Is ‘Euphoria’ doing enough to support viewers after traumatizing them?

I May Destroy You provided a template that Euphoria could learn a lot from.

Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO
ByTai Saint-Louis
Originally Published: 

Last week, as I watched the last few Baz Luhrmann-esque moments of episode 4 of the new season of Euphoria, I wondered if the show had jumped the shark. Those last couple of minutes — a montage of gorgeously-shot vignettes featuring each of the major characters, but in settings that didn’t feel connected to the plot of the episode — felt like art for the sake of art; creator Sam Levinson’s ode to himself.

I didn’t get it. So I watched the aftershow commentary — which I always do for this show, and rarely do for any other. Levinson explained something about the lighting symbolizing a turning point for the characters, while composer Labrinth spoke about the ways that season 2 connects with the spirit world. And I still didn’t get it, despite hearing all of these wonderful breakdowns about how camera angles and real film are used to make the show feel a certain way.

Sunday night, as the show tiptoed toward Rue becoming a victim of sex trafficking, I once again wondered what exactly we’re doing here. Because episode 5 was a lot, even by Euphoria standards.

Social media has already spent the last few weeks joking about the many laughably-unrealistic situations that happen in the show — from how accessible large amounts of drugs are for this unemployed daughter of a single mother, to the lack of a school dress code, to the general absence of grownups. But by contrast, episode 5, titled "Stand Still Like the Hummingbird," was a little too real.

Actually, it was way too real.

In order to tackle teen addiction and themes of sexuality and sexual violence the way that it does, Euphoria has had to position itself as a fictional case study of sorts — a real look at the ugly side of American adolescence that so many of us are either ignoring or unaware of. In this week’s aftershow commentary, Zendaya, who now serves as one of the show’s executive producers, says, “The spirit of Euphoria is empathy. It’s always to see people from their own eyes and try to feel what it’s like to exist in somebody else’s head.”

The idea of humanizing people with substance abuse disorder isn’t new. Euphoria has done it masterfully, but it’s also been done well in countless films. Rebound gave me my first realization that people don’t always know how dangerous their drug of choice can be. Gia gave context to what could drive someone with a “perfect life” to addiction. And Requiem For A Dream is, of course, a classic for the way it juxtaposed different addiction experiences.

And perhaps if Rue’s life was playing out in a predetermined amount of time, like in a movie or a limited series, where the audience knew when to expect a resolution, the trauma in Euphoria wouldn’t feel so gratuitous. Or even if the intensity of episode 5 was an isolated occurrence for the season, rather than what is hopefully the crescendo of a five-episode long spiral. Or if, as actress Barbie Ferreira suggested in her after-show interview, the series was “well-rounded,” with moments of “lightheartedness in the seriousness.” But it doesn’t seem very well-rounded at all right now. And the creators haven’t offered a wealth of external content or resources that balance what’s happening on screen. It’s starting to feel a little like trauma porn; like an exercise in just how far the button can be pushed.

I think Levinson, Zendaya and everyone else involved with this show believes in its potential for good so much that they’re unable to see what many of us are feeling. But if the purpose of the show is to help, why not lean into it fully?

At some point over the course of the last 13 episodes and two specials, HBO added a message at the end of each episode directing anyone who needs help to connect with the Crisis Text Line or visit The landing page offers links to myriad organizations offering support for addiction, suicide prevention, and LGBTQ teens, to name a few. Unlike D.A.R.E., I wouldn’t say Euphoria is “glorifying” drug use. But while HBO and Michaela Coel created an entire content and engagement strategy towards helping viewers process the traumatic themes addressed in I May Destroy You, Euphoria kinda leaves viewers to fend for themselves.

Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

If the goal is to shed light on the unfathomably difficult lives of teens today, why not create a platform to have conversations about what’s happening on the show instead of the self-congratulatory post-show content? Why are we focusing on how realistic the cinematographers made the chase scene feel, or on how difficult it was to make Zendaya look strung out? It seems almost abusive to bring users through this level of emotional intensity week after week, then leave them to sort everything out themselves.

I’m all for celebrating Zendaya’s brilliance as an actress, and the artistic visual beauty of this show. Because, as my timeline and probably yours have already decreed, the cast and the team behind Euphoria deserve every award and accolade they can get.

Maybe if the required emotional engagement was limited to two hours, I would feel differently. I would gladly have conversations about Zendaya’s powerful performance and Euphoria as a work of art for years; even if I couldn’t bear to watch it twice. But the current art-to-trauma ratio might be too much to keep me tuned in until the show ends.