As a man in his thirties, it’s fair to say I’m not the target audience for HBO’s teen drama Euphoria. The series, based on an Israeli drama of the same name, is full of teen sex, drug-taking and violence. It’s a show I had heard a great deal of buzz about before starting. Some were outraged (a scene in episode 1 features a lot of erect penises), some praised its bravery in not shying away from depicting the challenges for teens growing up immersed in social media. This is far away from the world I went through my awkward teen years. However, as the episodes progressed I found myself more and more drawn in, almost to the point of obsession. This is mainly down to the storytelling from creator, writer and producer Sam Levinson who has poured his background as an addict into the main character of Rue (Zendaya). Zendaya’s lead performance is so absorbing. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Rue is a character full of pain. A drug addict who is lost. When we meet her at the start of the series she’s collected from a rehab facility though it’s clear Rue is still very much dependent on her addiction to get through life. A turning point comes when she meets new girl Jules (Hunter Schafer) the first person she’s ever really a true connection with. Jules, like the actor who portrays her, is a transgender woman. Jules lives with her father and is exploring with her sexuality. She uses dating apps to meet men in dimly lit hotel rooms. These men don’t respect Jules and use her for sex. Rue can see this and vows to remain drug-free for Jules. As the series progresses Rue finds herself falling for Jules. She feels safe around her. She’s someone who never judges her, someone she can be herself around. As her feelings for Jules intensify Rue finds herself struggling with her first relationship and wondering whether she can cope with real life. I can’t praise the performances from Zendaya and Hunter Schafer enough. I don’t really have the words. Their chemistry is palpable. Their friendship feels heartbreakingly genuine and I found myself caring so deeply for them.
Levinson’s writing is razor-sharp. Though the initial draw was the connection between Rue and Jules, the other key characters here are just as engaging. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) who has always seen herself as a ‘the fat girl’ finds herself a hit on online porn sites which gives her inner confidence around her friends. Stereotypical jock Nate (Jacob Elordi) appears to be in a perfect relationship with Maddie (Alexa Demie) but he has a dark side that is slowly revealed as the series goes on.
Though it was Rue’s story that kept me coming back I’ll admit I wasn’t instantly hooked. This is HBO’s first drama for teens and it feels incredibly cool. The soundtrack is occasionally overbearing but the direction by Augustine Frizzell and Levinson is visually striking throughout, full of moments lit to look both menacing and intoxicating. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fourth episode entitled, Shook Ones Pt. II” It’s the halfway part of the series and the point where I truly fell under the spell of Euphoria.
The episode takes place in the evening at the carnival. It’s an opportunity for all the characters to be in one place and the script skillfully bounces from one character to another in various places in the claustrophobic carnival setting. After days of avoiding her, Rue will inevitably have to face Jules after potentially jeopardizing their relationship with an ill-timed kiss in the previous episode. McKay and Cassie’s intensifying relationship will face its first public test. Kat’s burgeoning sexual awakening continues to bump against a more straightforward romance with the probably-prude guy from school. Nate and Maddy are back together, but that calls for her to re-meet his judgmental parents. As we jump between stories, whizzing from one set of characters on a Ferris wheel to others on a carousel, the tension increases. At one point, Rue finds herself frantically searching for her sister Gia (Storm Reid) only to find her smoking weed with her friend group. Perhaps somewhat hypocritically, given her past, Rue scolds Gia and rips her away from her friends. Their sisterly bond is another of the show’s strengths and one that helps ground the show in reality. Gia, who found Rue unconscious before her stint in rehab idolizes her sister and Rue, clean of drugs, turns into a proper big sister when she sees her younger sister experimenting like she had years before.
Arguably the best and tensest moment of the episode is when Jules discovers that one of the men she met in one of her hotel hookups is actually Nate’s dad. There aren’t that many adult characters in the foreground across the series, but Nate’s father Cal (Eric Dane) is prominent and interesting. A well known and respected businessman in the area Cal has dark sexual secrets. Early on in the series, a young Nate discovers his father’s porn collection. A carefully catalogued series of encounters that Cal has kept. When he sees her Jules again at the fair, he is initially shocked but Jules, ever the kind-hearted and somewhat confused teen swears she’ll never speak of their time together.
It’s only episode 4 but every plot development feels majorly significant, lent operatic weight—Rue and Jules’ embrace, Cassie embarrassing herself on the carousel—by the increasingly frenetic carnival score and swooping camerawork. After all, isn’t treating banal encounters as either life-affirming or end-of-the-world the whole point of being a teenager? In episode 4, the show’s already masterful visual flair and the flailing narrative merged into something harmonious that showed real potential of where it can go from here. Though the previous episodes had been slowly building the characters, it wasn’t until this episode that I felt I completely understood them, and thus, began my love affair/obsession with everything about Euphoria and its uber-talented cast.
Though it’s airing weekly on Sky Atlantic, those with NOWTV and Sky Boxsets can gorge on the series as a whole and I couldn’t stop after episode 4. That episode masterfully sets up the archs for the rest of the series. When it’s time to award the cook-off prize, Cal’s repeat victory quickly dims in comparison to the spectacle Maddy makes when she marches up, knocks over the vat of chili and calls Mrs. Jacobs the c-word. Nate catches up to Maddy and pulls her to a secluded area to angrily announce that he’s “so done” with her. He roughly pushes her up against a trailer, his hand wrapped around her throat, an act of violence that looms across the rest of the series even for those who weren’t directly involved.
Euphoria proves that you don’t have to be the target audience and that interesting characters, strong direction and moving stories will attract anyone with a pair of eyes. With a second season already confirmed, I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here. Euphoria is truly one of the best shows of the year that you must stick with.
Euphoria Continues Tuesday at 10.10pm on Sky Atlantic