Euphoria is causing tiffs all over campus. Is Cassie an awful friend, or a tragic victim of male neglect? Is Cal Jacobs beyond the point of redemption or an LGBTQ icon? What is Faye even doing there? Does she know Jewel? Then there’s Rue. Architect of her own destruction, or still worthy of forgiveness? Bad, or good, or maybe just a very sad person?
It’s safe to say I’ve had a few heated domestics with friends over our differing opinions. The only thing people seem to agree on is a mutual adoration of Fez.
How ‘well’ Rue’s addiction has been portrayed is up for debate. Zendaya (who plays Rue in Euphoria) reiterates that the show aims for a “raw and honest” portrayal of addiction. She consistently warns that it isn’t everybody’s preferred Sunday night entertainment. This season, (season 2) I’ve found, is comparatively harder to watch than the last.
This contrasts a more negative reception from D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a zero-tolerance stance drug organisation set up in the 80s. Their view is that Euphoria, “chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use [and] addiction”.
I’m arguing the exact opposite. Although it has been an extremely harrowing and intense season so far, I think Euphoria has only strengthened its realistic portrayal of addiction. Season 2, Episode 5 particularly, certainly doesn’t sugar-coat how addiction can and will manifest in your relationships, your home and your relationship with yourself.
Yes, it’s not entirely realistic that 200 suburban US 17-year-olds pack into a house party with fentanyl, coke and very little consequences in the next episode. Certainly, the gems on the eyeshadow and perfectly manicured hands do make it all look quite pretty. But that’s not to say that the show’s creators aren’t providing a brutally honest portrayal of how addiction affects those around you. After all, the only other TV show that I believe truly shows addiction for what it is, is BoJack Horseman. And he’s a cartoon horse.
The setting doesn’t need to be overtly realistic for addiction to be explored effectively. If anything, some light relief or slightly unrealistic elements make the message more poignant. BoJack’s best friends are a pink cat and an overenthusiastic dog. But for all his jokes, when his addiction catches up to him he begs Diane, “I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but…tell me that I’m good.” It’s starkly real, especially when she doesn’t have it in her to lie to him that he is.
The same goes for Rue. She’s surrounded by a sea of gorgeous people dressed in pink and purple in revolving love triangles. But on an everyday level, she suffers. “Every time [she] feels good, [she] thinks it will last forever… but it doesn’t.” The palatable settings don’t make the way these two protagonists talk about themselves any less harrowing. If anything, it makes a more difficult watch. This poses an even starker contrast when the honesty halts the entertainment.
What people get wrong about the portrayal of addiction is that the addict must be painted like the bad guy. They must meet their tragic, poetic end – and relatively soon. Those who deal drugs are often working-class wrong-uns who are just out to corrupt the good guys in the show with lucrative substances. Mikey Forrester in Trainspotting, Jesse from Breaking Bad, Lance in Pulp Fiction – the list goes on. And generally the audience are left with the sentiment that they should never so much as go near a joint again.
Euphoria is realistic because it recognises that the above approach is sensationalist. By not trying to teach anyone an overt lesson about avoiding drugs, you allow your show, your poem, your art, your conversation, to be more honest about the complexities of addiction.
As somebody who has watched a parent struggle with addiction, Season 2 is really giving Rue’s mum and sister the moment they deserve. It’s honest. Drug addiction and denial will make you say vile things to the people you love. Rue physically attacks Gia and Leslie, the people who genuinely have the most patience with her, primarily because she’s angry. Angry at herself. Angry at the world. But mainly angry at the intervention imposed on her.
The show also shows how setting boundaries around an addict can be immensely hard. Fez is right to kick Rue out when she tries to take his grandmother’s opiates, but that’s not to say it was easy. That’s also not to say that Rue is no longer deserving of help. That’s why addiction is so complicated. The people around the addict are allowed to be angry and exasperated. That doesn’t mean the addict doesn’t deserve some form of redemption.
People want a clear answer too often. Is it Rue’s fault? Even if it isn’t, that doesn’t negate how much pain she causes her family and those who love her. Euphoria is showing all these perspectives around addiction. That’s what addiction is, in all its facets. And Euphoria does especially well to show it.
For Rue to die at this point would be too simple. It’s more important, and effective, to show the varied damage she is causing while still using. People spend their whole life relapsing, it’s just not necessarily something people like to see on TV. Addiction isn’t going to give you cause and effect TV, it’s one big grey area for you to navigate. Euphoria does this exceptionally well, and throws in a bit of sparkle as well.