‘Euphoria’ Midseason Review: A Visual Feat of Gen-Z Self-Destruction

The latest season of 'Euphoria' so far depicts teenage trauma and brutal struggles with addiction, relationships, and violence, though can feel somewhat stifled by its own heaviness and its lack of multiple creative voices.

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Euphoria is an elevated display of the overexposed nature of Gen Z teenagedom a representation of the digital, sexual, social, and political worlds our teens have been drowning in for the last little while, all packaged in the most beautiful, stylized manner imaginable. After an interminably long wait, season two is here, still immersed in the heightened, hardcore issues of modern adolescence, and still almost entirely under the creative control of Sam Levinson.

Now at the season’s mid-point, we are entrenched in a variety of fucked-up messes among our sprawling, entangled ensemble cast. Rue Bennett (Zendaya) and Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer) are still navigating the complicated, inevitable chaos of being each other’s first loves. Rue has aspirations of simultaneously enjoying her two main interests, Jules and drugs. The new boy at school, Elliot (Dominic Fike), is beginning to infiltrate their relationship, allowing for Jules to explore her complicated feelings surrounding sexuality while Elliot and Rue secretly use drugs together (that is, up until Elliot’s decision to rat her out to Jules). Rue is also in the process of making the major mistake of getting high on her own supply, regularly consuming instead of selling the ten thousand dollars’ worth of drugs she obtained from the newest dealer in town: the ex-elementary-school-teacher-turned-drug-dealer Laurie (Martha Kelly).

Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) and Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) are continuing in their abusive relationship cycle, with Maddy unable to detach herself from her love of a good old-fashioned romantic (and toxic) narrative, certain that what she and Nate have, despite its “darkness” (as she puts it), isn’t just “obsession, or fighting, or fucking”, but actual, true love.

Maddy’s best friend, Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney), is on a self-destructive bender — presumably still recovering from her recent abortion, her long-running history of being used and slut-shamed by the men she has sex with, and her break-up with Algee Smith’s McKay (who is mostly absent this season, despite having a particularly fraught and traumatic first season that could use some thoughtful continued exploration, as discussed wonderfully in Taylor Crumpton’s Bitch Media piece exploring his arc).

After drunkenly having sex with Nate in the bathroom of a house party on New Year’s Eve, Cassie tearfully explains to McKay, “I don’t know if I’m a good person.” This notion of being “good” seems to be plaguing Cassie for most of the season so far. During one of her many meltdowns over the phone to Nate, she cries, “I’m not a good person, I don’t like what we’re doing.” And Nate, ever intent on finding ways to make the vulnerable women in his life like themselves even less, feeds into this notion, accusing her during one of their fights of being the selfish, bad person she thinks she is. “This isn’t about being a good person,” he snaps, “This is about you getting what you want.”

Cassie’s general dislike of herself, paired with Nate’s consistent stoking of her fear and guilt, is making her self-destructive and obsessive, as she spends her time trying to look pretty for Nate, accepting the little attention he offers her in private, and, most recently and embarrassingly, drinking herself into vomiting oblivion at the birthday party she throws for Maddy.

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Cassie’s younger sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) is doing her best to turn Cassie’s downward spiral and its effects on the family dynamic into creative fodder, as she works on a play that will air out her family drama. The usually buttoned-down Lexi is also dipping her toes into some risky behavior of her own, beginning a flirtationship with the local drug dealer, Fezco (Angus Cloud), who is in most everyone’s good books after his decision to beat Nate to a pulp in the first episode of the season.

Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) is bored in her quiet, simple relationship with Ethan (Austin Abrams). She grapples with the world’s insistence that she love herself without actually showing her how, while also privately longing to be part of something darker and raunchier (an experience that is, for whatever reason, only permitted for her in daydreams in which she is sexually overcome in fanfiction-like situations, despite these exact sexual interactions being the consistent reality of her skinnier friends).

I have complicated feelings about Euphoria. It’s a visual feat of a show, deeply compelling while watching. Sometimes it feels like the Gen Z equivalent of those sensory baby videos people show their cats on TikTok — so pretty that it’s hypnotizing. This season is shot entirely on specially made 35-mm Kodak Ektachrome, providing some gorgeous visuals that Levinson hoped would read as feeling like “5 a.m., way past the point at which everyone should have gone home” from a party. I’m thrilled by the truly beautiful production and cinematographic decisions, and the occasional giddy meta bits: Lexi’s daydreams of her life being a sort of television show that she observes to try and swallow living with her hot mess of a sister; Cassie’s heavily memed meta breakdown in the bathroom; or Nate’s brain damage-induced fantasy of a filmy golden hour with a pregnant Cassie. But compared to season one, I can’t help but feel a bit of hollowness, a disjointedness in terms of actual structure and content. Storylines are slowed, with some characters’ arcs being pushed aside or minimized to tiny bite-sized snippets so that the show centers instead on relationship dramas or narrative backstories that, while always interesting to watch, perhaps don’t pack quite the punch the first season did with its entangled, high-drama web of interpersonal conflict and the gradually revealed nuanced interiorities of our main set of characters.

