Spoilers ahead. I remember the first time I thought someone was going to be sexually assaulted on Euphoria. It was in season 1, when Nate Jacobs (played sinisterly by Jacob Elordi) attacks a college student for sleeping with his then-girlfriend Maddy (Alexa Demie) at a party. After breaking into the guy’s apartment, Nate waits until he returns home and orders him to kneel in front of him by his bedside. It was the first of many tense scenes, the most recent happening on Sunday’s episode when Rue (Emmy-winner Zendaya), detoxing and on the hunt for more pills, shows up at drug dealer Laurie’s home asking for a hit. The catch: Rue owes Laurie $10,000 for a suitcase of drugs she was supposed to sell, but didn’t. As Rue lays naked in Laurie’s bathtub, Laurie shoots Rue up with morphine then tells her that, as a woman, there are other ways to work off her drug debt. “It’s one of the good parts of being a woman, even if you don’t have money you’ve still got something people want.” And as the screen fades to black — mirroring Rue’s consciousness — I’m terrified of what we’d see, and the position Rue would be in, when she wakes up.
Thankfully, no one is actually sexually assaulted in either of these scenes. But that isn’t really the point. There are countless more instances where the HBO Max series, created and written by Sam Levinson, hedges and blurs the line between physical and sexual violence, never quite crossing it but leaning into the fear nonetheless.
They’re tough scenes to watch — and I watch them all, mostly through my fingers with my heart racing and a lump forming in my throat. Like tuning into an episode of Dateline or listening to the latest My Favorite Murder podcast episode (which I frequently do), exposing myself to these hard-to-watch and scary experiences has previously worked as a way to confront the things that frighten me in the moment, while ensuring I come out safely on the other side.
But watching Sunday’s episode, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird,” felt different. With my sister beside me, I had to look away several times as Rue put herself in increasingly precarious and dangerous positions on her search for a high. As Rue was undressed by Laurie and shot up with morphine, I felt antsy and short of breath. As Rue woke the next morning, trapped and desperately pulling on locked doors and windows to escape, my sister told me she felt physically sick. Ten minutes after the episode finished, while brushing her teeth in the bathroom, she had a full-fledged panic attack.
And I’m sorry Zendaya, but no number of Emmy noms is worth that kind of turmoil. Watching my sister have such a physical and visceral reaction to a fictional episode of TV wasn’t only alarming, but eye-opening, making me evaluate whether or not I want to engage with these types of shows, and face these scary realities on screen at all. And TBH, the answer is no. Because — like the draw to true crime — while it may make me feel secure in the moment, ultimately facing these on-screen experiences doesn’t make me fear them less IRL, and leaves me thinking about them long after the show is over. Which, in a post-pandemic world, just isn’t worth it.
To be fair, the show — and its stars — know that the series is emotionally trying to watch. In fact, it banks on it. Before the show returned, Zendaya shared a trigger warning on her social media accounts, warning fans that season 2 “is deeply emotional and deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch.” Since its June 2019 premiere, Euphoria has garnered both praise and criticism for its glaring depiction of the dark side of growing up. The show has repeatedly touched on themes like domestic violence, drug use, and unsafe sex, often using physical violence or the anxiety brought by the threat of it, to emphasise that these kids are messed up and their lives are hard. The second season has only amped that up, featuring even more moments of violence from the onset, ending the season premiere with Elordi’s Nate having his head smashed with a bottle. The show has also been criticised by D.A.R.E for aestheticising trauma, being “unrelentingly explicit” in its depictions of violence, and choosing to “misguidedly glorify … high school student drug use” (although, as some people on Twitter point out, watching Rue almost overdose by a Whirlpool washer is probably the last thing that would make me want to try drugs).
How someone reacts to this type of imagery can vary from positive to negative, depending on their personal experiences, Cindy Graham, CEO and licensed clinical psychologist at Brighter Hope Wellness Centre, tells Refinery29. For some people who’ve experienced a similar trauma offscreen, seeing this trauma on TV — and having a reaction to it — can act as a point of reflection, or an indication that pursuing therapy or help would be beneficial. But, Graham says, it can also be triggering. “For people who might have been victims of sexual assault or maybe even struggled with drug addiction at some point in time, if these things weren't addressed in therapy for that individual, it's really not best to have them be brought up [outside] the context of a safe space where the person can properly process that.”
Even those who don’t have firsthand experience can still be affected through what’s known as vicarious trauma, or second hand trauma from what you see onscreen. While it’s typically applied to health care practitioners and first responders on the frontlines of others’ ordeals, Graham says people can also experience vicarious trauma from consuming media, such as watching the video of George Floyd’s murder or rioters storming the Capitol on the news — and yes, fictional shows like Euphoria whose dark themes traffic in realism. “You're consuming a lot of this [violence and trauma] in a very short period of time,” Graham says. Even if you can’t personally identify with it, we’re essentially getting an über high dose of traumatic imagery within a 45-minute window. “It's a matter of how realistic it is to you and how you perceive it.”
[Euphoria] leans into this sense of fear wrapped in a prestige TV bow to an almost unnecessary degree, ultimately equating trauma with importance.
