Euphoria has been criticised this season. Even I, an obsessive of the series, had begun to worry. I worried Creator, Writer and Director Sam Levinson had forgotten what made his show such a success. In recent weeks its star Zendaya has been more of a background player. I don’t really have an issue with it as the rest of the cast are just as interesting, but although their stories have been interesting, they’ve been packaged in Levinson’s slick direction, often leaving me feeling that the plot hasn’t moved very far. Last week’s episode was a good example of this. The story focused on Cassie’s increasing obsession with bad boy Nate Jacobs, Lexi’s play, and Nate’s dad realising he’s not cut out for the family life he found himself in. All interesting threads, but Levinson’s decision to show us these as long dialogue-free montages as Mr Jacobs danced in the Gay Bar he’d frequented as a teen or as Cassie getting more and more intoxicated as her the weight of infidelity weighed hard meant we didn’t perhaps get the character development the stories demanded.
This week’s episode, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, manages to capture Euphoria at its very best. It’s probably the best the show has ever been. This is for many reasons. It puts Zendaya front & centre, it builds slowly, allowing the characters to have conversations, or more accurately, brutal arguments and when Levison does turn up the volume on his direction, the pacing is perfectly pitched and properly exciting.
The result is a raw and sobering episode hour that sees Zendaya, who won an Emmy for her performance in Season One, at the top of her game. It’s an intimate episode that feels reminiscent of everything I loved about those stripped-back specials that filled the gap left when COVID put the kibosh on his plans for a high octane second season in 2020.
The episode gets straight to the point. Rue bursts into sister Gia’s (Storm Reid) room immediately on the defence assuming she has ratted her out about smoking “a little bit of weed.” Rue then learns her mother has disposed of her suitcase of pills. A realisation that sends Rue into a violet rage, spewing as much vitriol at her mother as she can think of while a devasted Gia lays in the fetal position on her bed. It’s a piece that can make the viewer like they’re intruding on a private family moment. The camera follows Rue as she races through the bedrooms demanding to know where her mum has hidden the suitcase. She breaks down Gia’s bedroom door when her mum forcibly removes her eventually breaking down in tears. Zendaya’s performance is magnetic. Everyone shines here. Nika King is utterly heartbreaking as Rue’s desperate mother Leslie. Tears well up when Rue talks of the love she had for her father and how much she misses him. What makes Zendaya’s performance so compelling is that it’s not all bravado, but the little details in her expressions indicate how much of Rue’s humanity has dissipated.
The biggest shock for both and the audience is when asks again where the pills are. ‘We flushed them down the toilet’ says a new voice. It’s then that Rue realises Jules (Hunter Schafer) has not only heard all that has been going on but that she’s the one who has told her mum the extent of her addiction. When she gets to the living room Rue realises that Elliot (Dominic Fike) is actually responsible for all this. Interestingly though, she saves all of her anger for Jules. This is possibly because she believes she can get through this, she can go back to doing drugs with him.
Rue turns her anger on Jules, laying a torrent of vicious insults that not only erupt from the heat of the moment but the resentment she’s kept dormant since the train station. (“You f**king left me at my f**king lowest, and a real f**king friend, someone who f**king loves you, wouldn’t do some sh*t like that.”) Jules has rarely looked worse and Hunter Schafer is particularly heartbreaking in communicating how powerless she feels against Rue. All Jules can muster is an “I love you,” but it’s here she learns her love for Rue is nowhere near as important as that suitcase. Rue has lost $10,000 worth of drugs, but more crucially, she’s lost, Jules.
When Rue appears to calm Leslie sees an opportunity to get her daughter in the car and to the hospital. ‘Hospital’ is code for rehab. Levison cleverly plays with sound, drowning the arguments in the car with traffic noise. It’s here that Rue tells them both she relapsed as soon as she came out of rehab and that was days away from killing herself. Storm Reid plays Gia beautifully. Quietly crying as she listens to Rue talk about how little her life means to her. She’s in as much pain as Rue but is desperate not to lose the sister she idolises.
When it dawns on Rue that she’s being taken to rehab, she breaks down and jumps out of the car into direct traffic. Labrinth’s propulsive score blasts as she sprints away leaving Leslie and Gia distraught as they watch Rue narrowly escape serious injury.
The brilliance of the episode is that manages to move the stories of the past few weeks along too. Rue makes a break for Lexi and Cassie’s house. When Lexi mum realises Rue is in bad shape she calls Leslie. She’s a clever device because it sees Rue go through a second intervention. This time, Cassie, (Sydney Sweeny) Cassie, (Maude Apatow), Kat (Barbie Ferreira) and Maddie (Alexa Demie) are all there to witness her downfall. Rue, always the master manipulator, exposes Cassie and Nate’s relationship sending Cassie into freefall and Maddie into a rage. With the spotlight off her, Rue makes a break for it through the front door.
With withdrawal setting in, an increasingly desperate Rue tries all of her haunts. A stop at Fezco’s (Angus Cloud) is inevitable but results in her being thrown out again. Rue’s breaking into a couple’s home as she grows desperate for the cash she’ll need to habit is almost comedic. As “Fever” by Sharon Cash plays, she steals jewellery and finds a thick envelope of cash in a safe — all while the family dog watches on and couldn’t care less. Naturally, the owners come home early, and though there’s mention of a gun, Rue makes another clumsy escape.
With her stomach intensifying, Rue is spotted by police who chase her when she vomits and runs from them. The chase provides more comic relief as Rue ends up, running through house parties, chased by more dogs and losing the police by hiding in a wheelie bin. It’s perhaps the most overtly comedic the series has ever dared to be. It’s also possible that by choosing to take this direction the message of the desperate addict who has run from home is slightly lost.
Out of options, Rue ends up on dealer Laurie’s (Martha Kelly) doorstep with some more stolen jewellery and cash to make up for the suitcase. But with withdrawal kicking in, she’s running on empty and slumps on the kitchen table. Martha Kelly is brilliant here as she relays the story of the schoolteacher she used to be before she became an addict. Her soft delivery is perfect. Her intonation belies her concern, but there’s also an ominous level to her despondency where she can easily coax Rue into taking morphine intravenously. “Are you sure this is safe?” Rue asks with a terrified quiver in her voice. Zendaya’s delivery infantilizes her character to a profoundly disturbing effect.
As Rue lies in the bath it cuts to her memories of her innocent childhood spent with her father and the eulogy she gives at his funeral. Fans had worried that the ending of last week’s episode had been hinting at Rue’s death, and I worry we’re creeping ever closer to that with every hit she takes.
The next morning, Rue clambers out of her lowest point in a tense getaway from Laurie’s padlocked apartment. With nowhere else to go, all that’s left to do is walk back home where her mother has been patiently waiting.
It’s ironic that Rue being at rock bottom sees Euphoria rise to its very best. It reminds me that Levinson is capable of turning down all the flashiness and focusing on the grief and insecurities of his characters. It was a perfect hour of television and further proof that Zendaya is one of the most exciting actors working. Euphoria is a show I’ve never been able to second-guess and I’ve no idea where we’re going from there. I’m happy the ‘Nate’ secret is out and I’m looking forward to what Sydney Sweeney does with her downfall. Will Rue go back to Jules or is Jules so hurt their relationship will never recover? Even with the online backlash, I hadn’t lost faith in what the show or Sam Levison was capable of. This episode demonstrates it perfectly.
Euphoria Continues Sunday on HBO, Sky Atlantic and NOW.