Euphoria (Season 2)
The sophmore season of the HBO hit dives into a messy surrealism
In each subsequent generation, adolescents are forced to confront the ugly aspects of life earlier and earlier. This is in part because of the easy flow of information as newspapers, books, and eventually the internet became ubiquitous, but it also has to do with the encroaching forces that seep into the high school experience. From the nihilism that permeates socio-political discourse, to the pessimism surrounding the climate crisis, and of course the emotionally blunting effects of the pervasive use of drugs. This mentality and anxious position are at the center of the second season of the surrealist HBO series Euphoria (2019-).
Euphoria season two picks off with our Los Angeles-centric high schoolers, led by our narrator, the drug-addicted Rue (Zendaya). This season cycles through the rest of the characters and their personal challenges all rooted in the classical coming-of-age tale of discovering your identity.
Creator Sam Levinson had created a rather brutal if engaging first season that didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of today’s adolescents. However, in season two Levinson is clearly given a freer rein, so that he fully dives into the aesthetic aspects of filmmaking that he is fascinated by and structures his narrative to be akin to the early surrealist movement. This works well in the series’ favor as it fits with the wandering mindset of teenagers and the drug-fueled trips. The cinematography seems to be the biggest change from last season, becoming more experimental and twirling than many viewers will be accustomed to see on TV.
Levinson is liberated this season to focus less on Rue, who was our de facto main character in the first season and expand the series to a full ensemble piece. This allows for breakout characters from last season to have more time to shine (Sydney Sweeney, Angus Cloud), but by having a shortened season (only eight episodes) and an ever-expanding cast (Maude Apatow has more to do this year), characters seem to be shortchanged in having smaller arcs. This leaves viewers feeling like Levinson imbalances great aesthetic work with a shallower narrative. Storylines feel rushed, and intriguing character set-ups are abandoned from one episode to the next. The strongest performers are still able to shine through, with Zendaya showing an impressive further growth as a performer, reaching the zenith of today’s industry.
Euphoria has been getting heavy criticisms, however, due to its supposed glamourization of drug-use and exploitative use of sex. This is where Levinson’s use of an appealing visual aesthetic and little work on the narrative runs the danger of being misinterpreted. However, digging deeper into these themes in season two, one sees that Levinson isn’t so much championing these perspectives as he is trying to paint them ironically. The supposed pornification of sex in the series is more of a question to viewers about our supposed fantasies and misconstrued view of romance today; likewise, the portrayal of drug use is meant to be contrasted between the woozy scenes at the beginning of the season and the harsh realities towards the end. Art will always be interpreted differently as long as more than one person is experiencing it. To shy away from tough subjects, because you risk someone getting the wrong impression would be a shameful and cowardly form of artistic censorship. As such, I applaud Levinson putting such themes on the table and sparking these conversations, which in the end, is what any artist is after. Art is not so much what the artist has intended with a piece, but in how an audience engages with it. As such, Euphoria rightly deserves all the praise and criticism it is getting, but like a character this season claims, “it could be worse than hating your show, they could’ve been bored.” It is in the risks that Euphoria takes that the inarguable triumph is found and that the admiration for Levinson should be levied.
Euphoria is a rather gripping and addictive watch. The great ensemble cast and surrealist visuals are enough to keep you watching. Levinson’s narrative might feel a bit limp as the season wraps up when you realize how little each character was dug into. Nevertheless, Euphoria is proving to be one of the most unique and bold series airing today, and I can only be intrigued by what Levinson does with it next.