So it’s hard not to wonder why more than 2.6 million people — myself included — have continued to tune in week after week. Yes, the show’s aesthetic is mesmerising, and it features an attractive cast that includes some of our favourite rising actors, but with every episode essentially dishing unrelenting suffering, why do we keep going back for more?
It turns out it’s for a couple reasons. Part of it is a fascination. We’re drawn in by the recklessness and carefree nature of the teens on screen, an experience that’s unfamiliar to many adults, whose reservations about risky behaviours mature as they age. Or the series reminds them of a time when they themselves were young and relatively carefree. “There’s this interesting tension of enticement and disgust that I think often captures a lot of people's attention,” says Danielle Roeske, a psychologist and vice president of residential services at Newport Healthcare, who specialises in adolescents struggling with addiction and mental health. “On the one hand it’s like, ‘Oh that’s terrible, I want nothing to do with that,’ and on the other hand, it seems exciting and can evoke a sense of curiosity of what it would be like to live so freely and haphazardly.”
Which isn’t to say that we’re titillated by this trauma, but in many ways, watching Rue engage in dangerous drug use onscreen is a way for us to glaringly face — and explore — something dangerous that we’d never actually do IRL. It’s a way for us to see another side and another experience that’s completely foreign and tangentially feel the adrenaline rush that comes with it. “Viewing things like this is a safe way for some to engage with the darker side of reality,” Roeske says. “It's less direct, so there's something exciting about it, but without necessarily putting oneself in harm's way.” Yes, we’re subjecting ourselves and our nerves to the ups-and-downs of an emotional rollercoaster, but at the end of the hour, we can choose to step off.
And this continued engagement with content that scares us can, also, in a way, be protective, especially when it comes to engaging with your biggest fears. It’s the reason genres like true crime have seen a spike in female interest, shows like Law & Order SVU have such a large fanbase of women, and Liam Neeson’s Taken (about a man whose daughter is repeatedly kidnapped while abroad) is a trilogy. For many people — especially women — turning to these shows can be a way to equip themselves with the knowledge of the worst thing that could happen to them and mentally arm themselves with “What Would I Do” strategies in order to feel safe, prepared, and protected.
It’s something I’ve been doing for years; I obsessively read Ann Rule books about women who were sexually assaulted and murdered. I tune in every Friday night to a new episode of Dateline, and I religiously watch (and write about) Law & Order SVU. I’m the girl who, embarrassingly, had my parents buy me a stranger-danger instructional video in elementary school, which I’d repeatedly pop into our VCR in case I ever needed to know how to escape out of the trunk of a car. I’m “pressing on a bruise,” as Lindy West described in a 2012 article for Jezebel about her obsession with Law & Order SVU, immersing myself in the things that scare me the most in order to normalise and remove the fear, as a way to “eat it, internalise it, and own it.”
Which is why it’s such a surprise to me that Euphoria, a show about 17-year-olds in high school just living their lives, after years of immersing myself in stories explicitly about sexual violence, is the show that tipped me over. Because what’s so different about Euphoria? For one thing, the difference could be the fact that — with shows like Law & Order SVU and Dateline — you go into each episode knowing to expect a certain kind of trauma; the actual assault usually occurs off screen and out of sight. You know the familiar formula of each episodic arc so you can better prepare yourself mentally.
It’s this feeling of being exploited, or rather having trauma used so transparently against me as a viewer, that made me realise that these shows overall don’t serve me anymore.
But maybe at the heart of it is the fact that Euphoria isn’t actually that good of a show. It leans into this sense of fear wrapped in a prestige TV bow to an almost unnecessary degree, ultimately equating trauma with importance. As writer Amil Niazi says in a recent episode of CBC’s Pop Chat, this series is coming about in a time when we’re asking and evaluating, as viewers, what it serves us to see abuse and trauma on screen if there’s no greater purpose than just seeing abuse and trauma on screen. And with Euphoria, removing the trauma leaves little to delve into. “After you take away the violence and the sex and the extremes, what’s left? And is it actually really prestige? Is it actually really good?” Niazi asks. “I feel like the pendulum is maybe swinging towards no.” And I’d have to agree.
It’s this feeling of being exploited, or rather having trauma used so transparently against me as a viewer, that made me realise that these shows overall don’t serve me anymore. Over the course of the last two years, I’ve found myself slowly detaching from the shows I used to be drawn to. I’m no longer tuning into new seasons of Rollins and Carisi bantering on SVU and putting on Dateline episodes only to turn them off halfway through or scroll through my phone and completely lose the plot.
Some of this could be me just getting older. As Roeske notes, people do have varying thresholds for the amount of violence or fear-inducing content they can engage in, and that can change over time as we become adults and, in theory, more self-aware of the impact this content has on us and our well-being. We no longer revel in bad decisions and consciously make choices that better serve us. And some of it could be, I hate to say, impacted by the pandemic. Because after almost two years of consistently horrible and disappointing news IRL, I no longer have time for things that just don’t make me feel good in every other aspect of my life that I can control, and that includes what I choose to watch on TV.
So this is where I make my stand. The reality that I’ve been over this type of content has been creeping up for awhile now, but it took the latest season of Euphoria, and Sunday’s unyielding and full-force depiction of Rue’s spiral, specifically, for me to truly realise it.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service. If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call 1800 250 015, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline for free and confidential information.