A Reluctant Defense of Euphoria
A Reluctant Defense of Euphoria
I’m probably one of the only people to watch Euphoria in a psych ward. When you’re committed, nurses confiscate most of your belongings. If you’re lucky, there might be a rinky-dink TV in the common room, but I doubt they pay for premium cable. I’ve never heard of any other hospital allowing patients to keep their phones, so I guess I’ve been lucky enough to frequent a particularly benevolent psych ward, if there is such a thing. Last January, the board that read “200-something days since Sawyer’s last hospitalization” was wiped to zero. Given my history, my parents were dragging their feet on my discharge. I begged them for days to be released, to no avail. On Sunday, February 6th, a week had passed. Nevertheless, in the confines of my hospital cot, I used my phone privileges to do what I always did on Sunday night. I watched the latest episode of HBO’s teen drama Euphoria.
“Stand Still Like a Hummingbird” came at the midpoint of Euphoria’s otherwise disappointing second season. It opens on Gia (Storm Reid) listening nervously as her older sister Rue (Zendaya) and their mother Leslie (Nika King) talk in the other room. Rue barges into Gia’s room, guns blazing after Leslie accuses Rue of doing drugs. A close-up reveals bags under Rue’s eyes, and her face is flushed.
The scene is familiar. In the pilot of Euphoria, Rue returns home from rehab in time for junior year and immediately relapses. Rue is an addict, self-medicating for her various mental illnesses that intensified when her father died. Her addiction puts her in direct conflict with those who care about her, namely her mother, sister, and girlfriend Jules (Hunter Schafer), who want to see her clean. Ever since the show premiered, it has been mired in controversy for its graphic depictions of drug use and sex. “There are going to be parents who are going to be totally fucking freaked out,” the show’s creator Sam Levinson said early in the press junket.1 The question that has motivated every think piece since is whether Euphoria’s edginess points to anything meaningful. Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I was in the hospital. This was just the show everyone was watching, and I was in the habit of watching it.
The episode’s title “Stand Still Like a Hummingbird” alludes to an energy, a flightiness, that pervades the episode. Even when the tempo slows, you can feel it pulsate like the wings of a hummingbird. Once you think you know where things are going, the episode redirects, and everything is thrown into chaos again. A back-and-forth ensues between Rue and Leslie. Her mother’s accusations become increasingly specific, and Rue’s usual tricks don’t seem to be working. “If you want to fucking drug test me, let’s do it,” Rue says flippantly, walking down the hall. Leslie responds, “I don’t need to. Jules told me everything.” Rue is standing in a shadow, the bright Southern California sun streaming in behind her. She has been lying about her sobriety since she left rehab. Somehow the truth has come out. The camera lingers on her as she slowly turns around and walks toward her closet: “What the fuck did you do, Mom!” She begins throwing clothes everywhere, flinging expletives. What follows is a departure from anything we have seen from Rue.
Despite her various misdeeds (lying, drug abuse, more lying and drug abuse), Rue’s narration ingratiates her to the audience. The writing itself is often cringe-worthy; its sarcasm harkens back to Zendaya’s Disney Channel days, only instead of the usual teenybop drivel, she is declaring nudes the language of love. Still, however elementary the writing, Zendaya’s two Emmys for the series highlight her ability to move beyond the page and give her character’s words new meaning. Often the narration works. In one particularly imaginative sequence, Rue dons suspenders and fancies herself a detective walking us through a case as she tries to decipher what is going on with Jules.
Rue’s point of view is understood not just through her narration but the framing of the show as a whole, communicated through surreal sequences and sharp editing. In season 1 episode 2, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” Rue is asked to stand on stage, lights blaring in her face, and talk about her summer. “I was, um, with my mom and my, uh, my little sister, and we were, uh, listening to this song.” Suddenly, we see Rue leaving the hospital. She and her family are in the car, listening to Bobby Womack’s jazzy rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Fond memories of her family and Jules are intermixed with shots of her doing drugs and partying. In the car, Rue’s spirits are unusually high, and adorned in a hospital gown, she sings with her family. The music swells as she remembers a particularly bad fight between her and her mom, Leslie pinning her to the ground and Rue threatening her with a shard of glass. The music stops. We see Rue waking up in the hospital. She sees her mother and sister asleep in chairs beside her and cries. In the present, she rushes off stage and hides in the bathroom.
