Arts and Entertainment

The Twisted Truths in “Euphoria”

Excessive sexualization and glamorous scenes of substance abuse in “Euphoria” miss the mark in portraying adolescence, but its masterfully crafted characterization and cinematography makes the show strangely addictive.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The remnants of last night are strewn across the floor—beer bottles, pills, glitter, and people, bathed in the light of the spinning disco ball. A girl is passed out in the tub, powder still crusted on her nose. Those still sober enough to be conscious see everything in echoes of their original forms; hallucinations cast an ethereal glow on everything in the room. The people spin or maybe the wall spins. The world goes in and out of focus, but you bask in the sparkle of the moment—of your own breath going in and out.

A scene like this is characteristic of the HBO show “Euphoria” (2019). Though the series is a cinematic masterpiece to watch, “Euphoria” has been deemed problematic on several fronts.

First is the romanticization of drugs and alcohol. Writer Sam Levinson has admitted that much of the main character Rue (Zendaya)'s destructive relationship with drugs is a reconstruction of his own addiction, compelling him to create scenes humanizing addiction and drug use. Unfortunately, in doing so, Levinson has built a narrative glamorizing drug and alcohol use. A major contributor is the enticing cinematography, which has a glittery aesthetic, lurid lighting, and engaging close-ups, ultimately resulting in “emotional and visual tones” created by cinematographer Marcell Rév. Paired with the show’s hallucinatory, dream-like soundtrack, these elements make substance abuse seem alluring, promoting it to the show’s impressionable teenage viewers.

The show’s portrayal of relationships also contains several problematic facets. Throughout season one, the audience follows Rue’s blossoming relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer). Viewers witness many affectionate moments between the two: Rue and Jules lying side by side, biking around town together, and gliding around a roller rink. They are genuinely mesmerized by each other, compelling the audience to root for this delicate, young romance. Unfortunately, Rue’s emotional dependence on Jules becomes unhealthy when their relationship turns into Rue’s sole source of happiness and the only thing steering her away from her addiction. Everything unravels when a road bump in their relationship drives them apart, pushing Rue into depression and eventually a relapse. Season two continues to build on their toxic relationship—Jules cheats on Rue with newcomer Elliot (Dominic Fike), who is secretly fueling Rue’s addiction, and Rue neglects spending time with Jules to conceal her addiction. Despite all these issues, “Euphoria” continues to glamorize the dynamic between the two, especially by showcasing cute moments of love, causing the audience to overlook the toxicity and root of this unsustainable relationship.

Surprisingly, Jules and Rue are the least toxic “Euphoria” relationship. Enter Maddy (Alexis Demie) and Nate (Jacob Elordi). For two years, Maddy and Nate had been in an on-and-off relationship, with the pair never being able to sort out their deeply rooted issues with one another. Nate’s traumatic past manifests itself in anger issues, while Maddy’s upbringing in a loveless household makes her cling blindly to her relationship with Nate. Viewers see the volatility of their relationship shine through in the carnival episode where Nate lashes out at Maddy, leaving severe bruising on her entire neck. Still, Maddy does everything to protect him: spending hours covering up her wounds, throwing a tantrum while police remove her turtleneck, and consistently snapping at anyone who accuses Nate. The ordeal ends with Maddy secretly meeting him in a motel room, continuing the cycle of abuse.

Even after all this happens, Cassie, Maddy’s best friend, hooks up with Nate behind Maddy’s back, bringing a new level of complexity to the storyline and a trope that’s perhaps the hardest to watch from the entire show: the love triangle.

What makes the situation so upsetting is that these girls are throwing their lives away to be with Nate, who is clearly toxic and abusive. Cassie throws herself at Nate, and in her desperation to appeal to him, even dresses like Maddy. Her infatuation reaches a point where even a glance from Nate is enough to evoke tears of joy. All of Cassie’s actions are clearly dramatized to add interest to the plot, but at some point, even the comedic value of these moments wears off, and it’s just frustrating to witness someone be so blinded by their need for validation. Not only does the dynamic between the three feel unrealistic, but it also pits two victims of an abusive relationship against each other.

So, why do audiences continue to eat all this up? The media’s obsession with teenage sexuality isn’t exactly new, but “Euphoria” takes this to the next level. The pulse of the show is its rampant and unabashed portrayal of substance abuse and teenage sex, but unlike teen shows like “Riverdale (2017-21)” and “Sex Education (2019-21),” “Euphoria” frames this toxicity in a sensual light. Getting high is a hobby, the best and most reliable way to be happy. Fights and drama are irresistibly entertaining—the more scandalous, the better. Nude scenes only further the point: in “Euphoria,” depravity is celebrated.

As viewers, there’s something to be said about the massive popular interest in a show like this. The plotlines are as outlandish as they come, yet their continual hard-hitting themes of identity struggle and self-destruction allow “Euphoria” to strike a careful balance between fantasy and reality. Despite the show’s obvious flaws, people see themselves reflected in these characters, which is something teen shows rarely succeed in achieving.