‘Euphoria’ Season 2 Review, part 2: Overdosing and Overloading on Trauma

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The thematic throughline of this season of Euphoria seems mostly invested in what it means to be a “good person”. For the first half of the season, many of Euphoria’s characters are consumed by an internalized fear of failing to be “good” — with wrongdoings ranging from  betrayal to addiction to abuse. The second half considers what happens when these internal perceptions are confirmed by the world around you, when harmed and disappointed loved ones acknowledge that they, too, see you as rotten at the core, and what it means to pick up the pieces once you are deemed the villain. 

Unfortunately, Euphoria fails to provide much of a a nuanced, balanced, or empathetic exploration of what it means to search for goodness, opting instead for a partially purposeful, but mostly clumsy and chaotic, flinging about of ideas about love, forgiveness, redemption, and punishment, all doled out unevenly among a varied collection of transgressions and misdeeds. 

In the fifth (and probably best) episode of the season, our protagonist Rue (Zendaya) careens toward a new rock bottom over the course of a drug-fueled, chaotic day, in which she literally runs from what she needs most — rehab, support, intervention — and wreaks havoc along the way: destroying her family home, tearing into Jules (Hunter Schafer) for telling her mother about her drug use, and airing out Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and Nate’s (Jacob Elordi) secret relationship directly in front of Nate’s ex-girlfriend and Cassie’s best friend, Maddy (Alexa Demie).

 “You’re not a good person, Rue,” Rue’s mother, Leslie (Nika King), accuses in the midst of her bender, confirming a deep, private fear that Rue voiced only an episode before — that she is inherently bad. Echoes of this first parental disapproval ripple throughout the next few episodes, as Nate’s mother admits that she sees him as nothing more than an “angry guy”, and Cassie’s mother refuses to perceive Cassie as an innocent pawn in her love triangle, despite Cassie’s insistence that she is not at fault. 

Fortunately for Rue, meaningful healing and forgiveness is on the horizon. For the first time in the entire series, Rue wholeheartedly agrees to put in the work toward recovery, apologizing to Ali (Colman Domingo) for her transgression against him, beginning to make amends with Jules, Elliot (Dominic Fike), and the others she hurt, soldiering through the height of her withdrawal in her family home, and, according to her voiceover at the end of the season, successfully staying clean throughout the rest of the school year. Rue lets go of desperately trying to cling to both an emotional relationship with Jules and active addiction, accepting instead that healing must come from within, and ultimately letting go of all of her vices, even her romantic, dependent relationship with Jules.  Rue’s storyline is consistently the most interesting, empathetic, and heartfelt of the season. Euphoria is at its best when it’s centered around Rue. 

For others, the path to redemption rings incredibly hollow. Nate flirts with actions of resolution and justice by assisting in the arrest of his predator father, Cal (Eric Dane), and returning Cal’s illegally recorded sex tape to Jules, but these moments are soured by Nate’s total disinterest in stopping, let alone working to heal, the traumatic, abusive, and manipulative tactics he continually inflicts upon his romantic and sexual partners. In his final conversation with his father, Nate admits that he sadistically gains pleasure from abusing and traumatizing the women in his life, and this is reflected consistently in his actions. Even the restorative action he takes with Jules is directly tainted by his love for hurting those who trust him, as he obtains the tape from Maddy through brutal means: breaking into her home, holding her down, and threatening both of their lives with a gun. 

Despite Nate, Maddy, and Cassie’s storyline being the centerpiece of much of the beginning of the season, their respective arcs as both characters and a group feel especially haphazard by season end. Maddy is traumatized and re-traumatized by the two people she loved most, and is simply doled out new trauma instead of being permitted to express her rage and hurt (save for a tearful monologue and brief physical altercation with Cassie), and Nate escapes the situation almost entirely unscathed. Although Cassie’s arc is one of the most central to the season, her characterization feels constantly and messily at odds with itself, as Euphoria launches between painting her as a traumatized young woman desperate for love and male validation at one moment (“I would love for you to fuck me whenever and however you want. You can control what I wear, what I eat, who I talk to,” she murmurs to Nate in the penultimate episode, tragic and desperate as she sprawls on top of him), and a clear-cut antagonist at the next, as she cusses out the school body and happily claims the role of “villain”. While Cassie is perhaps neither total victim nor total villain, Euphoria is quick to place all of the punishment of Nate and Cassie’s transgressions onto Cassie alone, avoiding any acknowledgment of Nate’s regular manipulation of Cassie throughout the season. By the end of the season, Cassie has lost the boyfriend she “ruined her life” for and her best friend, and has become the public mockery of the school. 

In the last two episodes, we are asked to center ourselves in storylines that were only murmurs at the beginning of the season. The plotline of Fezco (Angus Cloud) and Ashtray’s (Javon Walton) murder of drug dealer Mouse (Meeko Gattuso) from the first episode is suddenly brought back with roaring intensity, leading to the shooting of Ashtray and the arrest of Fez, and Cal, though absent since his abandoning of his family midway through the season, is a centerpiece of the final episode. 

Much of the final few episodes are also centered upon opening night of Lexi’s (Maude Apatow) semi-autobiographical school play, “Our Life”, which is a theatrical, funhouse mirror reflection of the characters’ back to themselves through Lexi’s perspective as a quiet, intimate observer. While trying its best to be a meta twist, the “Our Life” storyline mostly just feels like it’s taking up space, preventing some of the arcs that could use some breathing room — including Maddy and Cassie’s potential resolution, Rue and Jules’ relationship, or anything with Kat (who is remarkably absent this season, which some attribute to rumors about a collection of various onset tensions) – to have their justified screen time. 

In the finale, Rue tells Lexi, “I think your play was the first time I was able to look at my life and not hate myself.” What’s heartbreaking is that Euphoria had the potential to be that kind of artistic space for some. Euphoria’s acute and accurate awareness of the difficult lived experiences of modern adolescents could be used to create a space of resonance and catharsis for those feeling crushed by the overstimulating realities of Gen Z adolescence. Euphoria could (and I feel in the first season, often successfully did) create a space for us to see ourselves and others in a new light; a series in which the worst parts of us are played out by pretty people in pretty colors, with an empathy for complicated situations of addiction, loss, and abuse. I just don’t see that empathy in this season consistently or meaningfully. Instead, I feel that this season of Euphoria opts for a constant overloading of traumas with little catharsis or empathy after the fact, as well as an uneven throwing about of retribution, redemption, and punishment. Season two of Euphoria touches on the inherently traumatic process of growing up, but fails to consistently hold space and empathy for the universal experience of stumbling through adolescence as someone not yet “good” or “bad”, but still in the process of forming. 

 

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