With its queer romances and bleak portrayal of drug addiction, the TV show depicts all the nuances of being a teen in 2019
There’s a bit right at the end of Euphoria’s first season, where the main protagonist Rue, played by a damaged, likeable Zendaya, seems to lose control over her body, tumbling through her house and wildly embracing her family members who appear frozen in time. Set to a backdrop of Labrinth’s “All for Us” – which also doubles as the series theme tune – Rue (who might have overdosed, we don’t know) falls backwards into the arms of a crowd of interpretive dancers who lurch the 17-year-old violently in the air. In a frantic and convulsive succession of choreography, we see Rue for who she is: a scared, anxious, unapologetically raw, vulnerable teenager. And for those of you wondering what Euphoria is about, it’s this.
The lead characters in this Drake-produced teen drama about a group of high school students is not (as its name suggests) a joyride through youth, but rather, an attempt to cling onto any scrap of happiness they can get – each one is searching for their own personal euphoria. Through its eight episodes, the characters hurtle rapidly through themes of addiction, sexuality, porn, body-shaming, sexual assault, and enough dicks that you lose count (and that’s only in the first episode) – oh, and possibly the best recreation of Bob Ross in television history. It’s as intense as it sounds, and paired with a sharp script by Assassination Nation writer-director Sam Levinson, and dizzyingly stylised cinematography by Marcell Rév, it’s arguably the most relevant Gen Z show out there.
But what makes the series so zeitgeisty? It’s unlike its TV contemporaries 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale, whose fantastical dramas seem isolated from the outside world. Nor is it traversing its closest relative Skins; the Bristol-based early 00s show is basically “The Garden of Earthly Delights” to Euphoria’s Wasteland. The characters in the show, as mentioned by Rue in the pilot, spring forth from birth into the War on Terror, raised on a diet of post-9/11 gore and violence that’s only been made more apparent in the age of the omnipresent internet. As such, when the teens at Rue’s high school have to perform an active shooter drill – which we’re told has happened on the reg since pre-school – one boy is so apathetic to the whole thing that he flashes Rue some porn from his iPhone. In this walking existential crisis, the fear of mass shooting is just another part of living.
Of course, as a generation whose lives are running in parallel with the engorged internet, Rue and her friends are accustomed to the extremes brought on by it: from Instagram to Grindr, Pornhub and 4chan, a coveyor belt of memes and viral moments, being “left on read” are all an extension of everyday life. One of the major ways we see this manifest is through sex; with the web (or more specifically, Pornhub) as basically the only available educational outlet, sex becomes a currency shared via underage nudes and unsolicited videos that skip way past the line of consent. In one voiceover, Rue puts it simply: “I know your generation relied on flowers and your father’s permission, but it’s 2019 and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. Stop shaming us. Shame the dudes who create password-protected online directories of naked underage girls.” For older viewers who haven’t grown up with unsolicited dick pics, revenge porn, and social media-orientated kinks like findomination, this might be shocking, but for Gen Z, it’s the norm.
“Despite all the texting, social media, and constant communication, the central characters on the show are desperately alone in their own experiences”
With all this surrounding chaos (and no guidance from the adults – but how could they know?) it’s unsurprising that each character finds a way to outsource their pain by self-medicating in one way or another. Rue, after a lifetime of paralysing anxiety, turns to drugs, while Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie, your average hot girl, does what many girls going through puberty do – attempts to mend the trauma of her parent’s divorce by putting her worth into boys (“She fell in love with easy guy she ever dated. Whether they were smart or stupid, cruel or nice, it didnt matter,” says Rue in a voiceover).
The on-demand nature of the web also provides an infinite number of possibilities for self-discovery: Hunter Schafer’s Jules – a trans girl who has recently moved from the city to the suburbs – finds her rush on Grindr (because it’s 2019 and dating apps are as common as hookups themselves), concerningly seeking out older men to dominate her in seriously unsafe situations. For Barbie Ferreira’s plus-sized Kat, cam girling and fin-domination becomes a way to regain control after a violent sex tape of her losing her virginity leaks online.
Yet what makes Euphoria so compelling is how relatable these expansive, diverse set of characters are. We can all see ourselves (to a greater or lesser extent) in Jules’ idealist romantic, who runs into thrill-seeking situations without thinking of the consequences, or Kat’s instinctual fear when she’s met with a guy who’s actually nice to her (lol, same). More sinister is the on-and-off-again relationship between Alexa Demie’s Maddy and her abusive boyfriend Nate (played by Jacob Elordi), whose sociopathic manipulation of power and calculated love baiting is frighteningly convincing, as is the contrast between their perfect public-facing relationship and its darker manifestation behind closed doors.
More importantly, despite all the texting, social media, and constant communication, the central characters on the show are desperately alone in their own experiences, and therein lies the central existential crux. In the final episode, Rue’s mum gives a monologue that – as well as being one of the best speeches on parenthood ever, second to that one at the end of Call Me By Your Name – illustrates this perfectly: “She won’t be an easy child, she’ll struggle… though we might not get it, we accept it, and what might not make sense to us, might be best for them,” she says. All the while, the screen cuts to a sequence of all the different characters in their respective homes locked in their own individual experiences, and saturated by “night terrors” or anxieties that they’re not sharing with each other.
This idea, while working to bring together all the different perspectives in the show, is made all the more poignant when put to the backdrop of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage” (“My body is a cage that keeps me/ From dancing with the one I love/ But my mind holds the key”), is a symptom of its time (Gen Z and millennials are the loneliest generation alive RN). It shows that even though the characters are all stuck in their own shit, their feelings of loneliness, isolation, heartbreak and anxiety are universal, if they’re willing to share them, that is.