I try to cut Euphoria a few breaks — I enjoy watching it and Tweeting about it and talking about it with my friends, and I can’t pretend that I don’t. What teen drama doesn’t benefit from some atrociousness, some campiness, some salaciousness? Perhaps most importantly, we are only halfway through this season; maybe some of my concerns will be answered in the next four episodes. I’m just not certain it’ll be enough time.

Most worrisome to me are the murmurs of a potential redemption arc for Nate and his father, Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane). Cal has become the latest central character of Euphoria, as the new season attempts to offer some explanations for his predatory behaviors of last season. Cal’s habit of secretly meeting up with young people (some of whom are minors) and filming them having sex without their permission has spilled into the lives of the Euphoria teens, as Jules’ filmed encounter with Cal has not only been found by Nate but is now in the hands of Maddy.

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In the third episode of this season, we learn through flashback that a teenage Cal was in a burgeoning relationship with his best friend Derek (Henry Eikenberry) that was abruptly shattered by Cal’s girlfriend becoming unexpectedly pregnant, destining Cal to live a life of quiet, frustrated repression. While I of course have empathy for this just as I have empathy for the way a younger Nate was traumatized by a cold, distant father and the discovery of his father’s filmed sexual acts I feel it’s important to highlight what Euphoria seems to be missing: that empathy is not redemption.

Understanding why Nate is, as described by Elordi, “an emotional terrorist, a narcissist, a sociopath, a freak” — or that Cal has a repressed queer past that he feels is connected to him becoming a “sexist, chaser, pig, [and] fuckin’ creep” (as he describes in a horrific sort of “coming out” in the most recent episode) — does not absolve them of their actions, especially when neither of the Jacobs men seems to be at all interested in being better people. So I guess my question is: must we redeem Nate and Cal? Or because I’d like to think everyone can find redemption and healing does Euphoria have the tact and skill to present true restorative, transformative justice?

I cannot attest totally to what’s working or not. I do not have the lived experience of everyone on this show, and while moments can come closer to my own experience than I’d like to admit, I cannot know everything. I can’t help but feel that having a few more creative voices creating this show would allow for Euphoria to go into spaces that are perhaps too difficult to safely explore if all created by a singular person. In fact, there is already evidence of some collaborative work being beneficial: Jules’ fantastic, nearly hour-long 2021 special Euphoria: Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob was co-written by Levinson and Schafer.

In Euphoria, the teens are struggling with what teens always struggle with: notions of trying to become a grown person and hoping that you’ll be a good one; trying to make sense of the way that we inevitably get hurt and hurt in return; and the way permanent parts of us are inscribed in our childhood and adolescence. Euphoria asks these almost universal questions that come up in adolescence — about goodness and humanness and mistakes and forgiveness — and it asks them beautifully. In the most recent episode of the season, Rue loses herself in a drug-fueled hallucination, imagining she’s clutching at her dead father in a church. She tearfully murmurs, “I’m sorry I let you down… because I’m not a good person” — a striking parallel to Cassie’s ongoing struggle in that, where Cassie wants to be good, though not as much as she wants to be loved and approved of by someone, Rue wants to be good, though not as much as she wants to be high, drunk, and numb. The illusion of Rue’s father clutches her back, and whispers gently, firmly, “That’s not true.” But Rue can’t be convinced, can’t believe her father knows her messed-up, adolescent interior anymore. It all feels too big, too heavy.

In episode three, Rue breaks the fourth wall to apologize for her relapse: “Now, as a beloved character that a lot of people are rooting for, I feel a certain responsibility to make good decisions. But I relapsed[…] People just want to find hope, and if not in reality, then in television. Unfortunately, I’m not it.” To be clear, I am not asking for Rue or the people who surround her to provide me with some hopeful, gentle little story. I don’t think that’s required of any piece of art; I don’t need a happy or perfect or tidy ending. But I worry that Euphoria won’t be able to do what it needs to do to resolve, to heal, or to at least not completely fuck up the characters it keeps throwing into painful, traumatic, soul-crushing places. I guess we’ll find out this month.

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