I watched the first season of Euphoria in the before times. It’s possible that “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” would have struck me the way “Stand Still Like a Hummingbird” did had I watched it in the hospital. I know it did upon rewatch. Like Rue, I’m still struggling to understand my own experiences, fearful of what memories might lie around the corner. It’s possible any show would have reached me; the hospital is a mind-numbingly boring place. However, given that my viewing of Gilmore Girls during my first hospitalization didn’t promote similar feelings, I doubt it. Gilmore Girls provided an escape, while Euphoria held up a mirror. Rue is intent on avoidance. She uses dry humor and cuts between storylines in a way that often undermines her own experience. “Stand Still” doesn’t do that, and it feels like a perverse kind of serendipity that this episode aired during my hospitalization. Rue’s narration is notably absent from the episode. She can’t form her situation into some biting punchline. Unlike most Euphoria episodes, “Stand Still” follows a single storyline. There are few voiceovers and cutaways. Rue is in crisis and can no longer perform for herself or others. She seemingly loses control of her story, yet “Stand Still” has the most narrative clarity of any episode of that season.
The episode seems to continue where that season 1 montage left off, but without the happy moments to offset it. Rue’s existence is being threatened, and she acts accordingly. She does not think she can live without drugs. She is fearful of withdrawal and going back to the hospital or rehab. When I watch this episode, I see the severity of her addiction and the feelings of desperation and hopelessness that go along with it. There is also a much more immediate reason for her outburst. When Rue rushes to her closet, she is in search of a suitcase, specifically a suitcase of drugs given to her by the unnervingly calm drug dealer Laurie (Martha Kelly). She hasn’t sold any drugs but has instead pilfered them. Now the suitcase is gone, and she is 10K in the hole. It is important to understand that mental illness, especially addiction, can put individuals in financially precarious situations. However, this particular plot line just makes no sense. To procure the drugs in an earlier episode, Rue dresses in a suit and pitches herself to Laurie as if she is on Shark Tank, and not in a fun, surreal way—in a the-writing-is-rigid-and-bad way. Though a particularly flimsy storyline lies at the heart of this episode, the emotional intensity feels very much real and pertains to any type of crisis, not just the particulars of the one Levinson decided to tack on.
Rue does everything she can to tear into Leslie, insulting her, threatening her. She transforms, wrestling Leslie to the ground after she threatens to call the police. “I raised you!” Leslie yells. “I did, and you do not fucking scare me.” Leslie’s face is scrunched up, and she is holding back tears. It’s almost a command to herself. She is trying to make what she’s saying true. There is a long pause. Rue is surprisingly calm. While the intensity of the scene grows and grows, Rue is eerily removed. There is a wildness behind her eyes, but you don’t know when or how it will show itself. “You’re not a good person, Rue,” Leslie says, shaking her head. A question that hangs over the whole show is how culpable Rue is for her actions. Zendaya’s portrayal of Rue is particularly masterful because it is both empathetic and ugly, never providing viewers with a real answer to this question. Rue appears shameless, but a twitch in her face or a look in her eye indicates remorse. It was at about this point that I began to cry.
“Shut the fuck up,” Gia yells, trying to pull Rue off her mother. Gia has always been Rue’s biggest fan, but now her trembling voice suggests fear. Rue shoves Gia, and in response, Leslie slaps Rue across the face and pushes her out of Gia’s room. She then holds the door steadfast, as Rue tries to kick it down. Thump, thump, thump. Her foot kicks through the door. “Where are they!?” she shrieks, knocking over a shelf, spilling its contents everywhere. There is a similar scene in season 1 where Rue begs her dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) for drugs; she bangs on the door, begging, insulting, and screaming at Fez, but eventually, she gives up and goes home. This time Rue doubles back, hurling her body against the door over and over again until it comes clear off. Leslie and Gia cower in the corner. There is something almost primal about Rue’s behavior. Fight or flight has kicked in, and it’s as if she’s been possessed. Rue may be snarky, mean even, but this level of physical aggression is shocking.
After her tirade, Rue collapses beside Gia’s barren doorway. She apologizes tearfully: “I’m sorry you guys I really am. I’m sorry, Gia,” she says, reaching into the doorway before turning around in shame. “I want to get better, I just can’t.” Behind Rue’s anger, there is intense sadness. After her breakdown on stage in season 1, her childhood best friend Lexi (Maud Apatow) follows her to the bathroom to see if she’s ok. Rue lashes out, and Lexi calls her out on her hypocrisy. Rue may be cold now, but Lexi knows that Rue will come crawling back when she needs to pass another drug test: “It’s like you have a split personality disorder or something” (“Stuntin’ Like My Daddy”). Rue’s addiction is so intense that all of her actions revolve around it. What seemed like a genuine apology may just be another manipulation tactic: “I’m sorry, but I need you to tell me where they are. I need you to tell me where the pills are, Mom.”
