To quote the greatest poet of our time, Aubrey Graham, I’m upset. Yes, the general state of the world is a contributing factor, but my weekend binge of HBO’s summer drama Euphoria, which Drake himself executive produces, is the leading cause of all this emotional turmoil. While the marketing campaign for Euphoria, which follows Big Little Lies, suggests a glitter-flecked mess of teenage euphoria is ahead, the reality of the series isn’t nearly so joyous.
Instead, the Zendaya-starring series lives in the painful come-down period that follows a dizzying, seems-fun-at-the-time drug binge. It’s impossible to imagine the parents who may flock to Big Little Lies surviving an episode of the pure Gen-Z tragedy that is Euphoria. That’s why their teens are going to love it so much.
Euphoria, created by Sam Levinson, the man behind the very polarising Assassination Nation, centres on two characters viewers rarely see on television, but should. The first is heroine Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a mixed race high school junior engulfed by various mental health struggles. After a lifetime of near-paralysing panic, Rue eventually turns to drugs for just a few seconds of oblivion. That is her euphoria.
We meet Rue fresh out of rehab after a crisis slowly revealed over Euphoria season one (critics received the first half of its eight episodes). With Rue back home at the end of summer, she is free to meet the series’ second lead, her future best friend Jules, new girl in town, trans teen, and unapologetic Grindr fan.
Through Rue and Jules — and standout characters like Nate Jacobs (The Kissing Booth's Jacob Elordi, using his 6'4 frame to intimidating results) and Kat Hernandez (model/body positivity activist Barbie Ferreira) — viewers traverse the teen TV tropes of old. There are parties. There are drugs. There is so much sex, and a parade of full-frontal penises to prove it. There is even a scene involving a micropenis that you will never be able to forget, no matter how much you may try. It’s scenes like that one that remind you Euphoria is not Skins, its closest TV ancestor, though both dedicate each episode to a different cast member. The UK classic smirked and smiled through its debauchery. Euphoria is haunted by the ghost of unshakeable melancholy and manipulation.
Although all these bleak layers are difficult for someone past their teen years to ingest, they will likely speak to actual teenagers more than any other series. While a breakout hit like Riverdale exists outside of time, space, and reason, Euphoria captures the very real existential crisis facing young people today. As Rue says as an introduction, she is part of a generation born and raised in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. These are people who never existed without the phrase “War on Terror” splashed on their screens. That detail alone is terrifying. Then, thanks to the omnipresence of the internet, the realities of that devastating day — and every other bad thing in the world ever — has been funnelled into their eyeballs since they could see.
As Rue “jokes” at one point in the series, for teens, it sure feels like the apocalypse is nigh. And they're only just beginning to live.
Hence, one of the pilot’s most powerful scenes shows Rue sitting in what appears to be an active shooter drill in her high school. It it suggested Rue and her fellow classmates have been preparing for such a disturbingly recurrent tragedy since pre-school. One boy is so blasé about the situation, he flashes unsolicited pornography at Rue from his iPhone. For older viewers, this is hellish. For Rue, it’s Monday.
Unfortunately, Euphoria's ability to understand young people at such a molecular level is what makes it so scary. Fans will empathise and identify with characters. And, when those characters get into life-threatening or exploitative situations, those experiences are often coded as empowering and woke rather than dangerous and demeaning. When one girl is choked without consent during sex — all because her crush was shown her nudes against her knowledge — she doesn’t simply tell the guy to never do that again. That would be a healthy reminder for viewers. Instead, she immediately purrs a sexual request that nearly justifies the initial sexual aggression. Young fans will walk away from the scene confused, at best, about their own sexual agency.
To make matters worse, sex pot Maddie Perez (Alexa Demie) and Barbie Ferreira’s Kat both suffer a similar fate in very different ways. Jules — a character so lovely and lovable you will hope to protect her at all costs — is put into the kind of frightening situations that make you want to skip to the next scene entirely.
You’ll notice Rue is left off that list of alarming sexual encounters. That is because Rue is often so preoccupied with addiction, she is rarely has time for any romantic stirrings. The teen’s battle leads to the kinds of scenes that are so viscerally chilling it is possible you will start crying before you even realise it. The silver lining here is that Zendaya is turning in her best performance yet, shining fearless honesty in her character’s darkest moments.
Twitter — and, even more likely, in-series plot device Tumblr — is bound to drown in the inevitable Euphoria discourse. I can only recommend getting a life vest now.
Euphoria is available on Sky Atlantic and NowTV from 6th August