There are two types of Euphoria: the television series and Euphoria-ness. When HBO’s new drama about a gang of self-destructive youths groping toward self-discovery launched in the summer of 2019, it became an immediate hit. Television shows about disturbed high school students are hardly novel, but Euphoria had the feel of one. The protagonists struggle with addiction, gender dysphoria, poverty, and wrath, all spiral out of control in a hyper-stylized setting. It’s a holistic experience, loaded with vibrant hues, thunderous needle drops, and a restless camera whipping between actors as they glide from one disastrous choice to the next. The turmoil has an oddly captivating quality. As a friend of mine put it, some individuals watch The Office in the background, while others watch Euphoria.
“It’s as if we were chasing Euphoria,” Zendaya, who acts as the drug-addled young Rue, says of the sensation of beginning season two filming. “We were thinking, ‘We need to be what we were in season one,’ and we were attempting to rediscover that spark. We weren’t expressing it, but we were feeling a bit tense.”
The show, adapted from a 2012 Israeli series of the same name, follows Rue and the teens in her orbit: the perpetually buttoned-up Lexi (Maude Apatow); Lexi’s older sister, the so-romantic-it-hurts Cassie (Sydney Sweeney); Cassie’s terrifyingly confident best friend, Maddy (Alexa Demie); Maddy’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Nate (Ja (Eric Dane).
The original Gossip Girl was reportedly dubbed “every parent’s nightmare” by the Boston Herald. Adults were fearful of the program because of the shallow things their children would do or seek. Euphoria has resurrected the old-fashioned teen-show terror; it has become a catchphrase for young females flirting with danger. There has been abortion and self-mutilation, overdoses and child pornography, drug rings, and carousel orgasms. (In the show’s second episode, creator Sam Levinson famously deleted 80 penises from a locker-room image.) As a result, it has evolved into appointment television for young people. Teens strive to dress up like the characters, complete with glittery makeup and covetable clothes, which has spawned an entire TikTok subculture. “When you’re on your way to the bus but forget you’re going to Euphoria High School,” the subtitles say before the individual goes away and reappears Euphoria-ified.
Season two production was halted for a year before restarting this past March. The bulk of the season’s initial schedule was abandoned throughout the lull. “Only a few things remain in the version you’re currently viewing,” Zendaya explains. This, she believes, is a positive outcome: “The things that didn’t make it needed to die.” Everything has been amplified this year; there is now even more of it if you liked the messiness. The season premiere is a flashback in which Rue’s heroin dealer, Fezco (Angus Cloud), enters a strip club and stops a man’s blowjob, shooting him in both legs as the camera zooms in on his erect penis. As Billy Swan’s “Don’t Be Cruel” plays over the Tarantino-esque rubble, screams blend. Critics are divided on the show’s tone but never neutral. Some have referred to it as “style without content,” while others have described it as “masterful and unsettling.” Its current season has created a greater schism amongst audiences than ever before (and brought in more viewers: 8.3 million tuned in for the season-two premiere, up from 3.3 million the previous season). Rolling Stone remarked in its review that although certain sequences take the series to the pinnacle of television, others are “so aggravating and self-indulgent that they may make you wonder whether you appreciated the better bits at all.” Occasionally, the same sight elicits both feelings simultaneously.
If the ideas might be far-fetched, it’s the actors that ground them, coloring their narrative lines with humor and sensitivity. All six starring females provide career-defining performances, and off-screen, they have established themselves as “It” girls, with modeling contracts, development agreements, and millions of social media followers. By the time they joined, most of them were already used to being in the public view. Ferreira started her modeling career at the height of the body-positive movement, appearing in ads for American Apparel, Givenchy, and Bulgari; Schafer has been in campaigns for Versace, Helmut Lang, and Maison Margiela (she is currently the face of Prada). Zendaya, Sweeney, and Apatow (daughter of filmmaker Judd Apatow and actress Leslie Mann) began their careers as actors as children. Demie, the most enigmatic member of the group (her Wikipedia biography is nine words long), broke out in Euphoria. “We all bonded, and it seemed like a family, which is uncommon, even more so with a bunch of ladies,” Demie explains. “Which is unfortunate, but it is not uncommon.”
