No matter how many characters crash in and out of them, most episodes of Euphoria start by focusing on one person. Introduced by protagonist and narrator Rue Bennet (Zendaya), HBO’s provocative teen drama zeroes in on one of her teen classmates for a whirlwind tour of their backstory. It’s usually a downer.
Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) has a father struggling with addiction who left her family when she was young, and in the present boys relentlessly objectify her. Nate (Jacob Elordi), struggling with his sexuality, channels his frustration into athleticism and rage, arguably becoming the show’s villain. Kat (Barbie Ferriera) struggles with body image, finding her confidence in a side hustle as a cam girl, only to disconnect from her real-life friends. And Jules (Hunter Schafer), Euphoria’s other protagonist, is a trans girl new to town, weaving in and out of the drama of these kids and their friends while trying to find fulfillment on her terms.
Euphoria’s first season — which premiered in June 2019, its return delayed two and a half years by the coronavirus pandemic — was notable for being HBO’s first teen drama, and leaned into that by making extensive use of the freedoms afforded by premium television. As outrageous as teen dramas like Riverdale can be, none of them can hold a candle to Euphoria, a show that never met an illicit impulse it wouldn’t indulge, nor a boundary it wouldn’t push. Most episodes of the show feature lots of nudity, heavy drug use, and occasional violence. Since it’s a show about teens (all played by actors in their 20s) it also has a propensity for triggering any paternal instincts the viewer might have: These kids are doing the most, at all times.
Based on an Israeli drama of the same name and brought to the states by writer/director Sam Levinson, Euphoria is an addiction fable by way of teen drama. Rue is an addict, and her friends’ stories, filtered through her, gives Euphoria its claustrophobic focus and whiplash-inducing tone. A given episode can rocket from ecstatic party scenes to graphic depictions of sexual assault; from moments of idle boredom to stunning choreographed dance numbers.
In last weekend’s season 2 premiere, Euphoria returned from its long hiatus with an episode focused on Fezco (Angus Cloud), the drug dealer with a heart of gold and a soft spot for Rue.
As a drug dealer in a story about users and the used, he has a clearer perspective than most, but it’s one that few appreciate, given his occupation and status as a high school dropout. He hates the cycle, but knows there’s only one place he can survive it, and every time he tries to step out of it, he’s beaten back to where he supposedly belongs.
Through Fezco the show is at its most brutal, yet another example of the show’s maximalism, where everything happens just as extremely as its characters feel it, and before the episode is even halfway over his supplier is dead and he and his friends are held at gunpoint by the people said supplier worked for.
This is just a small part of the premiere, which does a whirlwind catchup on the Euphoria cast during a party that’s the show in microcosm: A sloppy hook up gives way to humiliating cringe; Jules returns to town after Rue decided she couldn’t run away with her last season, and everything stops for a moment of beautiful yearning. And then it all ends in a vicious beatdown.
Because in Euphoria, every coming of age is a tragedy. It’s a second birth that might lead to nowhere, stasis at best or a metaphorical death at worst — although actual death isn’t out of the realm of possibility either. It’s easy to get caught up in the surface level antics of the show, because the show devoted a lot of its energy to said antics. It’s unquestionably sensational, full of erect penises and casually aggressive sex, and it’s hard to take seriously as a show about teens, even if teen characters are its chosen medium.
Addiction is where its strength as a story lies, and where Euphoria is most compelling. In that, it makes sense that the story is about teenagers: the difference between youth and adulthood is that, for a few brief years, bliss seems within reach.
Euphoria season 2 premiered is now airing on HBO. New episodes drop every Sunday.