“Euphoria” Returns With a Wonderful and Frustrating Zendaya Tour De Force

Last year I wrote what I would call a highly critical review of Euphoria’s first season. Show creator, and sole season one writer, Sam Levinson is a cis straight white guy and that fact resonated through every one of the show’s many, many missteps. But did you know that when you search Euphoria on GIPHY it’s just Zendaya and Hunter Schafer and Barbie Ferreira and the rest of the cast being hot and cool and charming and cute and GAH OH MY GOD I LOVE EUPHORIA.

My critiques of the first season largely remain, but when productions shut down due to Covid my first thought wasn’t for any number of the shows I wholeheartedly love. It was for this messy, often terrible, sometimes transcendent program about some very fucked up teens. Maybe that’s because Levinson doesn’t lack talent, only perspective. Or maybe it’s just because he was wise enough to fill his limited writing with the best cast one could imagine.

I ship Zendaya’s Rue and Hunter Schafer’s Jules like some people shipped Brittana. And while last season ended on a sad note for them, my hope for the future remained. At the very least, I imagined I’d get more GIFs. The circling around the bed kiss and the “Are you talking to your momma about me?” can only be used so many times before my group chat starts to worry.

Well! Here we are! It’s not season two, but last night the first of two Christmas specials dropped and yes I did watch it on HBO Max immediately. AND OH MY ARE WE GETTING SOME NEW GIFS.

Rue and Jules embrace in front of the mirror on Euphoria.

Euphoria Special Episode Part 1: Rue begins with what can only be described as fanfic torn straight from my brain and every other teen and stunted queer twenty something’s Rules-obsessed brain. We open on Jules’ naked back. The sun is rising on a new day in the type of artsy studio apartment that represents freedom to a certain kind of teen. Rue kisses Jules’ butt. She kisses the top of Jules’ underwear. She kisses up the skin encasing her ribs. She kisses her shoulder. She kisses her cheek. She kisses that awkward place between your lover’s cheek and mouth and nose that isn’t awkward at all when what you need is just to feel their face on your face, their skin on your skin. Rue kisses Jules’ lips.

Jules has a presentation. She’s in art school it seems. And today is a big day. Jules is nervous and Rue is intent on kissing the nerves right out of her — morning breath be damned.

Jules gets up and her body looks like my body. She’s skinny with minimal hips, broad shoulders, and cute wide-set boobs. Rue looks on with desire. Emmy winner Zendaya looks on with desire. An audience of people — cis and trans — look on with desire.

Rue hugs Jules while she brushes her teeth. Then there’s a montage: Rue sitting in the windowsill all bohemian. Rue hugging Jules again as she puts on a paint covered button-down. More hugging. More kissing. It feels like a fantasy. It is a fantasy. Rue is actually doing drugs in the bathroom of a diner on Christmas Eve where she’s eating pancakes with her sponsor Ali.

Rue and Jules in bed on Euphoria

The next fifty minutes are a bottle episode — a one-act play of sorts — where veteran of stage and screen Colman Domingo spars with arguably the best actor under the age of 25. Euphoria is not a show that likes to settle in one moment for very long and it’s such a treat to spend this much time just sitting with Domingo’s Ali and Zendaya’s Rue. Sure, Sam Levinson’s camera is up to his old swooping tricks, but given the limited setting it lends the episode some dynamism and actually works really well.

Rue starts by telling Ali she’s doing great. Ali knows she’s high and that those two things are mutually exclusive. He breaks down her walls as they get into a debate around shame, responsibility, and the salvageability of the world itself.

There are parts of this episode that really work. The discussions of addiction feel sharp and true. The moment when Ali steps outside to call his estranged daughters while Zendaya listens to Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years” is effective in an unsubtle expressionistic Euphoria sort of way. But then there are parts that don’t work — or if they do it’s only because Domingo and Zendaya are salvaging the writing.

One of my biggest critiques of the first season was Levinson’s lack of a writers room. Levinson’s decision to filter his experiences with addiction through a queer Black girl in love with a trans woman was welcome. But his insistence that he could write this story alone is baffling. Unfortunately, Levinson is again credited as sole writer.

As a white screenwriter, my brain simply cannot grasp the ego of a white person who would write this episode on their own. There’s one monologue about Nike supporting Black Lives Matter and another monologue about Malcolm X and MLK and I just cannot understand the insistence of doing these things alone! I’m not even qualified to write about these moments as a critic! (But even I know Levinson’s representation of MLK’s politics and how people viewed MLK when he was alive is completely inaccurate.)

The great thing about television is it’s a medium based in collaboration. It’s frustrating with all the talent he has that Levinson refuses to collaborate on his show’s writing. Imagine if this episode’s discussions of race hit as hard as its discussions of addiction — imagine the nuances someone else could bring to the moments not about race but still influenced by race because that’s part of who these characters are. Colman Domingo and Zendaya are so fucking good and there is so much good about this show and yet it continues to frustrate me deeply.

I don’t want to criticize this show. I want to talk about the moment where Rue says Jules cheated on her and Ali slowly explains why kissing someone and telling them you love them is not the same as agreeing to a relationship. I want to talk about the moment when Rue finally admits Ali is right about sobriety but says it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t plan on being alive much longer. I want to talk about these moments where the actors meet the material and it resonates with my past in ways that shake me. I want to talk about how it’s unlike anything else on TV.

But as long as Levinson insists on writing the show by himself, my complicated relationship to it is likely to continue. “Rue’s perspective is very much Rue’s perspective,” Levinson says in the post-show talkback. “She’s not always accurate in her retelling of things. She is limited in her ability to understand the other emotional worlds of other characters.”

So I guess Levinson understands these concepts in theory. Ego is a hell of a drug.

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Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 191 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I clicked on this review because it was one of the few negative ones about a tv episode that seemed to be widely praised, and I was interested in what you had to say and where you disagreed.

    Unfortunately the critiques you offer were very disappointing. You praise Levinson’s resonant writing in regards to addiction but have issues with his discussion on race. Fine. Maybe the fact he’s a white man led to subpar writing in this episode on the subject of race, and maybe you’re right about the bit involving MLK. But to just dismiss it as “he’s a white man and the only writer and so it was bad” strikes me as incredibly weak analysis. I mean, at least make an attempt to tell us where you felt it fell short and why! You’re supposed to be a critic, so please offer a genuine critique.

    In addition, why not consider the thoughts of the talented black actors who took this script? Why are you projecting your own issues with this white writer discussing race onto black people? Who knows whether Levinson consulted any actual black people during the process of creating the script, but your criticism feels like a desperate attempt to be “woker than.”

    Maybe it is egocentric to have yourself as the only credited writer, but there are many, many great artists who choose to create their art without much collaboration. That doesn’t change the fact that they make great art.

    This review was plain weak.

    • I strongly agree with you, Jonathon. I feel like this review doesn’t go into depth about how Levinson being a “cis straight white guy” makes the show, or this episode more specifically, any less great. The whole sidetrack with the Nike story isn’t something you have to be black to understand or write about. It’s a classic case of performative action.
      This show is very personal to Levinson. A story doesn’t have to be about race in order for it to be good. He’s writing about his own vision and outlook on life. This show is wonderful for some many reasons that have been constantly talked about online, and his writing is definitely something special. Heck, Zendaya has talked about how Sam Levinson is her favorite writer! Maybe he loves to work alone or just wants to tell a very personal story. Either way, if you love the show, you love the show and that’s that. Don’t cloud that by trying to stay “woke.”

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