One of the great joys of media consumption is its ability to spark nostalgia and memories. Whether it be plot-lines that remind you of a time and place, characters reminiscent of similar people in your life, or simply something you revisit that transports you back to the place you first experienced it, entertainment media has the power to be a time machine.
Books, movies, and television series about high school tend to hold a lot of this power, and it makes sense. For many of us, high school was an incredibly memorable time, and in some cases the scars, some self inflicted, are still present in us. It makes complete sense that being presented with a character going through the highs and lows of being a teenager would be relatable to us, former teenagers.
Euphoria, HBO’s first real dive into presenting high school stories, is a dreamlike (or nightmare-fueled) high school tale, filled with characters making choices that, in the classic teenage sense, really only seem to affect the here and now. They experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex in understandably provocative HBO ways.
The series is addicting, immersing you in its neon colored wonderland from the earliest moments of episode one, and while much of the subject matter is dark, the tone the series takes is, most of the time, a subtle wink to the camera, complete with voiceover narration and explanatory montages with a mask of old-Hollywood noir. While it’s incredibly easy to binge the series, I found myself left with a strange taste in my mouth. For all of the fun I was having, the show seemed to largely miss the pure joy of youth, the ecstasy of knowing everything and understanding nothing, the invincibility of teenagers. The show seemed to be missing the euphoria.
Our main character, and narrator Rue, is introduced to us after a stint in a rehab facility following an opioid overdose. Rue’s recovery is the show’s primary driver, and it becomes clear early on that it’s going to be bumpy when Rue immediately goes and visits her former dealer. Rue isn’t going to be slowed down by sobriety.
Rue’s story is genuinely moving at times, and is mined for incredible pathos in others. It’s clear that she is a vessel for the creator and writer Sam Levinson to detail his own drug abuse and recovery, and Rue is written with nuance and understanding, and her choices largely make sense for the character (though, not all. The finale has her finally choosing her family over the fleeting happiness she is chasing, and then she almost immediately overdoses, undercutting most of the character growth in a way that feels unfair.)
Rue is a fascinating character, and one who had been chasing ecstasy, figuratively and literally, and only getting momentary tastes of it, flashes in the pan. Her character is heartbreaking, yet is still here, and still trying to find a purpose. Rue is resilient.
Other characters aren’t as fortunate as Rue, in terms of the depth afforded to them. Kat learns to own her confidence after she discovers the popularity of a sex tape that was posted online without her consent, and she uses that confidence to establish herself as a cam dominatrix, earning herself a new wardrobe by humiliating a cadre of small-dicked men. Her storyline is certainly fascinating, but the show never allows Kat to grow from it, instead presenting it as further proof that she is, frankly, sad and fucking lonely.
The member of the primary ensemble that gets dealt the worst hand by the writing is far and away Cassie, an attractive, blonde cheerleader who, as we learn early on from a group of football players, is really only worth associating with for the sex. The presentation of this idea, that is, coming from the always-insightful minds of horny jocks, would lead the audience to assume that the box Cassie has been put in is not only incredibly limiting, but largely incorrect. After she rebukes the sexual advances of a classmate, he spits that her only purpose is as a sexual object.
This should have been the turning point for Cassie, but the series only affirmed her classmate’s cruel words. Cassie is given a paint by the numbers backstory, complete with her dad leaving her and a constant longing for his approval. The show is so disinterested with her, that the only character growth she is given is a trip to Planned Parenthood.
The recurring theme among most of the characters was that sadness was the norm. Each was doing the teenager-y things, but with the weathered weariness of a 45-year-old.
Jules, however, comes off as the only character the show loves. It makes sense that she is the object of Rue’s affection, because she is painted in an ethereal light. At one point in the finale, Nate, who is effectively the show’s villain, talks to Rue about how Jules has big dreams, and that he believes she will achieve each and every one of those dreams.
Her character is written in a manic-pixie way, but given far more depth than that trope is usually afforded. The story frames her like a photo, perfectly captured, full of possibilities, and even in her darkest moments, you can see Jules’ humanity, her beauty, her resolve.
Euphoria’s biggest problem lies in this gulf between the character development of Jules versus the other characters on the show. Jules is allowed to have a bevy of interests, and allowed to discover pieces of herself throughout the season, whereas each of the other main characters have one singular issue that is explored, whether it be an abusive relationship, body confidence, or pregnancy. Jules’ problems do not define here, whereas the other characters aren’t allowed a definition outside of the box they are placed in. Even brassy cheerleader Maddie, who is given fascination character machinations, isn’t allowed to have a life outside of her toxic and dangerous relationship with Nate.
Euphoria built these characters and explored their backstories, only to do an incredible disservice by lazily stunting their present-day character growth. However, Jules could serve as a roadmap going forward, a cheat sheet for how to allow each of these characters to grow from their experiences. The show needs to allow each of their characters to experience happiness, to experience the joy that so far only Jules has been able to touch.
In the series’ penultimate episode, Jules flees the suburban landscape of her hometown to visit friends in the city for a weekend. She takes molly, and goes out dancing with her friends, and in one of the series’ most brilliantly shot sequences, confronts and is released from her demons. It’s an amazing moment, and one of the best representations of the agony and ecstasy of youth. Jules knows that this time is temporary, and that the version of herself that is meant to exist is still in her future. She’s 17, reckless, and utterly euphoric.