Television

Euphoria’s Stripped-Down Special: Can the Show Thrive Without Shock Value?

“Rue” isn’t set during the pandemic, but it still felt locked-down.

Zendaya reclines in a diner booth.
Zendaya in Euphoria’s “Rue.” Eddy Chen/HBO

The marketing materials for “Rue,” the first of two Euphoria episodes shot during the COVID pandemic, insist that “THIS IS NOT SEASON TWO,” and there’s a reason why despite feeding the hunger for more of its breakout series, HBO still wants to assure the show’s fans that this is not quite what they’ve been waiting for. On Euphoria, excess is god. The way the show’s teens fuck, get high, get hammered, and carouse is outrageous in a normal year. In a pandemic year, the show’s milieu feels downright impossible. And this impossibility becomes exceedingly evident over “Rue’s” hour-plus length.

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The show, created by Sam Levinson and starring newly minted Emmy winner Zendaya, crash-landed into the Gen-Z zeitgeist in 2019. It launched a glittery, over-the-top makeup trend, it earned headlines for the sheer number of dicks on screen, and it showcased teen parties so racy they made American Pie look like Booksmart.

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Though not set during the pandemic, the narrative of “Rue” is clearly constrained by it. Save for an opening fantasy sequence in a sun-drenched New York apartment, the entire installment takes place in a diner. Talking over pancakes, Zendaya’s teenage character Rue spars with her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), a middle-aged man spending Christmas Eve far away from his family. They consider their respective struggles with addiction (including their relapses), the way the disease has strained their familial ties, and Rue’s own suicidal ideation. Levinson’s script is strongest when unpacking Rue’s frustration with the randomness of death, and how she hates being told how to grieve her father. It’s weakest when it attempts to say something profound on subjects beyond the inner world of Euphoria’s characters. (There’s not really anything novel about a critique of Nike’s cynical, delayed support for Black Lives Matter.)

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Mostly, the episode is fine: Zendaya’s performance in it is sure to reassure Emmy voters that they made the right choice, but its departure from the filmmaking flourishes that got the show attention in the first place seems destined to bore the show’s core audience: teenagers and twentysomethings who relish the show’s no-holds-barred perspective on the nihilistic, self-destructive teen of the late 2010s.

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But what could we have expected, really? Back in August, Zendaya herself described this “bridge episode” as something “that we can do with a limited amount of people in a safer environment that can, I don’t know, give people something.” Given how wild Season 1 of Euphoria was, both narratively and cinematically, this departure was bound to feel like another installment of Zoom theater by comparison. Two people from different generations digging deep on their lives can be compelling, but it’s unlikely to grab your attention when you’re used to characters walking on ceilings and chain-smoking their way through a police procedural fantasy.This episode also prompts the question of whether Levinson can write and direct something interesting without relying on his vertigo-inducing cinematography? (We’ll be closer to an answer when Malcolm & Marie, the movie Levinson shot with Zendaya and John David Washington during the early days of the pandemic, premieres on Netflix in February).

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Though COVID has not yet hit Rue’s suburb (or even the US) in the world of the show, Euphoria seems to have been pushed into the same revelry-free, fairly depressing existence the rest of have been. A “Rue” set during the pandemic wouldn’t have looked all all that different, although its two characters might have had their heart-to-heart under an outdoor heating lamp instead. Will a second season of the raucous program—which will presumably be filmed under some COVID precautions—be just as muted as this episode? I’m not sure I can confidently say that a Euphoria season without the Euphoria goods (sex, drugs, and visual spiraling) will have the same appeal as its shocking first season. It seems unlikely that Rue, still reeling from her season finale relapse, will be partying anytime soon, and, given the pandemic, the same can be said for us.

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While “Rue” did give Zendaya quite a bit to chew on, the episode also makes clear that Levinson’s writing isn’t strong enough to create an entire season of quiet, introspective character studies. A no-frills Euphoria feels like an oxymoron to me. The most-discussed and dissected sequences of Season 1 weren’t tender connections between Rue and her family; they were the surreal, elaborate depictions of what it’s like to be high, or depressed, or falling in love. I know that I, for one, don’t want to watch 10 of “Rue,” because very few other Euphoria cast members can hold a candle to Zendaya.

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The closing montage of the first season’s finale, “And Salt the Earth Behind You,” was explosive. Shot like a music video, Zendaya’s Rue stumbles through her childhood home, embraces her deceased father, and marches down her block with a massive choir and band. The gathering of dozens of singers and instrumentalists culminates with what is perhaps the most non-COVID-friendly scene one could possibly shoot: the ensemble members assembled to make a mountain of humans, which Rue quickly summits by hoisting her body onto them and grabbing hold of many outstretched hands. The scene is sharp, bold, and gorgeously tracked. It’s also the kind of big swing that very few other shows could pull off. If HBO rushes out a second season in the same way it rushed out “Rue,” it’s sure to be a season devoid of sequences like this one, and probably, a season that’s sure to disappoint.

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