I’m friends with a lot of actors. My ex was an actor. My current girlfriend is an actor. I love actors. But the worst part of knowing actors — and one of the worst parts of being an actor — is that even the most talented actors end up in shitty projects. There are the ones that are truly bad — plays they’d never think of inviting people to, movies they don’t promote — but then there’s the stuff that comes so close to being worthy of them. So close that actors can almost be convinced they’re in something good.
This episode of Euphoria felt like ending up at your friend’s mediocre new play. You’re thrilled to see bestie Zendaya is the star, but God do you wish the material matched her talent. And the talent of her co-stars.
It begins with Rue’s mom yelling at her. She knows Rue has been doing drugs. Rue, in turn, yells at Gia, blaming her for telling about the weed. But Rue’s mom isn’t talking about weed — she’s talking about pills. And it wasn’t Gia who told — it was Jules.
Rue’s suitcase of pills are missing and she starts to frantically ask where they went. Rue’s mom says, “You’re not a good person,” which feels more in-line with Rue’s simplified negative self-talk than anything we’ve seen from Leslie Bennett. Then Rue tells Leslie that she’s a bad mom which is true in the sense that she’s a badly written one. Gia is screaming shut the fuck up shut the fuck up and when Rue reaches for her, Leslie slaps Rue.
Recently, a scene from season one between Rue and her mom circulated around Twitter. Supposedly, the moment was improvised which people first shared as a testament to Zendaya and Nika King’s talents. But this was followed by a wave of questioning why such a pivotal scene would be improvised. Improvisation as a technique isn’t inherently bad and there are plenty of talented directors who have used improv to varying degrees of success. But, personally, I wonder what these actors might do with a bit more structure. And I wonder how much more improv is being utilized in scenes with the Bennett family vs. the Jacobs family that Levinson knows so much better.
Two directors most known for the improvisational nature of their work are John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. Except John Cassavetes didn’t use improv at all — his work just feels raw in a way people assumed was improvised. And Mike Leigh only uses improv as a workshop tool before taking these improv sessions and crafting them into a final script. Again, I’m not saying improv is wrong — I just think it works best when paired with good writing. And, frankly, Sam Levinson is totally out of his element in writing Rue’s family dynamics.
That’s a problem throughout this entire episode. I trust that Sam Levinson has experience with addiction. But how addiction might affect a Nate Jacobs and a Rue Bennett is different. I said this in an earlier recap, but I’m not sure Levinson really understands the stakes of casting Zendaya as his fictional surrogate.
Anyway, Rue is panicking asking what her mom did with the pills when Jules’ voice comes in from the kitchen saying that they flushed them. Rue’s energy shifts. Her mom asks if she’s embarrassed that Jules heard everything she just said.
Rue walks into the kitchen and sees Jules and Elliot. She says the cruelest things to Jules as Jules insists through tears that Rue doesn’t mean them. Jules just keeps saying, I love you. It’s a devastating scene. All the while, Rue’s mom is just hanging back listening. For all the chaos, it seems a bit odd that Rue’s mom wouldn’t say anything until Rue runs away.
Rue then cries to her mom and says she misses her dad and asks if her mom will take her to the hospital. As they drive away, Rue looks back at Elliot who is now outside smoking a cigarette. Rue admits to relapsing right when she got out of rehab and talks about wanting to kill herself. Then her mom slips that they’re taking her to rehab, not to the hospital, and so she jumps out of the car and runs away through traffic.
The title finally appears.
The over-reliance on improv — or writing that’s as scattered as improv — results in this entire first section feeling like rehearsals between talented performers rather than finished scenes. I really don’t know what to say except that Zendaya proves that she’s the best actor of her generation. She also proves that an actor with mediocre writing is still an actor with mediocre writing.
It’s nighttime and Rue goes to Fez’s. Nobody answers. Her next stop is the Howard house which provides this episode’s few moments of levity. Rue banters with Lexi and then Lexi’s mom about why she looks like shit — she has a cold, they don’t want a cold, she says it’s not contagious, they say colds are contagious — and then she goes to the bathroom to rifle through their medicine cabinet.
While she’s failing to find drugs and succeeding in stealing some jewelry, Lexi calls Rue’s mom. By the time she goes back downstairs Leslie is there along with Lexi, Cassie, their mom, Kat, and Maddy.
Rue says she can’t go to rehab because she can’t stay sober forever and Cassie in her very Cassie way suggests Rue just take it one day at a time. So out of spite Rue asks how long she’s been fucking Nate Jacobs. Chaos ensues! Everyone wants Maddy to postpone her reaction or take this outside but Maddy is Maddy so she does not! For a show that relishes in darkness, Euphoria is at its best when it’s a screwball comedy. Levinson wants to be the auteur genius behind a prestige drama, but his talents are better suited for run-of-the-mill teen TV. There are artists who could pull off his formal and narrative ambition — he’s, unfortunately, not one of them.
