“It’s a difficult season,” Zendaya told Teen Vogue about Euphoria season two last year. “It’s gonna be hard and it’s gonna be devastating sometimes.” After season one’s foreboding ending and two powerful and intense special “bridge” episodes – one focusing on her character Rue and another on Hunter Schafer’s Jules – that seemed almost a given. But the second full instalment of the HBO show somehow ratchets up the misery even further, bringing nearly all of its major players deeper into its web of suffering.
Way back in 2019, we left the students of East Highland High School in disarray. Relationships were in tatters – Maddy (Alexa Demie) and Nate (Jacob Elordi) broke up at the winter formal, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) aborted ex-boyfriend Chris’s (Algee Smith) baby – and danger lingered like a stubborn patch of black ice. Nate had a breakdown after an intense argument with his dad (Eric Dane), and dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) went against his moral code to cover his debts to his boss Mouse, robbing a wealthy doctor but killing his victim after getting caught in the act.
Rue and Jules, meanwhile, had decided to skip town together after confessing their true feelings for each other, but Rue had second thoughts while getting on the train. Jules stuck to their plan and left without her and, even as she seemed to begin to grasp the impact her struggles with addiction had had on her family, Rue returned home just to break her three-month sober streak by relapsing.
Our return to East Highland coincides with New Year’s Eve, but that doesn’t mean its residents are turning over any new leaves. Rue is back in the throes of addiction and her struggles get her into more scrapes, including one plot where she’s convinced she’s come up with an absolute galaxy brain “business” idea, but ends up plunging even closer to rock bottom. Whether she’s terrifyingly calm about drug-fuelled close calls or portraying scenes of pure desperation, fear, rage and withdrawal, Zendaya’s performance is even more moving and sublime than before.
Elsewhere, Cassie can’t get comfortable with single life – although, arguably, she doesn’t put much effort in – and her search for companionship feels like a ticking time bomb set to blow up in the faces of the friendship group. Nate’s relationship with his dad is just as tumultuous as ever, while Fezco is still hellbent on getting even with Nate for causing his house to be raided last season.
This time, we get to see more of the lives of characters who intrigued in season one. The show delves into the backstories of Fez (and his grandma and adopted brother Ash) and Cal, both via flashbacks to their respective youths, the illuminating scenes explaining more about why they are the way they are. Cassie’s younger sister Lexi (Maude Apatow), who felt underused last go-around, uses her status as someone on the sidelines to steal the spotlight, writing a play based on her and her classmates’ lives. It turns out to be possibly one of the most ambitious school productions in fiction or otherwise, but could be just as explosive as her sibling’s own behaviour.
New faces are few, but those that do crop up fit in seamlessly to proceedings. Best of all is Elliott, played brilliantly by Florida alt musician Dominic Fike, who presents both a new partner in hedonism for Rue and a caring confidante for Jules. He’s delightfully sarcastic and offers a fresh look at some of the established characters. When a jealous Jules is interrogating him about his sexuality, he quickly points out the “hypocrisy” of a trans girl asking him to declare himself straight, gay or bi, accepting little in between, critiquing her as “sound[ing] like you’re navigating a Twitter thread”.
If Euphoria season one was lauded for its ambition, then season two levels things up once more. There are brilliant meta moments that break the fourth wall, like when a scene cuts to Rue, dressed as a school teacher, acknowledging to the camera her status as a “beloved character” who people are rooting for and giving a lecture on how to hide in plain sight that you’re back on drugs. The cinematography is top notch too, drawing out feelings of panic and claustrophobia, adrenaline and fear, until it feels like you’re in the scenes themselves rather than just watching them from your sofa.
Euphoria season two might have taken a long time to arrive but, with a clutch of new episodes that are darker, tougher and more intense than ever, it’s well worth the wait. Its teen subjects might start the new year off on a negative note, but it’s already setting the bar very high for TV in 2022.
‘Euphoria’ airs every Monday on HBO Asia/HBO GO