HBO's ‘Euphoria’ is everything all at once, much like Gen Z

By Cassie Da Costa

If all the world's a stage, then the teenage years are comedy, tragedy, and then history. It follows then that the HBO series "Euphoria" — Sam Levinson’s adaptation of an Israeli TV series about teens struggling with addiction, abuse, self-image, self-love, paranoia, economic precarity, poisonous family secrets, bad molly trips, and just about anything else you can imagine — is an anti-coming-of-age narrative of baroque inspiration. That is to say, it’s not about arriving at adulthood, but being mired in the extravagant dramas of adolescence. And as the finale showed us, a teenage life registers in the major key. While the show has been lauded for its diverse representations and powerful ensemble performances, "Euphoria’s" brilliance lies in its ability to faithfully express teenage life’s melodrama through a visual, sonic, and poetic concoction of theatrical proportions.

It was tempting to begin the first season of "Euphoria" with the expectation that it might provide insight into the Gen Z reality. But as the season goes on, it becomes clear that the visual aim of the show is not to embody the sober yet stylish realism we have come to expect in HBO dramas, but instead to subvert the hierarchy of the real and imagined. After all, that’s what the hormonal yet prophetic teenage psyche demands, particularly during an era when what is real and who can be trusted is severely in question.

Euphoria’s brilliance lies in its ability to faithfully express teenage life’s melodrama through a visual, sonic, and poetic concoction of theatrical proportions.

In the first episode, Rue (Zendaya), "Euphoria’s" primary protagonist and its self-described unreliable narrator, gets high at a party and begins to walk on the walls and ceilings. The room shifts around her like a 3D puzzle; she is as focused as she can be on navigating it. Rue is a drug addict who is bipolar. She’s also fresh out of rehab and, at the season’s start, uncommitted to staying sober. She is the guide who we intellectually know not to trust but do anyway, because as navel-gazing and disconnected as Rue’s drug use may render her at times, her perspective — whether manic, depressed, anxious, stable, medicated, high, or sober — remains compelling. She speaks rapturously about the transcendence of drug use as well as its attendant comedowns. We climb the walls with her.

euphoria on YouTube

When Rue meets the dreamy Jules (Hunter Schaeffer), likened to Sailor Moon by Rue’s one-time drug dealer and brother-figure Fezco (Angus Cloud), it’s at that same party. In a very real confrontation with the show’s resident white male golden-boy psychopath, Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi), Jules slices her arm with a knife to scare him off. Rue follows Jules out of the party to pledge her allegiance. They ride home together on Jules’ bike, suburban street lights bouncing dreamily off their skin. Is this sequence real? (Can street lights actually be flattering?) Or is it just how they feel? The answer is yes.

The two become best friends, then lovers, then some mix of the two, all while the visual representation of their relationship emphasizes its fluidity by casting their most intimate moments in hazy lighting, explosive colors, and overhead angles. Is their intimacy sexual, emotional, or both? Are they just kissing in bed from time to time or is the “mostly het” Jules fully engaging in a lesbian relationship with Rue, who seems to be primarily interested in women? Those are not Gen Z, or teenage, questions, "Euphoria" seems to say, and the show’s visual language is uninterested in making Rue and Jules’ relationship legible to conventional — or “adult”— readings. Instead, we’re beckoned to just go along with it.

HBO

But we never really know where Rue, Jules, or their classmates are in the world—not exactly. "Euphoria" stages its action more than it situates it. It’s why the show’s soundtrack is more integral to the character’s trials than the specificity of their physical environment. That tracks for a generation who will not remember a time when you couldn’t bring your entire library of music with you to tune out the world.

Kat — who begins the season as the sidekick to the high school’s anointed hot girls and ends it an undeniably bad “fat girl who doesn’t give a fuck” — wears her AirPods as armor. But the timely specificity of this choice in earphones isn’t as meaningful as the way sound, from music to moaning, to silence, charges her personal drama. Levinson stages Kat’s newfound career as a financial dominatrix and cam girl within an extravagant visual and sonic landscape. She wears a costume cat mask to disguise herself from her clients and begins to sport leather harnesses and bustiers in both private and public. Her computer is a portal and void from which the urgent sounds of “pathetic” men emanate, until, in one scene, those sounds come way too close. And even Kat’s own voice matches the high theater of her circumstances: It’s sensually deep and coarse, and typically flat, but her laugh is vibrant and musical. At first, only the comical seems to arouse her: Men’s desperate desires; the absurdity of commitment as a teenager; the way a woman’s body can be as worshipped as it is condemned. Then, as teenagers are wont to do, she falls hopelessly in love.

If millennials are disillusioned by the institutions that were supposed to validate and protect us, Gen Z is fashioning their own House, so to speak — making it up as they go.

Of course, every teenage drama has to reach its climax. And Levinson knows that in depicting the ruptures and explosions that come after that peak, it’s best to depart from the literal and fully enter the void. At the end of the season’s final episode, Rue and Jules seem to finally make good on their romance by deciding to run away together to the city—Rue’s idea. But as Jules waits in the doorway of the train, Rue stands paralyzed on the platform, flashing back to memories of betraying her family, especially her mom (Nika King) and little sister Gia (Storm Reid) with her addiction. Jules grasps Rue’s hand, telling her she loves her as the fluorescents lights of the train wash out their complexions, tears streaming down their faces. The train pulls away and Rue walks back home, battling an anxiety attack as she heads down the same glowing suburban streets she rode with Jules the night they met.

When she arrives at her house, Rue zips herself up in her dead father’s sweatshirt and uses for the first time in three months. Her ensuing high is staged as an elaborately choreographed pop/R&B version of a rock opera, scored by a collaboration between the musician Labrinth and Zendaya herself, whose career fittingly began in the theater and included extensive dance and vocal training. Zendaya’s talents are fully brought to justice in this finale as she mines both her physical and emotional depths to express the layered nature of Rue’s internal predicament. A choir, dressed in robes the same color of her sweatshirt, dances with Rue as she sings “All For Us”, which includes lyrics like “Guess you figured my two times two always equates to one/ Dreamers are selfish/ When it all comes down to it” and “I’m taking it all for us/ doing it all for love” alongside a bombastic, operatic arrangement. Punctuating this performance as well as the rest of the finale is Rue’s mother, who shares the story of raising Rue at what is likely a Nar-Anon meeting with Rue sitting, strung out, in a pew amongst other attendees, including Gia. Mom’s story is one of sorrow, desperation, love, and hope — one that hits hard a little too late for Rue, who it seems has already relapsed by the time the speech is made. “All For Us” is the score to this bitter pill.

Earlier in the finale, all the teenage girls of "Euphoria" sit at a table at the high school’s homecoming dance. They discuss the disappointments and absurdities of high school. Maddie (Alexa Demie), who is finally building up the courage to leave her physically abusive relationship with Nate points out that adults seem pathetic because most of them peak in high school. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), who recently got an abortion, says she definitely hasn’t peaked and swears her history of serial monogamy is over. Jules believes she’s peaked and is still peaking, and sees no limit to her potential. Rue is just happy to be alive.

These perspectives are a kind of map of teenage life, which can represent any number of realities or delusions to different people. But what unites the experiences of the teenagers in "Euphoria," and those experiences to our own is their stakes. Whether or not you peaked in high school, your teenage years are likely the time when life first began to take on its color, to begin to fill out its dimensions, and to urge you to participate. "Euphoria" triumphs by not only acknowledging these stakes, but taking their lead and, finally, rising to their level.