“We flushed them down the toilet,” a voice says from the other room. Jules. The color drains from Rue’s face. Slowly she walks down the long, dark hallway and passes through the doorway into the kitchen, the house her personal maze. Every time she thinks she has escaped, she encounters another obstacle, and the confrontation between her and Jules feels like the ultimate test. Rue has been all but willing to lie to her family about her sobriety. In season 1, she gets clean for Jules, and when Jules proves to be emotionally unavailable, she relapses. When the two start a romantic relationship in earnest in season 2, it’s predicated on the lie that Rue is sober. Now, Rue cannot face that the person she cares about the most is seeing her at her most destructive. She gets in Jules’s face, cussing her out. Jules tries to stay calm: “I love you, Rue,” Jules repeats, but tears well up in her eyes. “No, you don’t!” Rue responds. “You love being loved!” Rue seems out of control, yet her words are calculated and cutting. Jules does have a need for attention. Her behavior suggests that Rue is in there, but she is acting out her worst impulses. You can’t disregard what she’s saying because there is a kernel of truth, making it that much harder for those around her: “I have a lot of regrets in my life, but meeting you has got to be at the top of my fucking list.”
Withdrawal, depression, and grief are unruly, and after another outburst, Rue ends up in a ball on the floor, voice shaking: “I’m sorry. I just miss Dad.” Gia packs up Rue’s clothes with care, and Leslie coaxes her into the car. As the three drive, their faces are obscured by bright reflections on the car windows. Rue hits her head lightly against the glass, her eyes darting around in a panic like an animal trapped in a cage. The hum of the surrounding cars rises and falls, sometimes making the dialogue inaudible. “5 percent. Those are my fucking chances, one in twenty,” Rue says from the backseat. “All I know, if you set your mind to it, your chances are higher,” Leslie replies. “Yeah well, everyone’s mom fucking says that, okay? Even the ones who bury their kids.” Leslie is horrified. Gia begins to cry in the front seat, thrashing her head against the headrest. Rue is finally being honest, but she is wielding the truth like a weapon. She is telling her family all the things she never told them, that she relapsed almost immediately, that she is suicidal, but it’s too late. Rue believes that she is past help, and her family is starting to believe her.
When Rue learns she’s being driven to rehab instead of the hospital, it’s the last straw. A hospitalization means going through withdrawal, but only for a short period of time. It would be easy enough for her to get back on drugs. Rehab, likely in the form of a lengthy residential program, is another matter. Weeks of no drugs, no phone, being away from everyone you love. I recognize that sometimes that level of care is necessary, but I identify with Rue’s panic. I fought tooth and nail not to go to residential again. Unlike the hospital which feels temporary, residential treatment, especially in the life of a teenager, feels decidedly permanent. Rue apologizes and opens the car door, running along cars and across traffic. Despite her poor physical state, Rue looks over her shoulder and runs and runs. Music comes in and after an arduous eighteen-minute intervention, the title card plays.
For the rest of the episode, Rue bounces from place to place in search of drugs. She tries to steal drugs from the medicine cabinet at Lexi’s house, leading to an awkward confrontation. It’s unfortunate that this episode will likely be remembered for a meme of Alexa Demie yelling at Sydney Sweeney for sleeping with her ex-boyfriend. I don’t take issue with the show generating memes (many good shows do), so much as I take issue with the show prioritizing “meme-ability” over more substantive content. Its performances, score, and cinematography prevent me from forgoing it altogether. I find the shifts in tone to be rather abrupt (this episode less so because of its streamlined narrative), but I realize that unfortunately, my problem is not with a facet of the show but its defining feature. Nevertheless, this is my viewing of Euphoria, so I choose to send that particular sequence to the wayside, no matter how funny it may (or may not) be.
Next, Rue goes to Fezco’s where she tries to steal Oxy from his disabled grandmother, forcing him to physically remove her from his apartment. She then breaks into a stranger’s house and steals jewelry and cash. Rue ends up going to Laurie for drugs and in an incredibly creepy scene, Laurie bathes her and injects her with morphine until she slips away into memories of her father. Rue barely escapes after Laurie locks her in her apartment. Each decision is worse and more dangerous than the last and a clear escalation from Rue’s past antics. Still, the episode is not without levity. When Rue breaks into the couple’s house, she is greeted by a large dog named Harold, who proceeds to fall onto her lap. The code to the safe is one, one, one, one, one, one. Lots of the comedy is born from Rue’s seemingly contagious chaos. There is a lengthy foot chase between Rue and the cops where Rue runs through (and destroys) many domestic scenes including a birthday party where she shoves someone into a cake. She runs into the road and in an attempt not to hit her, two cars collide into a fiery explosion that is only possible with HBO’s hefty budget. (This particular episode took a month to film.) The latter part of the episode feels like a fever dream.
