Euphoria Season 1 Review
Season 1 of Euphoria finished earlier this month, with the show having its fair share of controversy whilst airing. Emily Wind shares her thoughts on whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of being a Gen Z teen.
Note: This article contains major SPOILERS for the whole season.
Dark, gritty and raw, HBO’s new drama Euphoria hasn’t shied away from anything since its first episode. So much so that Zendaya tweeted before the premiere to warn viewers of its “graphic” and “triggering” content. Showrunner Sam Levinson based the show partly off his own experience with addiction and wanted to portray how teenagers of today grapple with sex, drugs, friendships and social media.
From a Carrie-esque locker room scene with 30+ naked boys to a teenage drug overdose to rough, underage sex involving choking, it’s no surprise that the show faced backlash from concerned viewers and those who felt it went too far. But how much of this storyline, including the exaggerated moments, is inspired by reality?
The show follows a personalised format where each episode focuses on a different character. We learn their backstories, how they relate to each other, their motives, secrets, fears and desires; what makes them who they are today. This makes the show feel like a character study more than a narrative-based story and allows us to empathise with (nearly) every character.
Although each episode focuses on a different character, they are all narrated by main character Rue (played by Zendaya). Zendaya’s acting in the show is just phenomenal– leagues above her other projects in my opinion. You can see how much she enjoys playing this role, and how much she believes in the show and the story it’s telling through her performance. She manages to encapsulate the innocence of a crush in one scene, the highs-and-lows of a manic episode in the next and then goes on to portray the horrors of a drug overdose in another. I don’t think Euphoria would have the same magic about it without Zendaya in the cast.
The same could be said about Hunter Schafer, who plays Jules. It’s hard to believe this is her acting debut, as she brings the character of Jules to life with such honesty and care. This is in part due to the fact she helped create the character. As a trans person playing a trans character, Schafer could bring real-life understanding to the role that Levinson can’t. It’s the little details that add sincerity, such as Jules injecting hormones into her thigh in the pilot. The scene is fast and undramatised, showing the normality of this for so many trans teenagers. Her gender identity is not portrayed as something she struggles with or something that causes her shame; it’s simply one aspect of her life. As Schafer told Variety, “we’re so much more complex than just one identity”.
Another actor I must mention is Jacob Elordi, who plays the show’s antagonist Nate. He acted this role almost too well to the point I feel a twinge of anger just looking at the actor. He epitomises privilege and entitlement, manipulating and blackmailing Jules, Maddie and Tyler throughout the series. The depth of Elordi’s acting was really shown in the finale during *that* scene with his dad. The whole dynamic was deeply unsettling, and although I don’t necessarily feel bad for Nate because of all he’s done, the show definitely demonstrates how his behaviour is part of a cycle he’s inherited from his father.
The relationship between Rue and Jules was obviously a major aspect of the story. From very early on it was evident to viewers that Rue loved Jules more than Jules loved Rue. Rue seems to feel things very deeply; falling for Jules almost instantly and allowing her to become a new addiction after she decides to get clean. Jules, on the other hand, is more carefree and able to ‘play the field’, falling for Tyler/Nate, Rue and even Anna during the season.
I noticed a ton of Romeo and Juliet similarities– and it wasn’t just the Halloween costumes. Their relationship developed fast and suddenly. Jules quoted a passage from the play during Episode 6. Even their names are similar. To me, this hints that they aren’t going to last in the long-term. They obviously have a strong bond, but whether that bond is healthy, I think we are yet to know for sure. What I do know is that they need to be honest with one another next season if anything, even a friendship, is going to work.
While confronting at times, Euphoria‘s depiction of social media use was very accurate for the most part. There were some lighter scenes such as character dialogue via text, dating apps and Tumblr fanfiction. But the show also went deeper, portraying the (unfortunately) common experience of girls nude photos being leaked. This isn’t something I have experienced myself, but I remember during high school there was a scandal involving students from various schools uploading nude images of girls and rating them. The scandal didn’t get very much media attention from what I can remember, but people were talking about it at school and online a lot before the site was shut down.
In Euphoria, Cassie’s ex-boyfriends leaked nude images of her online and she gained a bad reputation at school as a “slut”, with boys spreading rumours about her as they shared the images. Her boyfriend, McKay, hears about the rumours and is teased by other guys, often denying he is dating Cassie and making rude comments towards her out of shame. Early in the season, they have sex and he chokes her very badly without consent, assuming that’s what she wants based off the rumours. While confronting and heartbreaking, their storyline demonstrates the role social media has in exacerbating slut-shaming and misogyny, as well as the detrimental effects of violent porn.
“The other thing about depression is it kind of collapses time. Suddenly, you find your whole day’s blending together to create one endless and suffocating loop. So you find yourself trying to remember the things that made you happy. But, slowly, your brain begins to erase every memory that ever brought you joy. And, eventually, all you can think about is how life has always been this way. And will only continue to be this way.”
– Rue, Season 1 Episode 7.
Another issue the show handles really well, in my opinion, is mental illness. Mental illness is not black and white and people experience it in totally varied ways, but Zendaya’s portrayal felt very nuanced to me. Through flashbacks, we learn that Rue was diagnosed with OCD, ADD, anxiety and possibly bipolar disorder as a child. Rue went from having manic episodes, feeling as if she could take on the world as ‘Detective Bennett’, to being extremely depressed and watching Love Island on repeat for days. Honestly, that sequence was so damn relatable (minus the kidney infection) I could have been watching my own life on the screen.
They also managed to encapsulate that feeling of realisation people can go through when coming to terms with the fact they have a mental illness. Rue does a Google search asking if people with bipolar know they have bipolar, and then later tells her mum she “thinks (she) needs to go back on medication.” These moments are subtle and unsensationalised, showing the reality of mental illness, and while watching I couldn’t help but think ‘this is was 13 Reasons Why wanted to be but just… couldn’t’.
Rue’s mental illnesses were intersected with the loss of a loved one as well as drug use. Quite often characters suffering with addiction can be criminalised or demonised, but Rue’s experience was instead framed with empathy. Viewers were able to get inside Rue’s head and sympathise with her situation and choices without substance abuse actually being promoted.
Every show is going to dramatise real-life for added effect, and no show will ever be 100 per cent accurate as we all have different individual experiences. Although Euphoria is dramatised at times, and we do need to suspend our disbelief here and there, it definitely succeeds in highlighting the very real struggles of Gen Z teens in today’s society and has sparked debate amongst viewers for all the right reasons.
Images: Euphoria (HBO), no changes made.