As prom twinkles around them, the girls of East Highland sit around a table reflecting on high school and how they’ll look back on these days when they’re older. “I feel like high school is super fucking suffocating,” assesses Jules (played by Hunter Schafer).
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It’s no wonder the students in SoCal suburbia might feel that way – high school might be traumatic for everyone but it seems especially true for them. Over the course of Euphoria’s eight episodes, they’re put through some of the most extreme and difficult experiences anyone can go through, let alone teenagers who themselves admit don’t feel like “a real person” yet. In the wilderness of school corridors, booze-fuelled ragers, and the virtual but oh-so-real realm of the internet, they face judgement and social shame, battles with addiction and mental health, being the unwitting stars of sex tapes passed between peers, domestic abuse, blackmail, and exhaustingly more.
At Euphoria’s start, it sometimes feels like creator Sam Levinson is on a mission to cram as many issues into the show as he can and in as shocking a way as possible. Its opening episodes are a barrage of uncensored dick pics, drugs, sex, and – sometimes – violence. By the time the first season reaches its conclusion, the sensationalist assault subsides and leaves the show’s heart exposed, diving into each character’s life and struggles and making you care about the glitter-speckled faces on your screen.
The finale, like much of season one, is bleak and chaotic. The storytelling jumps from plotline to plotline, character to character, flashing back and then flashing forward, yo-yo-ing through time. The way it unravels almost uncontrollably feels like its mirroring life itself and those moments, particularly when you’re younger, where you feel like you’ve cracked it – that secret to being happy and having your shit together – only to find yourself back in the thick of it soon after, perhaps a little wiser but with no quick solutions. The non-linear hurricane of drama could also be read as a comment on Gen Z’s so-called attention span, unable to focus on any one story for an extended period of time without all this frenetic hopping around.
Wrapped up in the disarray at the end of this chapter are some brief salves. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) has been on a voyage of sexual self-discovery via her secret side hustle as a cam girl and hook-ups with random guys designed to make her feel powerful. After shunning Ethan (Austin Abrams) after assuming he just wants to use her for sex, the pair finally get it together in a rare uplifting moment. It seems like Rue (Zendaya) and Jules will also find their happy ending as they gleefully bike away from the dance with plans to bolt to the city, but it isn’t to be. Escape is a big theme throughout the show, whether the teens are trying to get away from boring suburbia, their feelings, unfair labels, or who they’re discovering they really are. But, after chasing it for so long with her drug-taking, it’s something Rue ultimately has to turn her back on – even if that means letting go of Jules too.
That twist brings us to the most confusing, ambiguous, and potentially heart-breaking moment of Euphoria yet. With the love of her life heading to the city, Rue goes home in tears and, ready to end her three-month clean streak, racks up a line of something (it’s unclear what exactly the white substance is). As she lies back on her bed, drugs racing through her system, before her back suddenly arches and she’s pulled up into the air by an unknown force and stumbles through her house like a puppet being jerked around by a cruel master. Thus begins what is essentially a music video within a TV show, soundtracked by Zendaya’s new single, and one which leaves you wondering if she’s dead, unconscious, or just unbelievably high (Levinson has since confirmed it’s definitely not the first option). But, as a maroon-robed choir engulf her in the final shot, one thing is clear – once again, Rue’s addiction has swallowed her whole.
A second season of Euphoria has already been confirmed but season one will stay at the forefront of the collective consciousness for some time to come yet. Like the staggeringly good performances of Zendaya, Schafer et al, its beguiling sad beauty, hyperreal drama, and mysterious ending add up to a show that can’t fail to leave an indelible mark.