Arts and Entertainment

Euphoria: A Glimpse Into Today’s Youth

A review on the characters and artistic qualities of popular HBO show “Euphoria.”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As far as teen shows go, HBO’s “Euphoria” (2019) is perhaps one of the most successful of its kind. With over 16.3 million viewers who tuned in to its Season Two premiere, it’s one of the most-watched series on HBO, second only to “Game of Thrones” (2011), and understandably so. Since its release, Sam Levinson’s teen drama series has received enormous praise for its hauntingly personal portrayal of adolescent struggles.

In the pilot episode, audiences are introduced to Rue, a (semi) recovering drug addict. As she returns from rehab, viewers watch as she falls into the same dangerous habits, all in search of some sense of euphoria that hasn’t come from anything but drugs for years. As the show progresses, Rue’s character and inner workings are stripped down to reveal a complex and unpredictable individual. In moments of vulnerability, she utilizes her signature snark and sharp wit as a defense mechanism. In spite of her self-destructive impulses, she also maintains a sense of sagacity. Though Rue is a character that prefers to stay in the background, she succeeds in leaving the audience shocked and aghast after every one of her scenes.

Like every character in the show, Rue is masterfully played by the actress Zendaya, who brings out the best and the worst in Rue. When Rue hits rock bottom after a morphine overdose, she can’t even open a candy wrapper. As the camera zooms in, every shake and wobble of her fingertips is captured—a heart-wrenching picture of patheticness. Zendaya bears the weight of Rue’s character with a kind of poignancy that makes her captivating and endlessly thrilling to watch.

The same can be said of the other actors. Notably, Sydney Sweeney, who plays Cassie, tackles her character’s complicated history with expertise. During Cassie’s brightest moments, she’s a girl who has been dealt a bad hand in life. During her worst, she’s a validation-seeking manipulator who’ll do anything to secure her own happiness. Sweeney steals the spotlight every time she appears on screen, skillfully straddling the line between playing the pitiful teenager and crazed lunatic.

IndieWire put it best: “‘Euphoria’ hasn’t heard a sad story it can’t make worse.” At the heart of every character’s plot is a darkness that strings this show together into a tangle of hormonal, frenzied madness. Many scenes are unfiltered and graphic, with some form of nudity in almost every episode. From the beginning, viewers learn about the characters’ backstories, which are all tragic and shocking. For instance, Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender girl, is attracted to older men and routinely has sex with them in dingy motel rooms. The show spares nobody’s eyes, openly including graphic sex and fight scenes.

Yet perhaps “Euphoria”’s greatest triumph lies in the fact that it is surprisingly relatable to its demographic. Everyone knows a Rue. They’ve experienced the same desperation Cassie has or the same anger Maddy (Alexa Demie) feels. It’s not often that a teen show in today’s media landscape is able to accurately tap into youth audiences’ experiences, but “Euphoria” does that and more. Every character begins as an obvious archetype: the druggie, the quiet book-smart girl, the popular mean girl, the scary jock. But as the story progresses, the characters come to life. Through traumatic experiences that bind this cast of teenagers together, a genuine commentary on youth culture is made. The show tackles heavy topics like substance abuse, rape, and identity crisis in a way that feels authentic and deeply relatable.

“Euphoria”’s cinematography contributes largely to its nostalgic factor. The show’s golden hues and beautiful camerawork are synonymous with its signature dark and glitzy aesthetic. In Season Two, cinematographer Marcell Rév chose to film exclusively on 35mm Kodak film. The grainy film effect gave Season Two a more retro and nostalgic feel, reminiscent of a distant high school memory. Each scene is framed specifically to emphasize a point. Quick zoom-ins onto characters’ faces add drama, while fuzzy, rocking camera movements evoke feelings of hallucination or disorientation. As the camera works to tell a story, viewers quickly immerse themselves in the show, which elevates “Euphoria” past just another Riverdale-adjacent series.

Another one of “Euphoria”’s greatest feats is its soundtrack. Jen Malone, the lead music supervisor for the show, utilized over 100 songs for Season Two alone. From dreamy tracks to upbeat rap, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of emotions pertaining to each character and their lives. Each song engages in the overall narrative of the story and fulfills a certain objective: relaying a certain message, as well as evoking certain emotions in the viewers. For instance, when Cassie and Nate enter school hand in hand in the last episode, “The World Hurricane” (2000) by Air plays, signifying how destructive their relationship is as lyrics in the song mention: “One mass is warm, while the other is cold / The warmer air rises, and the cooler air falls […] They swirl in and around one another, creating the beginnings of the storm.” Malone employs this subtle tactic via songs in other scenes too, using tracks by various artists, from Labrinth to Selena.

Despite “Euphoria”’s multiple strong points, there are still some pressing issues regarding its plot and characters. Though “Euphoria”’s plot is gripping and intense, it contains some major plot holes that are never resolved. How did Rue go so abruptly from needing hospitalization in Episode Five, to enjoying the play and being level-headed in Episode Eight? Another discrepancy is Rue forgiving Elliot (Dominic Fike), despite him enabling her drug use and sleeping with Rue’s girlfriend, Jules. Moreover, despite “Euphoria”’s fleshed-out main characters, a fan favorite, Kat, (Barbie Ferreira) was lackluster this season. In Season One, Kat had a clear, cohesive storyline, while in the recent season, she devolved into a seemingly shallow side character whose only purpose is to support her friends through their troubles and mishaps.

Aside from “Euphoria”’s occasional undeveloped plot points and characters, it is a beautifully crafted show with titillating characters and stories. From its expressive usage of light to emphasize emotions to meaningful songs that portray any scene perfectly and pluck at viewers’ heartstrings, “Euphoria” deserves its publicity and love. For Season Three, viewers hope to see the main cast further fleshed out and for unanswered questions to be clarified. Nonetheless, Season Two was an exciting journey suffused with alluring fortunes and mishaps, complete with methodical characters and phenomenal acting.