Television

For the Teens of Euphoria, There’s No High Like Getting Paid

Generation Z craves finance more than romance.

Two teen girls walk down a hallway in a school wearing sunglasses and black skirts.
Alexa Demie and Barbara Ferreira in Euphoria.
HBO

Euphoria’s first season is coming to an end, and with it, so are many of the familiar tropes that guided teen shows before it. A coming-of-age show caked in glittery hedonism, Euphoria was born of a long tradition of fatalistic media pulling back the curtain to reveal the scary underbelly of adolescent culture. The series has been widely compared to the millennial series Skins and the cult ’90s movie Kids, which were both crafted as gritty alternatives to glossier contemporary teen media (think 90210, Gossip Girl, Dawson’s Creek). Skins, Kids, and Euphoria paint teens as outliers, existing precariously on the fringes of society, paired with lots of sex, and lots (and lots) of drugs. Watching Euphoria, you’ll recognize common motifs like glossy orange pill bottles, dense smoke clouds, damp bare skin, bulky mounds of clothes. They let us know that these teens, with their undeveloped prefrontal cortexes and irrepressible lust, are not ready for the real world.

Like an unpredictable teen, though, Euphoria doesn’t do quite what you expect. Its tale is not entirely a cautionary one. Amid the piles of clothing and vape fog, we find an unexpected moral that distances Euphoria from its antecedents. Yes, its characters partake in the self-indulgence that the genre commands, but unlike the teen dropouts before them, they also hope to “secure the bag”—which is to say, in Gen Z terms, they want money, and they have the drive to get it. Euphoria’s teens aren’t disillusioned burnouts. Instead of yelling into the void or sticking it to the Man, the show’s characters wink and invite him to the after-party. In the show’s universe, money doesn’t act as an oppressive force. Instead, it provides youth a glimmer of hope, reflected off a newly minted coin.

Euphoria does follow teen media before it, from The Breakfast Club to Degrassi, in its digestible underdog subplot: “Nerd gets hot.” But quirky Kat (Barbara Ferreira) doesn’t find her inner hottie by catching a cute boy’s eye; she gains self-confidence when she starts camming—performing sexual acts online for money. Kat’s particular brand of camming relies on financial domination. She verbally degrades men and, in turn, they send her Bitcoin and purchase items off her Amazon wish list. “My dream in life is to bankrupt you,” Kat whispers before taking a puff of her vape pen. In camming, she undertakes a role strictly reserved for adults. While bills shuffle neatly through a money counter and items ding in her shopping cart, a voice-over tells us Kat is focusing on the important things: “expanding her empire, and collecting her motherfucking bag.” In the same episode, a voice-over guides us through football star McKay’s (Algee Smith) aspirations. He hopes to get drafted to the NFL—not merely to play the sport but to “take the money,” “invest it wisely,” and “use it to build an empire.”

Throughout the show, the empire-building mentality is pervasive. Maddy (Alexa Demie) comes from a working-class family and hopes to be lifted out of her discontent by WASP-y Nate (Jacob Elordi). She drops heavy-handed hints, hoping he’ll buy her gifts, like Sharon Stone’s fur coat from Casino. Similarly, our antihero and narrator, Rue (Zendaya), suggests her best friend pursue blackmail as an option to “get money to do fun stuff.” The Mac Miller lookalike Fez (Angus Cloud) is shown hustling and selling drugs out of a convenience store. “It’s gonna be a good night, tonight, man,” he says, “Let’s get this money.” Fez’s younger sidekick—who looks about 8 but somehow sports a teardrop tattoo—is financially savvy, too. When Kat asks the pair to define Bitcoin, the kid chimes in without missing a beat: “It’s a worldwide cryptocurrency and digital payment system.” In Euphoria, the plot, the dialogue, the music all point to an element more desirable than the consumable drugs and sex: the money that enables them. Euphoria’s teens are thirsty for bills. They willingly and rapidly participate in a system that used to be scoffed at by youth culture for its moral bankruptcy. Euphoria’s relationships, many based in blackmail and social climbing, also read as transactional. The characters all speak the language of cash.

Euphoria’s focus on money expands past the screen, dovetailing with the real-life attitudes of Generation Z. Nearly 70 percent of Gen Z say they’re most concerned with financial gain and career success—a 10 point increase from their millennial counterparts. But to Euphoria’s characters, money isn’t exactly a guarantee of future stability. It’s just a drug like any other, to be consumed and then replenished. These teens make active choices to participate in the system for the same reason those before them refused: escapism. The future Euphoria’s protagonists envision is one of sustained, continuous hedonism. Money acts as an enabler of this future, allowing the characters to prolong an otherwise fleeting high. The goal itself is perpetual pleasure, a lifelong fantasy where the blacklight never gets turned off. But no buzz is permanent, and it’s only a matter of time till the high of capitalist escapism comes crashing down.