Nothing has triggered my maternal instinct quite like watching HBO’s Euphoria. The show’s first season, which concluded Sunday night, began with graphic depictions of teen sex and drug use that reminded me just how prudish my sensibilities remain. But once the smoke cleared on the initial shock value of the content, what emerged was a touching and studied story about addiction, codependence, and queer love.
Euphoria stars Zendaya Coleman as the drug-addicted Rue Bennett, recently returned from rehab over the summer after an overdose at home. She quickly becomes entranced by Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), the new girl at school; they form an intense and codependent relationship that flickers between friendship and romance as Rue not only struggles to maintain her sobriety but tries to find a reason to want to stay sober. She finds that reason in Jules, whose flightiness makes it difficult for her to submit to Rue’s all-consuming attention.
In their orbit are the outer limits of their friend group, including Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie), a listless cheerleader caught in a cycle of violence with her abusive boyfriend Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi). Nate’s father Cal (Eric Dane) is a small-town big fish who hides his queer predilections from his family and seems to have inspired the same impulse in his son. Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) is a plus-sized teen whose relationship to her body is developing as she explores her sexuality online through fin-dom sex work. Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney) is dealing with her first true love in the shadow of a heavily documented sexual past that exists because of the ways in which boys exploit her. Her boyfriend, Christopher McKay (Algee Smith), is a college freshman dealing with the realization that his NFL dreams are unlikely to come true and sublimating his insecurities onto Cassie.
It takes a little work to get past the “where are their parents” aspect of the story at the outset. For the teen characters at the center of the plot, their parents are largely present but detached. One would be justified to suspect that they know precisely what their children are up to but are reluctant to step in because they lack the moral high ground that enforcing boundaries would require. But as the show demonstrated week after week and most especially in Sunday’s finale, Euphoria is equal parts fantasy and condemnation. In the legacy of other teen dramas with far too adult problems like Gossip Girl, Riverdale, and 13 Reasons Why, the show presents these characters as situated in a world where this kind of excess and melodrama is simply a fact of life. Instead of gargoyle cults or hotels traded for girlfriends, it’s casual drug use and a stunningly liberal attitude towards the circulation of self-generated sexual content.
It feels almost naive to try to describe Euphoria in the strict context of its plot. The show scoffs at plebeian, formal concerns like continuity and structure. Instead, it leans heavily on visuals and costuming to create a specific mood and tone that places you right in the mindset of a young girl fighting between a desire to overcome her disease so that she avoids bringing her family more pain, and getting high simply because it feels good.
Euphoria dives headfirst into difficult issues like addiction and intimate partner violence, unflinchingly demonstrating how the issues touch these teens’ lives. The season’s fifth episode, “’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” deals with the fallout after Nate assaults Maddie at a carnival, leaving bruises obvious enough to get both school officials and police involved. And while Nate manages to find a way to wiggle out of the charges, what is most striking is the recognition that Maddie is clear-eyed about the nature of her relationship, but still thinks she cannot leave. Her love for Nate is genuine, and she willingly submits herself to his abuse because she’s judged the highs of the attention he bestows on her to be worth the danger of his violence. It’s a precise calculation she shouldn’t have to make at such a young age, and yet here she is; mitigating Nate’s anger, and sublimated sexual dysfunction is her primary occupation.
Cassie and McKay face similar dynamics. Feeling the pressure as his authoritative father pushes him to be his best, McKay takes his frustrations and inadequacies out on Cassie’s body, frequently manhandling her during their sexual encounters, while simultaneously shaming her for her sexual compliance. Cassie, on the other hand, is still reeling from her addict father’s betrayal and departure, an event that has seemingly manifested in both a mistrust of the boys around her and a desperate desire for their approval.
One of the most challenging things about the show is the frankness with which it depicts how disposable teen girls are to teen boys. The boys mistreat, degrade, and cajole the girls into compromising sexual situations; and the girls, in turn, reframe these encounters as empowering. They do the dirty work of sanitizing what is oftentimes sexual coercion because it’s the only way to maintain their sense of self. The way Kat loses her virginity is upsetting to adults, but thrilling to her. In her mind, the humiliation she’s subjected to in the aftermath of the distribution of a non-consensual sex tape is a small price to pay for finally joining the deflowered legions of her friend group.
But the beating heart of the show is the relationship between Rue and Jules, and the way Rue uses Jules as her anchor to a life without addiction. She is the one real thing Rue can tether herself to, and the jealousy and insecurity she displays as Jules builds relationships with other lovers over the course of the season. The queerness of their love is presented as a simple fact. They make no bones about how the nature of their relationship changes over time. Instead, it is the men who are fixated on heterosexuality who find themselves violently consumed by their inability to adhere to the binary.
Euphoria has a very loose relationship to time and reality, but it uses the resulting ambiguity as a device to explore the ways addiction can manifest. The finale took this idea to the extreme, jumping between reality and fantasy and interspersing its fragmented timelines as it headed to its gripping final moments. Buoyed by all around riveting performances of both ennui and rabid fixation, Euphoria creates a world in which teens are at the center of the universe after all.