Euphoria is officially the most-tweeted-about show of this decade, and although I wish that honor went to Succession, it’s easy to see how Euphoria got to its current level of popularity. It stars Zendaya, arguably one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, as well as a bunch of other hot people. It also HBO-ifies the teen drama to be darker, more aestheticized, and more graphic than past genre stalwarts. It does succeed in some of its goals, especially in the first season, but season two is a definite downgrade from the prior season. Many of its issues, and the issues that plague the show in general, come from the decisions of its showrunner, Sam Levinson.
There’s been much discussion about Levinson’s show running practices, and they all seem to hinder the show from reaching its potential. The show does have a solid foundation – the cinematography is consistently excellent and visually distinct, and the main cast shows considerable acting talent despite serving as a breakout role for most of the actors. This is all to say that the show is capable of being good; season one wasn’t amazing, but it had a consistently interesting narrative that carried plot points forward from episode to episode. Season two, however, fails to do that most of the time.
Many criticisms of the show can be traced back to Levinson. He is the only writer on the show. That’s not an exaggeration, or a clickbaity way of me saying he’s responsible for the overall plot but not the specific details. He does not have a writer’s room. He is literally the only writer. He reportedly came to the set with no shot list, resulting in 15-17 hour days. According to Javon Walton, who plays Ashtray, the adoptive younger brother of drug dealer Fez (Angus Cloud), his character’s death wasn’t planned until the day before the finale was shot, with the original intention being for Fez to die. There were reports of a disagreement between him and actress Barbie Ferreira, leading to her screen time this season being cut significantly short, and there were multiple reports of actresses Sydney Sweeney, Martha Kelly, and Minka Kelly expressing discomfort with the amount of nudity required of them, although Levinson apparently made accommodations. All of the behind-the-scenes issues, unfortunately, manifested themselves in the show itself, which made for a season of television that was unengaging and just plain stupid.
The main offenses of season two lie with its characters. As previously mentioned, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) is written out almost entirely, and one of the few significant scenes she gets sees her breaking up with her boyfriend, Ethan (Austin Abrams), by creating a painfully obvious lie about having a brain tumor. Not only is it drastically out of character for Kat, but the plot development is not carried to a further point later in the season. There’s essentially no reason for it, as Kat gets virtually no screen time or significant dialogue for the rest of the season.
This fate doesn’t just befall Kat, who admittedly is somewhat of a side character in the grand scheme of the show (which still isn’t a valid reason to reduce her presence). The most egregious writing out of a character happens to Jules (Hunter Schafer). Jules is one of the most intriguing characters on the show and had one of season one’s best arcs involving Nate (Jacob Elordi) and his father Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), which gave viewers insight into her sexuality and her personal struggles. By the end of season two, she’s been reduced to a side character. This is especially troubling because the existence of Hunter Schafer as Jules is a landmark in trans representation, and Jules’ relationship with Rue (Zendaya) is similarly important from a representation standpoint.
Hunter’s performance and the Jules-Rue relationship have merit outside of that lens as well, as they’re both consistently engaging aspects of the show. This season deflates that relationship by introducing Elliot (Dominic Fike), a completely unnecessary addition to the cast. I’ve got no qualms with his acting; it’s very plausible that someone like Elliot inhabits the world of Euphoria. Unfortunately, his character only serves to break Rue and Jules up. Elliot encourages Rue to break her sobriety, which angers Jules, who’s been supporting Rue in overcoming her addiction. Jules then goes on to cheat on Rue with Elliot.
This isn’t even as big of a betrayal as one might think, as much of the Rue-Jules dynamic this season hinges on Rue’s addiction issues rather than their romantic connection. However, the narrative that might’ve come out of the Rue-Jules relationship had Elliot never been in the show would have been more compelling. Another thing that wouldn’t exist if Elliot wasn’t in the show: the scene of him playing guitar for three and a half minutes in the season finale! It’s mentioned in passing that Elliot is a musician and makes money by selling music online, but otherwise, it’s not made out to be a central part of his existence in the show. It feels like it was thrown in there because Dominic Fike is a musician, so why not? Never mind that it takes away screen time in a season finale littered with loose ends!
