4 out of 5 stars

Upon the release of its first season in 2019, teen drama Euphoria was lauded for its experimentation and visceral depiction of drug addiction. Set in post-9/11 California, the series revolves around Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a recovering addict grieving the loss of her father. The show’s focus expands and contracts to explore Rue’s inner world as well as that of her high school friends and their families.

For season 2, arriving over two years later, writer-director Sam Levinson decided to depart even further from realism with expressionistic lighting, tableau vivant, and dream images. These poetic indulgences elevate Euphoria not only above other teen dramas but above conventional television in general, making it one of the most cinematic TV shows ever made. While the scattered narrative and skin-deep dialogue may leave something to be desired, the show’s determination to break with expectation keeps things entertaining even when storylines run on the spot.

The season kicks off with the confirmation of what season 1’s finale indicated through a musical number: Rue has relapsed into addiction again. Estranged from Jules (Hunter Schafer) and high at a New Years’ party, she meets Elliot (Dominic Fike), a musician and fellow drug user with whom she can be her true addict self. This new relationship becomes complicated when Rue and Jules rekindle things later the same night, and the three enter a tumultuous love triangle that tests all of their affections.

As Rue’s drug use alienates her from those around her and drives her to isolation, the show develops a cinematic language to articulate her growingly complex inner world. This manifests in moments like the lovers’ montage, a silly homage to famous romances throughout art and time. Although the fantasies are wonderful, they are grounded in a reality that Rue is too inebriated to feel. She’s also lost in a mental world of artifice to connect with the object of her desire, Jules. This is one of several moments in this episode where Rue breaks with the continuity of the show entirely in order to enter a drug-induced purgatory state.

Fezco’s (Angus Cloud) issues with his drug connection at the close of the first season force him to seek out a new dealer who, despite being a middle-aged white woman in Crocs, displays an even more violent work ethic. The complexities of Fez’s character are elaborated on through his origin story and his budding romance with Lexi (Maude Apatow). In exploring the responsibilities and values his grandma imparted to him at a young age, the series draws a parallel between this relationship and the one between Fez and Ashtray (Javon Walton). Ashtray and the part Fez plays in shaping his worldview, only just touched upon in season one, are pursued at length in the second season.

Cassie and Maddie both find themselves single for the first time in a long time at the start of season 2. While Maddie seems to be relatively well-adjusted, although still considering Nate’s pleas to get back together, Cassie is coming unraveled. Her emotional instability and yearning for male approval culminate in a number of viscerally unsettling scenes, like her drunkenly flopping around a balloon-filled room wearing an ill-fitting hot pink bathing suit. Cassie’s powerful insecurities combined with mounting tensions between herself, her sister, and her best friend make for an almost Joker-like mental breakdown that tugs at the roots of feminine anxieties.

Rue’s soft-spoken childhood best friend Lexi takes on a much more central role in this season than the first, much to fans’ delight. After years of eavesdropping around corners like a character in a Wes Anderson film, she decides to put her outsider status to use by writing and directing a play based on the lives of herself, her sister, and her friends. Her scathing auto-fictional satire, the performance of which closes out the season, leaves some characters feeling burnt and others totally uplifted. Through taking on this creative role it becomes clear that Lexi, like Rue, is somewhat of a self-insert for Levinson. Further, the show uses the play to take more piquantly surrealist liberties in mise-en-scène, chronology, and other elements of storytelling.

The play also finds a new significance for Ethan (Austin Abrams) as his relationship with Kat (Barbie Ferreira) hits the rocks. The pair start out the season in a good place, but Kat’s sexual fantasies and insecurity create issues within the relationship. Many fans criticized Levinson and other Euphoria creatives for significantly reducing Kat’s screentime from season one. It has been rumored that this was due to conflicts between Ferreira and Levinson about the character’s direction. However, it was exciting to see Ethan literally take center stage and give one of the most buzzworthy performances of the series.

The brewing tensions and hidden natures of Nate (Jacob Elordi) and Cal (Eric Dane) are brought to the surface as the consequences of Cal’s sexual exploits come to a head. While Nate is consumed by twisted fantasies that enlighten the audience to the dark corners of his subconscious, Cal spirals into his memories and attempts to recreate them in the present. Their problems with substance abuse and suppression become increasingly evident as their destructive behavior wreaks havoc on the lives of those around them. Cal first demonstrates his compassionate side in season one, but the intricate network of his moral fiber starts to unfurl for the audience in season two as his backstory and future are explored. The psyche of the notoriously closed book Nate is also fleshed out onscreen in a handful of nightmares and terrible deeds. His motivations remain mysterious but are shockingly called into question when his loyalties are put to the test.

If the future of film is to move towards a miniseries structure, then Euphoria provides examples of both incredible success and areas of potential improvement. Since the series juggles so many riveting characters and intersecting narrative arcs, it at times leaves major dramatic questions dangling for too long or even indefinitely. Poetic indulgences keep the tradition of cinema alive and reimbue the popular culture with a true artistic sensibility, but a more even pacing of dramatic storylines might help to avoid incurring the wrath of fans. On the other hand, if some fans had it their way Euphoria would be a cut-and-dry realist drama with zero nuance or moral ambiguity, so maybe it’s best the creators refrain from taking audience suggestions.

USA | 2022 | 8 EPISODES | 1.85 : 1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Sam Levinson.
starring: Zendaya, Maude Apatow, Angus Cloud, Eric Dane, Alexa Demie, Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Nika King, Storm Reid, Hunter Schafer & Algee Smith.