At times, Rue displays almost superhuman strength, hurtling fences, running on top of cars and rooftops, even jumping down from a second-story window. All of these incredible feats, yet when she’s not outrunning her mom or Laurie or the cops, Rue hobbles through the street, grabbing her abdomen and throwing up. “It’s really too bad because I was about a month away from killing myself,” she says in the car with her family, but when she’s chased by the cops and about to run into a busy intersection, her beat-up black Converse stop dead in their tracks. “Please God don’t let me die,” Rue says in one of the only voiceovers in the episode before running into the street. She wants to live, but she can only do so by using drugs that are killing her.
Many have complained that the episode isn’t addressed properly in the rest of the season. The consequences of Rue stealing and not repaying Laurie are never realized. In a short scene in the next episode, we learn Rue’s insurance will not cover another stint in rehab, which, while a reality for many, is incredibly predictable as the structure of the show would not allow for it. All this is the result of poor plotting, however, the plot itself was not what was of interest to me. It was the way the episode felt. “Stand Still” seemed to emulate my own personal odyssey, despite mine including no drugs or foot chases. Our stories may have been vastly different (and mine decidedly less dramatic and dangerous), but I could relate to the feeling of being out of control. In season 2, another storyline follows Lexi as she writes and directs a play fictionalizing the lives of students at East Highland including Rue’s. When Rue watches the play in the finale, she finds it healing as it allows her to see herself in a more favorable light. I found the execution of this storyline (and even its basic premise) to be ridiculous, but it is getting at something real. When you are depressed, you feel irredeemable, and I wrote in the hospital about how cathartic it was to see Rue struggle, do the unfathomable, and know that viewers were still going to care about her.
The moment that stuck out to me most was at about the five-minute mark. “What the fuck else am I supposed to do huh?!” Rue says as she throws something across the room. She yells at her mother off-screen, “You wish I was different? So do I! You fucking hate me?! So do I!” I may not be an addict, but my experiences in crisis and treatment have made me very familiar with what Rue is expressing: shame. Being sick isn’t enough, there is also the shame on top of it. Before I was committed, I spent a week under the constant surveillance of my mom. I saw her watch in horror as I slowly ate away at myself. Like Rue, I could see how I was affecting my family. I was ashamed, but it felt like there was nothing I could do. It almost felt better to make things worse. My destructiveness and people’s reactions to it seemed to confirm what I already knew: that I wasn’t good enough, that I was past help. Despite the bleakness of Rue’s situation, it was hopeful for me to see someone (even a fictional someone) reach their lowest moment and still come out the other side. Remarkably, Rue makes her way home at the end of the night. She has a lot of apologizing to do, but life goes on. We are lucky when life goes on.
Euphoria receives a specific and fervent vitriol from adults, horrified by the show’s contents and its relatively young fan base. Many parents I know refuse to watch it, mortified by the image of their child in glittery make-up doing coke in a bathroom somewhere. Another question posed in the conversation around Euphoria is who it is for. Looking at all the teens I’ve met in hospitals, residential programs, and group therapy, young people are grappling with a lot of the same issues as characters on the show. At one point, in our boredom at residential, we were doing our make-up the same way (though none of us were Zendaya or Hunter Schafer gorgeous). I honestly don’t think Euphoria is a great show. It relishes in spectacle and melodrama in a way that detracts from the heart of the show (or where the heart should be, anyway). Still, when I asked Brian, my therapist at residential, what he thought about Euphoria, he said he liked it, that it felt real. However flawed, Euphoria is a critical part of the language young people have to understand ourselves and be understood by others, for better or for worse.
A year and a half ago, I was the victim of an uncannily targeted Instagram ad and am now the owner of the extremely overpriced Euphoria season one boxed set, a collection of scripts, photos, and essays from the show’s cast and crew. After I received my package from A24, I riffled through iridescent books and came across the speech Sam Levinson delivered at the premiere of Euphoria. He says of the show, “It’s about how if you keep your heart open, there are people who can change your life. It’s about love. It’s a show about being seen and heard and known. It doesn’t cure everything, but it sure as fuck helps.” Levinson of course is talking about love, when he says, “It doesn’t cure everything, but it sure as fuck helps.”2 I’m not Levinson’s biggest fan, but on this point, I agree. I’d be nowhere without the support of my friends and family. Yet sitting in that hospital bed, it was a TV show that comforted me. It reached me when other people couldn’t. I think about that moment of catharsis to this day. So, I guess television is a bit like love. It doesn’t cure everything, but if you’re anything like me, it sure helps.
- Bryn Sandberg, “HBO’s Explicit ‘Euphoria’ Courts Controversy: How Much Teen Sex and Drugs Is Too Much?” The Hollywood Reporter, 12 Jun. 2019, Access 7 December 2022.
- Sam Levinson, “Prologue.” Euphoria 101, edited by LinYee Yuan, A24 Films, 2021, 10.