Zendaya’s performance is mesmerizing. As Rue, she may be vicious one minute, agonizingly bashful the next, or unabashedly silly the next, and it all seems the same. “She oddly inhabits me,” Zendaya explains. “I am not required to look for her.” It’s a sensation she claims she’s never had with another character. “Even with the Spider-Man films, I’ll speak with the director and ask, ‘Is it enough Michael Jackson-like?’ I attempt to locate it once again. With Rue, she is just there.” Rue attempts to persuade herself in season two that she can cope as a heroin addict. “It’s evident that it disintegrates fairly rapidly,” Zendaya explains. You are not required to enjoy her character, but the show works best if you want to see her overcome her addictions and discover inner peace. Zendaya’s strategy this season was to test the viewer’s capacity for empathy with her character. “How far can she go while we continue to adore her, cheer for her, and regard her as a person deserving of our affection?”
Rue alienates people closest to her this season as she attempts to rationalize the importance of drugs in her life — most notably, a new reliance on heroin. Everything comes to a head in episode five, one of the few storylines carried over from season two’s original version. When Rue discovers Jules informed her mother about her recent relapse, she erupts into fits of laughter, destroying all of her closest connections – with Jules, her mother (Nika King), and her younger sister, Gia (Storm Reid). As Rue approaches rock bottom, she gets out of her mother’s vehicle and weaves through highway traffic to escape returning to treatment; after burning a few more bridges and committing a robbery, she finds herself stuck in the house of a drug dealer to whom she owes money. Zendaya describes the experience of filming as “fucking horrible.”
The other characters are also spinning in their directions. While they are friends, they are followed on their adventures; in many instances, the program is more concerned with deceiving one another. Jules begins dating a new buddy, Elliot (Dominic Fike) – a relationship they keep hidden from Rue. “At first, I was thinking, Wait, why are we bringing a male into this?” Schafer explains. “However, it would ruin the show if we did what was best for the characters.” Maddy is continually dissatisfied: she does not want to be with Nate but does not wish to avoid him. Lexi, a supporting character in season one but had minimal screen time, has a larger part this year, focusing on her developing relationship with Fezco and the school play she’s creating. She portrays herself as the protagonist. (Apatow informs me that her persona is “loosely based on my experience as an aggressive theatre student in high school.”) Last season, Kat’s sexual awakening was a big storyline point. This season, her storyline — which centers on her waning interest in her boyfriend, Ethan (Austin Abrams) — has been the least central. According to speculations, Ferreira and Levinson spat on-site about her role is reduced. Ferreira did not attend the show’s debut with the rest of the ensemble, which added gasoline to the rumor. “Kat’s path this season is a bit more personal and a little more mysterious to the viewer,” Ferreira adds. She is quietly experiencing several existential crises. She sometimes loses her marbles — just like everyone else this season. The concept is that everyone has gone insane.”
None more so than Cassie, whose narrative arc — her covert romance with Nate — receives significant coverage. Sweeney claims she felt more confident entering the second season, noting, “I’m not sure Cassie would make this choice.” She requested that some topless moments be excised and moving parts elaborated, which Levinson complied with. Consider a confrontation between Cassie and Nate in episode four, which was initially intended to conclude with Nate chastising her for sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend. “Jacob and I performed the sequence as written, and we were both thinking, ‘There is so much more here that we could do. Allow us to construct it.’
Consequently, Levinson created a five-page scenario on the spot in which Cassie completely loses it when she believes Nate is about to leave her for Maddy. “I let go of any judgments about myself,” Sweeney says of her newfound popularity after her appearance as Olivia Mossbacher on HBO’s The White Lotus. “I’m quite proud of Cassie’s breakdown this season.”
Exacerbating the characters’ flaws – does it ever seem excessive? “I’m mainly able to brush it off,” Zendaya says of portraying a girl who is always on the verge of collapsing. “However, there are days when you are completely immersed in it, and even though your head recognizes that it is not real, your body takes on this uneasiness and rage.” Despite the show’s tragic moments, Zendaya maintains that the show’s worldview is not nihilistic. “The season’s finale was supposed to be very different, but halfway through, Sam and I decided, ‘We can’t leave Rue here.’ We’ve got to inject a little fucking optimism into this event.’ By episode six, Rue has begun to mend her life. “Episode eight will provide us with a feeling of atonement,” Zendaya explains. “That you are not the most heinous act you have ever committed in your life. I believe Rue is deserving of it, as does everybody who suffers from the same condition.”