She seems to be forcing herself into the feminine helpmate role, because that’s how society has defined women to her. Schafer, who is also transgender, co-wrote and co-produced the episode, giving Jules’ discussions of gender and sexuality a lived-in, authentic feel. And she more than proves Zendaya isn’t the only actor in this series worthy of awards consideration.

So although both specials were narrowly focused, they actually may help broaden the show’s world when it returns in season two. Despite the holiday marketing, these episodes really are a bridge between seasons, albeit one fans didn’t even know they needed.

“Euphoria” is currently slated to begin production on its second season this spring, with a premiere in late 2021. While questions remain about timing and platform (will “Euphoria” get “early premieres” on streaming from now on, like the specials?), this pair of clever standalones, especially part two, has done a lot to carry the show over the extended break.