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Monday, 7 December 2020

REVIEW: Euphoria's Christmas Special is a masterpiece.

Euphoria finished in August in 2019.  Over the course of eight episodes, the series redefined the teen drama. It was flashy, loud, in your face but incredibly tender and sweet. It shone a light on the pressures of being a teen in 2019 and however uncomfortable that made me, the show had so much heart it didn't take long for me to be fully immersed in this heady world and root for every character. Creator, writer and director Sam Levinson packed so much into an episode with a knack for making the audience feel they are on the journey with these characters. The hour-long episodes never felt padded or plodding, everything is there for a reason and beneath all of its stylish shots and pounding soundtrack, Levinson never forgets the show is about its character with Rue, the drug addict who is desperately find her place in the world at the centre.

Some were surprised when Zendaya won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series but those people obviously hadn't seen her in the series. I'm not even sure I can construct a sentence that would do justice to what she does with Rue. Her face is both blank and lost and somehow you can see every ounce of heartbreak she's going through. On the rare occasions in the series when Rue is content, you can see the girl she could be without her dependence on drugs. When she's low, she's in a pit despair that only her habit can fix.  

 The performances — by not only Zendaya, but Hunter Schafer, Sydney Sweeney, Barbie Ferreira, and many more elevated this series as one of the best teen dramas in the history of the genre.  This a cast that is destined to go on to big things. Together, and with Levinson at the helm, Euphoria feels something very special.

The cast was ready to shoot season 2 back in March just as California went into lockdown. With all of his plans for season two on indefinite hold, Levinson was determined to do something with his characters in 2020. His idea, a Christmas special (not that there's anything festive here) to act as a bridge between season one and whenever we do eventually get the second. Covid presented Levinson in particular with a real challenge. His is a chaotic show, so much so, it can often feel suffocating. How do you make that show when nobody can go near each other? The answer, of course, is you don't. The first of two specials, (there's no airdate given for the second at the moment) 'Trouble Don't Last Always", strips the series bare, and you know what, it's all the better for it.

The episode is essentially Rue and her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor Ali (recurring guest star Colman Domingo) having a quiet conversation over diner pancakes. It's a dreary Christmas Eve and Rue is still mourning the loss of Jules, who, for those of you, who don't remember, left her to start a new life when Rue got cold feet and didn't go through with the plan the pair had decided on. Stripping all of the flashiness of the series is a stroke of genius. Levinson makes sure the conversation between these two feels intimate and delicate. 

The conversational nature of the episode's structure also allows Levinson to dig deeper into Ali's background, a man we only saw for short bursts in the first season. 

Ali is both a veteran sponsor and a veteran addict. Rue sees him as the audience does: a man completely together, someone who is a good person and someone who has learnt from his time using and who's purpose is to stop people like her from going down the dangerous path. So it's as much a shock to us as it to Rue when he tells her that he returned to using after 12 years of sobriety, which all but destroyed any relationship he has with his daughters. It's clear that by Ali's standards Rue is an amateur. He talks candidly about the nights he spent awake plotting how to kill the father that beat his mother, only to see flashes of him when he would assault the mother of his own children.

This exploration of his background helps to understand the person sitting opposite Rue in the diner. He'll allow her to vent and calmly dismantles her excuses, her rationales, and her reasons for not fully committing to the program. To Ali, Rue's problems are inconsequential, but he recognises her vulnerabilities and can see something of himself in her. This is very much a two-hander with the pair sparing back and forth. Domingo is a good match for Zendaya who spends the majority of the episode listening to her sponsor as he digs deeper into her psyche and talks about his conversion to Islam. There are many highlights of the episode, but for me, the best moment comes when Ali suggests that Rue put her faith in God. Rue is an atheist who finds the idea of an all-powerful god offensive, given her father’s death when she was young, not to mention her own battles with mental illness and addiction. It's here we see the spark in Rue as she becomes the one to berate Ali. Did her dad deserve his cancer? Does she deserve her addiction? This is the only aspect of Ali's words of wisdom she'll never buy into.

Another highlight comes when Ali leaves the diner for a cigarette. The scene has an unease about it. Will Rue use this time alone to get high? Will Ali come to harm? No. It's quite a tender sequence that sees Ali call one his estranged daughters to wish them a Merry Christmas, and despite the initial awkwardness of the call, his eyes light up when he finds himself talking to a grandson he had assumed had forgotten all about him. The brief phonecall appears to re-energise Ali, who returns to the diner with a glint in the eye.

The most painful part of the episode comes when a clearly pained Rue admits she doesn't 'plan on being here that long' It's an admission that jolts Ali back to life, but, calm as ever, he asks her how she'd want her mother and younger sister to remember her. The camera stays on Zendaya’s face the whole time as the weight of her pain, and her understanding of how she in turn is going to hurt her loved ones, fully takes hold. Tears roll down her face as she tells him she’d like them to remember her “as someone who tried really hard to be someone I couldn’t.' It's such a stunning admission, made even the more powerful by the way Levinson lingers on Zendaya as she wrestles with emotions. It feels the most intimate Euphoria has ever been.

The episode ends with Ali driving Rue home in the rain. “Ave Maria” plays while the only image is again a long take of Zendaya in close-up, various emotions washing over her face as they go. 

Honestly, I believe this 'special' episode of Euphoria is an utter masterpiece. Taking away all the Euphoria-ness makes for a truly immersive and intimate hour of television that can be enjoyed even if you didn't watch the first series. It's the lightning in the bottle combination of perfect writing and two of the best performances of the year. Countless TV shows have proven that the 'less is more' approach works just as well as throwing all the flashiest bells and whistles at it. The conversational nature here allowed Levinson's writing to breathe and to really hit home. It was just as shocking, moving and emotive as anything that came before it in the Euphoria-verse but felt something special. I urge you to seek it out now!

                   Euphoria is available now on Sky and NowTV.

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