Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Euphoria”
The series Euphoria, whose second season aired on HBO in the winter of 2022, continues to be a hit. The series tackles the status quo head-on with an aesthetic of transgression that operates by shocking the expectations of viewers accustomed to certain stories and themes. Euphoria surprises them with his unconventional film making and the way he tackles several social issues.
As a PhD student in Literary and Film Studies, my research lies at the intersection of audiovisual and gender studies.
The character of Rue, an anxious and cynical teenager with a substance abuse problem, dominates the narrative of Euphoria. Her worldview is sensitive, frank and intersectional, an inclusive concept that refers to the destruction of different systems of oppression.
Rue is conscious of delivering a television narrative. She frequently addresses the audience directly, even having fun manipulating the order and tone of events. More than just a voiceover, she freezes certain scenes to provide context or presents alternate scenes of what she would have liked to happen. Her storytelling is one of the few spaces she can control.
But Rue also appears to have bipolar disorder. Or at least that’s what the therapist she saw as a child suggested, echoed by the extreme emotional swings she experiences. Coupled with her drug addiction, the teenager’s depressions sometimes lead to intense moments when she slips. This is especially evident in the Season 1 finale, where Rue starts using again after several weeks of abstinence.
The scene unexpectedly turns into a musical number where Rue leads as a soloist with a haggard gaze and a disjointed body. She is joined by a gospel choir performing erratic choreography of Labrinth’s song “All for us”. The show symbolizes repressed suffering.
The first notes of the melody were heard several times during the season, but no longer than thirty seconds. Rue is usually able to suppress her distress, but she is overwhelmed by it in the season finale, which includes grief over her father’s death and a relationship breakup. Rue’s grief explodes and comes out as the whole song unfolds for the first time and becomes part of the music.
Even when she knows she is at fault, Rue recounts her misdeeds with a biting humor that makes her endearing. When she admits her relapse, she intercuts the story with a monologue and a slideshow addressed directly to the public (Season 2). She admits that as the main character she may be letting her audience down, but she questions anyone who might have forgotten the many times she said she had no desire to stop using . Rue finds creative ways to connect with the audience and let them know she cares about their perspective.
Although Euphoria is built on the narrative of a flawed and irreverent protagonist, Rue commands empathy because she doesn’t try to hide her fallibility. The series offers access to its subjectivity, for better or for worse. The creator of the series strives for emotional realism. Two special episodes were released between the two seasons offering a slight break from suspense, a sign that the artists behind Euphoria also use staging variations to give the audience some respite.
From opioids to love addiction
At the heart of Euphoria is the passionate relationship between Rue and Jules. Unlike the other relationships in the series, which are heterosexual and marked by violence, this love story seems to be based on affection and consent. But Rue doesn’t know the meaning of moderation, even more so when it comes to love. The heady feeling of falling in love becomes a substitute for his drug use – and an unbearable responsibility for Jules. A breakup seems inevitable until Rue enters rehab, giving new meaning to the phrase “toxic relationship.”
The addiction to love also arises with two other characters, Nate and Cassie, who have a secret relationship in season 2. When Nate loses interest in her, Cassie enters an obsessive spiral: her days are punctuated by rituals of compulsive beauty, the harmful nature of which is underlined in the repetitive editing. Cassie’s looks become increasingly slapstick as her mental state deteriorates, to the point that her friends ask her one morning if she is dressed for the school play. Even the other characters realize Cassie is undergoing a transformation and there’s something wrong with her: By the climax of Season 2, she doesn’t seem to belong anymore.
The good tone
Like the British series Sex education (Netflix), but in a different style, Euphoria manages to denounce and educate without adopting a moralizing tone. For example, the series helps normalize certain situations of intersectionality for the audience.
The series does not feature stories about Jules’ gender identity or any coming out, as it is natural for Rue to be in love with a woman. Rather, it denounces discrimination by contrasting the ease with which the protagonists embrace their gender fluidity against the stereotypical reactions of the men around them.
The series also excels in exposing a culture of toxic masculinity that takes its toll on women. Their sexual abuse, slutshaming and whistling make life painful for teenage girls from Euphoria meet the standards of femininity while developing their own identity and sexuality. In Season 1, the female leads are even denied orgasms. Kat, another main character in the series, develops a strategy to avoid letting others negotiate her sexuality: she creates her own web account where people pay her for erotic video chats.
To protect herself from the bullying of the boys around her, Kat vigorously pushes Ethan away in Season 1 even though he seems to have genuine feelings for her. When he confronts her about it and reiterates his romantic interest, she reveals her disbelief that he would want anything but sexual favors from her. When he tries to prove her wrong by offering cunnilingus, this is the first time in the series that a man has offered to give a woman something without taking anything in return.
It is also the first time in the series that an unsimulated female orgasm has been shown on screen. Even more, much to Kat’s embarrassment, it’s revealed that Ethan ejaculated in his pants. Kat’s experience with Ethan shatters a major glass ceiling in Euphoria by showing a sexual encounter without penetration where a boy takes pleasure in satisfying his partner.
However, when Kat later realizes that her relationship with Ethan isn’t working for her, she expresses her displeasure by drawing inspiration from the aesthetics of slasher and pornographic films. She fantasizes that Ethan is put to death by a Dothraki warrior whom she then has sex with in front of Ethan’s bloodied corpse. Far from sticking to its own narrative style, Euphoria has fun drawing on different styles of fiction to personify the inner universe of its protagonists.
From tears to glitter: materializing paradoxes
The series gained early attention for its ethereal yet alienating soundtrack, as well as its unique make-ups, which were widely replicated on social media. Glitter under the eyes, multicolored eyeliner, diamonds in the hair: the teenagers of Euphoria display daily looks worthy of the major fashion magazines.
Given the pessimistic nature of the show, this extravagant aesthetic is surprising, especially since the characters display it so casually. The reason is that Euphoria, despite its jovial title, offers a dysphoric rather than a euphoric experience. Tears and glitter mingle on Rue’s face, struggling to find a balance between ecstasy and depression.
This ability of the series to make such paradoxes coexist is the cornerstone of its originality. The audience witnesses both the waves of happiness and the abyssal suffering of the characters. The show also doesn’t try to dull the pain to make the viewing more enjoyable. The embodiment of such a variation of emotions illustrates the complexity of the problems that the protagonists go through.
Accustom the audience to the unexpected
The human experience is full of contradictions. Using both realism and surrealism to show difficult realities, through his narrative and audiovisual styles, Euphoria does not take into account any thematic or artistic constraint.
To engage, viewers must be prepared to take nothing for granted. A charismatic family man can suppress a deviant sex life in which he abuses minors, just as the town’s drug dealer can be one of the show’s most empathetic and complex characters.
Euphoria is an unpredictable series that deliberately flouts convention in order to challenge several stubborn taboos without compromise.