What’s even more disappointing is that the second Euphoria standalone special from 2021 that focused on Jules was exceptional. It had substantive character development and writing that felt true to the character. Funnily enough, this was the only episode of the entire show that was co-written, with the other writer being Hunter Schafer herself. The character development in that special alone could have been used in season two to give Jules a better arc, but it doesn’t seem like Levinson is interested in creating a show that is actually well-thought-out.
A more extreme version of what happens to Schafer’s character can also be seen in the fate of McKay (Algee Smith). In season one, he is assaulted by his fraternity brothers just as he’s about to have sex with Cassie. He adamantly defends his pride and says that it didn’t affect him, and then he proceeds to have aggressive sex with Cassie. This incident and its effect on him would have been a perfect place for the show to say something about the expectations of masculinity society has for black men, but it’s never mentioned for the rest of season one. McKay only appears briefly in the first episode of season two (he’s also credited in the second episode but doesn’t have any lines), but it’s only to ask Cassie to get back together, to no avail. McKay’s struggles, coupled with his identity and this season’s Cassie-Nate relationship, would have made for a strong, emotionally resonant plotline.
The most reliable aspect of season two is the cinematography. There was a big to-do about this season being shot on discontinued Kodak film, and a lot of the episodes have striking compositions and memorable scenes. Cassie’s (Sydney Sweeney) iconic scene at the end of episode four where she cries while gazing upwards, surrounded by flowers, immediately comes to mind, and the entire fifth episode that follows Rue’s attempt to avoid the consequences of her actions thus far is simultaneously nerve-wracking and breathtaking. A lot of times, however, the cinematography can be so over-the-top that it calls attention to itself, not unlike a 7th-grader’s PowerPoint presentation with too many flashy transitions. The season is further bogged down by unnecessary imaginary sequences that are no doubt intended to give us a glimpse into the characters’ minds, but they end up being boring and redundant, wasting valuable time that could’ve been spent on literally anything else.
I’ll extend an olive branch and offer some positive things to say about the show. Zendaya is a phenomenal actress, despite not having a lot to work with this season. The opening of episode five is a standout showcase of her talents, as substance withdrawal and a debt to drug dealer Laurie (Martha Kelly) send her into a violent fit of rage that is genuinely harrowing. The scene will no doubt garner her an Emmy nomination. I also enjoyed the relationship between Fez and Lexi (Maude Apatow), even if it was a trope-y will-they-won’t-they between the “drug dealer with a heart of gold” and the “buttoned-up shy girl living in her sister’s shadow” archetype characters. I’m just a sucker for an odd couple. The episode one scene where Fez mercilessly beats Nate was gratifying as all hell to watch.
Maddie (Alexa Demie) had some wonderful development this season as her character grew apart from toxic on/off-again boyfriend Nate, and the drama between her and Cassie over Nate was the most compelling arc of the season. The arc gave me a greater appreciation for Maddie, who genuinely learns and grows from her mistakes. It also shows us how Cassie ends up making those very same mistakes in her pursuit of Nate. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch her alienate her best friend, only to fall victim to the same manipulation and abuse Maddie suffered under Nate, leading Cassie to almost constantly be on the verge of a meltdown. Sydney Sweeney does a great job of portraying this emotional instability and messiness. The final scene between Maddie and Cassie in the finale is terse and cold, and the minimal dialogue is used to great effect. It’s one of the rare examples of a good piece of writing this season.
Unfortunately, that’s all the praise I can muster, as this season didn’t excite me in any way, let alone leave me anticipating its return. Euphoria won’t be back for a couple of years, and that’s probably because of Zendaya's busy schedule. Honestly, I don’t think the show needs two years to come back if Levinson insists on maintaining his current strategy.
I’m curious as to how the show will develop from here on out and what its ultimate reputation will be, given that its cultural phenomenon is mostly a byproduct of Gen Z internet culture without the critical acclaim other big-budgeted shows have had. The season finale left a lot of loose ends (another result of the sloppy writing), and there’s little chance it will revisit these plot points. Euphoria returns in 2024, and hopefully, that’s ample time for Levinson to improve his craft and get some writers in the room with him to make a show that deserves to be the dark, mature work he wants it to be.