Somehow Rue’s mom gets distracted by these hijinks — seems weird but okay — and Rue slips out the door. She goes back to Fez’s and he lets her in. She begs him for drugs but he says he doesn’t keep anything at the house anymore. She tries to steal some of Fez’s grandma’s meds but Fez catches her and kicks her out.
Rue breaks into a random house where she’s met by a growling dog. This is the suburbs so she pets “Harold” and he quickly becomes adorable. Rue steals a bunch of stuff and then somehow guesses the safe code and steals even more. But then the fighting couple she’s stealing from come back early and she has to hide under the bed. Despite fully getting caught, she somehow escapes.
Rue is feeling very nauseous with withdrawal symptoms. She’s not doing a very good job hiding it and when some cops pull up and ask where she’s going, she pukes everywhere. They go towards her and she runs away.
We then get a very impressive chase for someone who is as ill as Rue. She froggers across a busy road, runs through a party, jumps on some cactus, and, finally, manages to escape by hiding in a trashcan.
She has reached peak desperation and this brings her to Laurie’s apartment. If you’re not good with names, Laurie is the former schoolteacher/current drug kingpin who inexplicably entrusted a teen addict with a suitcase full of drugs to sell. Rue gives her two thousand dollars in stolen cash and what she estimates to be a thousand dollars in stolen jewelry. Laurie says she can’t take the jewelry, says she’s never been mad, gives some background about her own experience with opiates, and then suggests Rue get into sex work to pay back the rest of her money.
Rue is desperate for drugs and Laurie tells her that she doesn’t have pills. She has Rue get in the bath and then she injects her with morphine. Rue sinks into the bathtub and it shifts into a fantasy/memory of her in the bath as a baby and then her giving a speech at her dad’s funeral.
When she wakes up, now desperate in a new way, Rue tries to escape through the window. It’s sealed shut. Then she tries to go out the front door past a big guy sleeping next to a gun, but the door is locked. Finally she manages to get out through another window where she drops two stories to relative safety.
I’m not sure what Sam Levinson is trying to accomplish with this Laurie storyline, but I do not like it! I’m not interested in having a conversation about how realistic it is for this character to exist let alone interact with Rue the way she does. Whether or not it’s real doesn’t concern me — even if it all feels false. My bigger issue is the way it plays into misconceptions about sex work and sex trafficking.
If Levinson wanted to take Rue’s addiction journey toward survival sex work that would’ve been one thing. It would have bothered me because as a little rich boy that was absolutely not something Levinson himself had to do and we don’t exactly need more mainstream stigma on sex work, but it would at least make sense. However, this heightened version where Rue is being groomed by Laurie is absurd. It’s using sex work — and specifically sex trafficking — in a way that reinforces this false misconception that suburban girls are getting kidnapped and sold. It’s this false misconception that leads to so many of the laws that make the lives of actual sex workers more challenging.
It also feels especially gross to go this route in the same season where it’s suggested that Rue is somewhere on the ace spectrum. I know there are people who are ace and still do sex work as a job. But it just feels like an attempt to put Rue through as big a nightmare as possible — or impossible — when the more common experiences of drug addiction would be traumatic enough.
Thankfully, the episode ends on a moment of relative hope. Rue has run away from Laurie’s. Leslie is at home. The sound of a door opens and Leslie says, “Rue?”
Last season, Euphoria was criticized for glorifying drugs. This felt like a pretty shallow criticism considering how even last year Rue’s drug use was mostly shown in a negative light. This episode seems designed as a response to those criticisms. Out of all the things Levinson was rightfully criticized for, why would this be the one he listened to? Well, because this allows him to get darker, to be serious, to put his characters through more turmoil.
Listening to the other critiques would’ve meant giving up power.
+ This episode was once again written and directed by Sam Levinson.
+ I’m feeling for Gia! Why did her mom take her to drive Rue to rehab? Why did she have her in the car when driving around looking for Rue? And especially why did she tell her to get off her phone and do a better job looking?? Rue was right — Gia really does have to be perfect to make up for her.
+ I guess my main problem is Rue’s mom does not feel like a real person. Maybe if we’d spent as much time with her as we did Cal, this all would hit harder. But, again, Levinson knows how to write Cal Jacobs and does not know how to write Leslie Bennett.
+ One Sam to Rue thing I find interesting as well as frustrating is the idea that Rue is an addict because of her dad’s death. If we’re to read this autobiographically, we’re to believe that having a father who is absent because he’s a famous movie director is the same as having a father who is dead. Not sure about that one!
+ Zendaya really was phenomenal but when the writing doesn’t work to create an immersive experience, it becomes a detached sort of appreciation. I didn’t feel for Rue as much as I admired Zendaya.
+ The episode had this vibe: