The Shaky Mausoleum Of Euphoria Finds In Zendaya A Unifying Foundation

Despite the majority of the story fixating on unconvincing angles, Rue's fragility, as portrayed by Golden Globe winner Zendaya, salvages the show
The Shaky Mausoleum Of Euphoria Finds In Zendaya A Unifying Foundation

Whether you like it or not, Euphoria is a powerhouse.

That is what I remember thinking as I tuned in to the first episode of the HBO series' second season on January 9th. The Drake-produced series took the world by storm in the summer of 2019, and now it has returned with just as much hype surrounding it, if not more. With the season finale out, the overall outcome of this season feels a little disparate from its predecessor — for better as well as for worse.

Pressing play on the first episode felt like revisiting a place you vacationed in. When a woman shoots a man mid-blowjob in the first four minutes of the season, my first thought was along the lines of, "Ah… human genitalia! Missed you too, Euphoria". A soundtrack with songs ranging from the mid-20th century to ones that dot the current Billboard charts, and cinematography that is still as inventive and distinctive as ever throws you right into the world of Eastland High. Creator Sam Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév switched from shooting digital to shooting on custom-reproduced Kodak Ektachrome film, and it shows in the way the cast's faces illuminate the shots.

It is only in the second episode that you realize something in the show's fundamental nature has changed, and it's not just the ocular ambience. Even after the show's two-and-a-half-year hiatus, the script feels like it is still in the drafting stage; subpar enough to drag the plot through, but unable to match the visual brilliance the show is known for. The vast expanse of the show and its characters feel compressed. Nate (Jacob Elordi), Maddy (Alexa Demie) and Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) are now roped together in an unexpected (and illogical) love triangle that tears the entire gang's dynamic into shreds. Mckay's character (a part of the main ensemble in the first season) is nowhere to be seen after the first episode. Kat (Barbie Ferreira), the plus-sized cam girl with arguably the most intriguing storyline last season, for the lack of a better word, is robbed: a character who had a whole episode dedicated to her in season 1 gets less spotlight than some newly introduced minor characters. Jules (Hunter Schafer) is never explored to her full potential.

What — or who — does hold the entire show together is the protagonist Rue, excellently played by Zendaya. Despite the majority of the storyline fixating on the provocative love triangle, Rue's fragility is the one element of the show that comes out as truly visceral. Her tragedy feels alive, something that has the ability to reach out of the screen and grip you by the neck.

Provocation has been a trait of the show that is both the bane and the boon to its existence. There are some TV shows that exist as once-in-a-generation entities, things that capture the attention of a milieu irrespective of quality or social customs. It just so happens that this fate befell Euphoria — a show about teenagers with an adults-only rating. On the other hand, it could be argued that Euphoria was always designed to be exactly this kind of show: starring an immensely popular actress, produced by two of the biggest names in music and having a creative license taken to such heights that it would astonish even the average jaded HBO audience. The point I'm trying to make here is that watching Euphoria is never a solitary experience. When you're watching Euphoria, you think about the next meme you're going to post about it. When you're not watching Euphoria, you're looking at other people posting about Euphoria. When you're not doing either of those things, you're probably listening to Euphoria's original soundtrack, brilliantly composed by Labrinth. The amount of discourse, memes and buzz the show brings along with it plays a huge part in its narrative, as the creators are constantly looking for the next big thing in the story to shock you with.

This, of course, proves suicidal for the story as the show progresses at a sluggish pace till it hits an all-time low in the 4th episode. The much-needed salvation comes in the form of refocusing the lens on Rue. Episode 5 is where Rue's logic about being a "functioning drug addict" falls apart; she now not only has to confront her family but also her girlfriend Jules. The obvious result is her unravelling and fleeing home, and thus ensues arguably the best episode in the entire series. As her episode-long marathon away from home sees her seeking shelter and drugs from various characters in the show, it comes as no surprise that Zendaya described the filming process as a war zone.

If there was any residual discourse about the glamorization of drug addiction in the last series, this season succeeds in proving those accusations wrong. Everyone wants better for Rue, but no one wants to be Rue. It seems like Levinson acted on last season's feedback, as Rue's fate becomes progressively heartbreaking rather than supposedly inspiring throughout the course of this season.

And surprisingly, this reality doesn't reveal itself in the form of screaming matches or the prospect of prostitution. No, the real tragedy lies in the scenes that show you the person — the child — beneath the addict. Zendaya refuses to dismiss Rue's character as a monosyllable. The zenith of her performance is found in the actions that humanize Rue: her reactions to Lexi's play, her apology to her sister Gia, and her becoming teary-eyed because of Elliot's song.

All in all, each member of the Euphoria cast is a brilliant performer. The loose end of the rope lies in the writing. Elements of characters are hinted at but never fully explored: Nate's internalized homophobia, Cassie's daddy issues, and Kat's plunging self-worth, to name only a few. Perhaps what makes Rue's arc the strongest is the fact that it stays untouched by the show's habit of indulging in stupefaction and is dedicated to being a journey showcased with the utmost care, a nod to Levinson drawing inspiration from his own bout with addiction. Her story is the only one explored for the purpose of contemplation rather than the usual obscenity. The prospect of subsequent seasons makes you wish that other characters could be dealt with the former purpose as well.

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