There’s this recurring, poignant scene in Euphoria that distills all of the series’ longing and melancholy into a singular moment: Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) lie facing each other on a bed, curled up together as all of the show’s narrative chaos goes quiet. Whether they end up kissing (which happens a few times), or holding each other (which happens almost every time), or talking (which only happens some of the time), the moment epitomizes the careful intimacy and painful adolescence that defines Euphoria as a series.
Helmed by creator, writer, executive producer, and director Sam Levinson (who takes on almost auteur-like status), HBO’s Euphoria gets Gen Z teens unlike any other contemporary teen drama. Narrated by Zendaya’s Rue, a recovering drug addict recently out of rehab, the series focuses on a group of high schoolers who struggle with addiction, sexuality, harassment, and mental health. Careful cinematography, a lush color palette, and an ethereal soundtrack complement a gripping narrative make Euphoria one of the most compelling series of the summer.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Euphoria season 1 ahead.]
Euphoria is all about horny teenagers, but not in a way that feels wanton or senseless. The series made waves early on for its gratuitous nudity in a sequence that sees Nate appearing more vulnerable than villainous in a locker room full of penis … after penis … after penis. Still, there’s something painfully earnest in the way that the characters grapple with their sexuality, from Cassie’s too-trusting nature and the men who take advantage of her, to Kat’s flustered confession to Ethan despite her overflowing confidence in front of a camera. It’s a series full of teens harnessing their sexuality in ways that are painfully awkward, heart-wrenching, and beautiful — sometimes all at once.
Between the sex and drugs, Euphoria can come off as being provocative for provocation’s sake, particularly early in the season. However, this is balanced out by stark treatment of other subjects: unlike other contemporary teen dramas, the series doesn’t romanticize mental illness — at one point, Rue’s depression prevents her from getting out of bed to use the bathroom, eventually landing her in the hospital with a kidney infection. The event is juxtaposed with a manic episode in which Rue’s intense bout of clarity allows her to unravel the threads connecting Jules, Nate, and Maddy in a buddy-cop bit with Lexi.
There’s also a sense of melancholy threaded throughout the season, particularly through Rue and Jules’ relationship. While Jules entertains multiple romantic threads throughout the season, Rue’s focus has always been on Jules alone, both platonically and romantically. While Jules is constantly moving forward, trying to escape the suburbs and move on with her life, Rue is playing a constant game of catch-up, trying to maintain pace with her best friend and make sense of their relationship. There’s the sense that Rue will always be stuck longing after Jules no matter how close they grow, a sentiment only strengthened by Jules’ willingness to leave Rue behind during the season finale.
What truly makes Euphoria great, however, is how perfectly it nails Gen Z. Aside from obvious signifiers like Rue discussing the proximity of her birth to 9/11 or K-pop group BTS’ “Euphoria” playing over the speakers at the high school prom, the series perfectly indexes the digital fluency native to Gen Z teens without edging into “the phones are ruining the youth” territory. Characters chat anonymously over hookup apps, take artsy nudes, and video chat, engaging with technology in a way inextricably tied to their burgeoning sexuality. Jules falls in love with a stranger on a dating app; Kat finds a new kind of sexual independence as a cam girl; A sex tape featuring Cassie gets passed around without her consent; Nate has a plethora of dick pics saved on his phone.
The series is also incredibly queer. This isn’t solely in the respect that a relationship between two women is at its core or that one of the two main characters is trans, but additionally in the way that it reflects our understanding of gender and sexuality today. It’s estimated that at least one third of Gen Z identifies as queer, and young people are consistently eschewing binary notions of gender and sexuality in favor of a more fluid understanding. This is reflected throughout the series. In episode 7, Jules breaks down her transition toward queerness (as actress Hunter Schafer has described it) and the relationship between her sexuality and her gender. “In my head, it’s like ... if I can conquer men, then I can conquer femininity.” Conquering femininity, however, is only the beginning — as Jules’ new friend, Anna, puts it, “Queerness is infinite.”
While Euphoria surely had parents gasping — “Do kids these days really get up to all this?” — it gives adolescence its due diligence in a way that doesn’t feel patronizing or cliché. Teens have sex. They mess up their relationships. They struggle on an existential level. They can be abusive. They do drugs. They write horny boy band fanfiction. But most importantly, they learn how to exercise their agency as they move into adulthood. Euphoria treats its teens like the people that they are, giving them the credit they deserve for the very adult experiences they go through.
Under Levinson’s hand, Euphoria is an indulgent spectacle, taking metaphoric liberties with some of its most dramatic turns. The season closes out with Rue’s return to drug use, an event punctuated with a heavily-choreographed dance sequence. It’s beautiful, and dramatic, and full of an aching longing — a cap that perfectly sums up the adolescence that Euphoria attempts to capture on-screen.