HBO's Euphoria Is On Its Way To Cult Status
“Trouble Don’t Last Always, Part 1: Rue,” the first of HBO’s two-part specials for Euphoria, opens with Zendaya and Colman Domingo commiserating in an empty diner, My Dinner with Andre-style. It’s not made clear whether we are in a pre- or post-pandemic reality. Masks are absent but there’s hardly anyone else in the diner except our protagonists. This matters as the second season of Euphoria was one of the higher-profile corona casualties, with lockdowns canning production on March 17, just six days after the first table read. With the second special, “F**k Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob, Part 2: Jules,” director Sam Levinson continues to guide Hollywood in responding to the uncertain future of conventional media.
Euphoria is a fully realized response to the present times.
From the first poster, the branding for these specials makes it very clear that this is not a second season but instead will be focused on the relationship between Zenadaya’s Rue and Hunter Schafer’s Jules, who we last saw abandon Rue at the train station in a mindless bid to move to the city. The crux of these specials is recovery and processing. Rue is a lower-middle-class teenage addict, and the essence of her episode reflects that. Her only way of processing is over comfort food at night with her sponsor, Domingo’s Ali.
Hunter Schafer as Jules
Levinson directs the first special with a downtempo slow burn that reflects Rue’s situation. This minimalist choice stands in contrast to that of “F**k Anyone,” which shows the inner life of Jules through a maximalist, phantasmagoric therapy session—a fully realized response to our current times, utilizing every weapon at its disposal.
While Zendaya had Domingo as a sparring partner, Schafer is the most tangible element of her episode. Her performance is fearless. Instead of playing off Levinson’s bombastic direction, Schafer gets to difficult places almost entirely on her own. The episode would not exist without her. It is difficult to see where Schafer ends and Jules begins (the actor also co-wrote the episode).
Euphoria’s ‘F**k Anyone’ is possible today and not tomorrow.
However, it is Levinson who transcends it from simply a good episode of Euphoria to a great episode of television. Directing is often seen as magical simply because there’s no one way to do it. Here, however, Levinson shows what it is to truly direct, flinging Jules across the universe that is inside her. From horror-tinged sex scenes to new age, sci-fi galaxies, Levinson is a master in total control of his domain.
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It is clear Levinson is a massive cinephile, and there are even points when the direction becomes almost expressionistic. Jules being caressed and devoured by shadow-faced men is a horror noir-ish touch that could be seen as Fincher-esque, while the show’s nature-y scenes recall Tarkovsky. During one especially nightmarish sex fantasy, Levinson chooses to show the texts at the bottom of the screen, an artistic detail that is downright Goddard-ian. This does not even consider the contribution of cyberpunk pop star Arca, whose operatic, ethereal sound permeates every creak and crevasse of the episode.
While it’s anyone’s guess what Levinson was looking at when crafting this episode, to elicit the same emotions as those great auteurs in even just one humble reviewer is an accomplishment in itself. The style Levinson brings to the show acknowledges what came before while crafting something entirely new. The effect is a mix of elements—pop music, music video, film, social media—only possible today and not possible tomorrow.
This episode was not supposed to exist.
However, what truly elevates “F**k Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob” from a great episode of television to an important piece of post-pandemic art is the context. The episode was not supposed to exist. It was made in pandemic conditions and also respond to it.
Dreaming and fantasizing followed by a cold, hard evaluation is something many young adults are experiencing, not just in diners or with therapists, but with the show itself. This is not just a show or a movie. It’s the future of cinema: a real-time response to ongoing events in a malleable platform. Euphoria does whatever it needs to do and becomes whatever it needs to be.
Zendaya as Rue with Schafer
Which is why I hypothesize that the following season of Euphoria on HBO, whenever it shoots, could be its last. I have no factual basis for this. I simply believe that Levinson, Zendaya, and the rest of the brain trust behind Euphoria are uncompromising artists with an uncompromising vision.
The show may go out on its own terms.
Given the current situation—the old world Euphoria premiered in and the new one it re-enters, its pandemic-unfriendly party scenes, the cast aging out of their roles, adolescent concerns changing, among many others—it would not at all be surprising that, if they cannot fully realize their initial vision within the context they planned it in, they will defiantly go out on their own terms.
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Euphoria on HBO will join the pantheon of great cult television like Freaks and Geeks and Twin Peaks that will forever be obsessed over. That is not a guarantee and definitely not a hope. With any luck, we will have many more amazing seasons of the show. But if not, we will always have what we already have, which is one of the most groundbreaking modern television shows. We should enjoy it while it’s here.
Euphoria is available on HBO and HBO Go.