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Euphoria - Zendaya
Euphoria (2019)

HBO show Euphoria is a wild ride through drug addiction, teenhood, and sex

Starring Zendaya, Hunter Schafer and Barbie Ferreira, it’s already drawn the attention of the Parents Television Council

In the first 40 seconds of Euphoria, on HBO, a newborn baby fixes her eyes on a television broadcasting George W. Bush speaking after 9/11. Fixated on his face, she lets out a cry. Later in the episode, the baby is now a 17-year-old drug addict called Rue Bennett played by Zendaya. She’s walking through the halls of a house party after snorting something off a coke-spoon. In the time it took her to stagger from point A to B, the corridor shifted and slanted in the style of Inception, forcing her to walk on the ceiling and walls. “To be honest, I’m not always the most reliable narrator,” she tells the audience, as she has from the beginning of the episode, making you wonder if the snide at President Bush even happened.

Gen Zers, born at the crossover between the 20th and 21st century, are the latest targets for pointed commentary, for caring about things like the world actually ending. They’re the hottest consumer demographic in America, and now, the protagonists of this mind-bending drama. Based on the 2012 series by Ron Leshem, Euphoria follows Rue out of rehab, a quasi-recovering addict punished by her nihilism and unmoving, almost predestined life purpose to get high all the time. Her internal logic is that she was overmedicated as a child for her OCD and anxiety, and is now forced to course-correct through pills and powders, even if it means dodging all stabs at getting clean: the pleadings from her reluctant dealer, Fez (Angus Cloud); a comical montage on methods of hacking at-home urine tests; her rule to never drink and bike – you’ll get caught! In fairness, she resides in a dry California landscape choked by suburban ennui — you have everything, but not what you really want.

Rue, the show’s narrator, introduces us to other major characters: Jules (Hunter Schafer), her best friend and the new girl expunged from the city to the suburbs, following a parental split. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) a shy girl with a secret online stardom, not unlike the actress herself. And the rage-filled jock, Nate (played by Jacob Elordi, a dead ringer for Beau Mirchoff, starring in another existential mind trip, Now Apocalypse).

Things happen behind the closed doors of sickly, bogus McMansions. Like 80s slasher flicks, parents are non-existent, letting their kids tumble through jungles of hard drugs, porn addiction and unconsented sex, as they become more and more withdrawn from their own consciousness and self-esteem. Similar to the more recent teen horror, It Follows, strobe lights and colour gels track the characters like shadows, an aesthetic so lush with Hype Williams indigo, True Detective yellow haze, and layers of nostalgic grain. But the show is bruised like a plum, sometimes hard to watch as characters never regain from their traumas and in fact, double-down on their worst impulses. Before rehab, Rue’s younger sister, Gia (Storm Reid) found her overdosed in her bedroom, suffocated in her own vomit, scared she might be dead — the only event that triggers Rue into actual tears.

Her return from near-death doesn’t elicit grief or elation from classmates. Instead, she’s another burnout everyone would rather was a ghost, phasing in and out of house parties and drug dens. Speak to her only when she initiates, lest she inundated you with woozy stories about her childhood. Its teen drama predecessors, Gossip Girl and Degrassi, held on to the finite idea that drug-themed storylines are to be resolved and terminated by the season finaleIn Euphoria, bad decisions loiter like a relapse.

“Its teen drama predecessors, Gossip Girl and Degrassi, held on to the finite idea that drug-themed storylines are to be resolved and terminated by the season finaleIn Euphoria, bad decisions loiter like a relapse”

Rue talks to us through hindsight. She might be dead – she might not be. Zendaya, fully removed from her Disney Channel roots, gives an absorbing performance, both haunted by and bored with being alive. Yet when she’s hurt, we feel it. In an early sequence, Rue narrates her perfect high: “that moment when your breath starts to slow and every time you breathe, you breathe out all the oxygen you have and everything stops.” Her face, bouncing in and out of frame, becomes impossible to decipher. “Everything you feel and wish you want to forget,” she continues “it all just sinks.” This moment reminds me of last year’s equally controversial novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. In it, the narrator takes increasing amounts of medication to sleep for an entire year. Over time, her dreams have less and less colour, until she doesn’t dream at all. Both Rue and the novel’s narrator have a purpose: not euphoria, as we’re led to think, but total nothingness. A blank canvas – the only way they can survive.   

One of the most rewarding performers is Hunter Schafer as Jules. A sunny and spindly trans girl with bleached eyebrows, shiny locks, a pastel wardrobe and a tiny backpack, present, even at the dustiest house parties. Someone Rue could never see herself become, which is why they work together. She might’ve stepped into this universe by accident but her performance delivers completely as an overly confident, sometimes difficult to read adolescent, who is also a frequent liar – a trait every character shares. Her lies and delusions go deeper though, as her casual affair with a married man reveal an interior life informed by porn fantasies of femme domination.

Before the show even premiered, focus was pinned on its generous nudity, specifically the 30 penises in one episode. The Parents Television Council issued a warning against its overt adult content. A similar thing happened with Skins over a decade ago, a reminder of how things change but remain the same. Watching Euphoria, however, I kept thinking back, not to Skins but the neglected My Mad Fat Diary, starring Sharon Rooney as Rae, a 16-year-old in the 90’s, recently released from a mental institution for an eating disorder and depression. While that show is a Gen Xer cautionary tale of what not to do post-institutionalisation, it shares with Euphoria the kind of person you become after hitting rock bottom, as Rue’s dealer Fez would put into words: “you’re a fucking trip.”