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Euphoria Review: The Dark Side of Teenage Life

Euphoria, a teen drama series hailing from HBO, has gained massive popularity upon its release on June 16, 2019. Created by Sam Levinson, the son of renowned director Barry Levinson, Euphoria is filled with a star studded cast including a stellar performance by Zendaya as Rue Bennett in which she was recently crowned as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the 2020 Emmys. This eight-episode series is loosely based on an Israeli drama of the same title that takes on the raw and hard-to-swallow subjects of the complex and dark bits of adolescence, from addiction, love, sex, abuse, to social media, which not a lot of teen shows have managed to explore. 


This coming of age series is set in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles, California and it follows a group of high school students as they juggle life as teenagers in the era of social media. It centers on Rue, a seventeen-year-old drug addict who was recently released from rehab after an almost-fatal overdose. Rue was battling with her addiction throughout the series and formed a friendship with a new girl in town named Jules (Hunter Schafer). There are also stories of others around Rue and Jules presented as they struggle with all bits of life being teenagers.


Euphoria itself can be seen as a reflection of Levinson’s life, having been a drug addict during his youth, similar to what the main character Rue is going through in the series. Writing the series based on his own experience, Levinson is able to project the reality of what addiction can cause to the detriment of one’s life in the way that the audience could see and feel the sense of his authenticity through the series. This type of subject may not suit everyone’s taste, let alone for the faint-hearted because Euphoria literally bares it all. The series itself has met numerous controversies surrounding its graphic scenes, from sex scenes, domestic violence, to full-frontal male nudity. 


While the stunning and aesthetically pleasing cinematography as well as the creative, full-on glitter and neon makeup looks caught people’s attention at first sight, ultimately the highlight of the series lies on the complexity of its characters. Seven out of eight episodes, named after song titles, starts off with an introduction narrated by Rue about each main character’s background or childhood and how it led them to become who they are as teenagers. Each of the characters experiences pain and trauma as a child which ultimately led them to the same path, in search of identity, love, and validation. The in-depth exploration of the characters is what made Euphoria stand out from other teen drama series.


The pain and trauma can be seen firsthand with Rue who had been juggling various mental illnesses as a child and as a teenager became addicted to drugs that escalated from her grief of losing her father. Rue resolved her pain and grief to drugs in order to feel numb, to feel “two seconds of nothingness” amidst all the things that is going on around her, therefore pushing everyone away including her mother and best friend Lexie (Maude Apatow). While in the first few episodes Rue was still drowning in her addiction, she slowly started to stay clean when Jules came into her life. However, her determination for staying clean was merely for Jules to stay with her. Rue’s fear over losing Jules took over at the end of the last episode as Rue relapsed.


Jules is a trans woman who suffered from body dysmorphia and self-harming as a child, and was even admitted into a mental hospital by her mother. Jules transitioned to a woman as a teen while dealing with her parents’ divorce. She often engages in numerous sexual encounters with much older men from online dating apps and one of them happened to be the father of the series’ main antagonist. Jules, like many others in the series, is exploring her identity particularly as a woman and how she felt that it was through these numerous sexual encounters and wearing traditionally feminine clothing that she can finally “conquer femininity” and feel validated as a woman. However, through her blossoming relationship with Rue, there is a transition in her attitude, most prominently in the way she dresses herself, as she redefines how she presents herself and finally embraces her trans and queer side. 


Meanwhile, others around Rue and Jules also suffer from pain and trauma caused by the lack of healthy influences they have while growing up. Nate (Jacob Elordi), the popular jock in school and main antagonist of the series, has a troubled relationship with his father. He was reinforced with masculine ideas and taught to always strive for perfection, but all came crashing down as he realized these so-called ideas were merely for a performance when he discovered his father’s self-recorded porn collection with numerous men. To cope with this realization and to also come to terms with his sexuality, he became obsessive and wanted to be in control of everything, particularly in his relationship with Maddy (Alexa Demie) in which he became physically and emotionally abusive. Maddy, blinded by her desire for love after seeing the loveless marriage between her parents, lost touch on what love and healthy relationships are supposed to be, as she continued her relationship with Nate even after the numerous violent attacks he threw on her. It was not until the final episode that both came to a mutual agreement to end their toxic relationship. 


This desire for love can also be seen in Maddy’s best friends, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) and Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). Kat desires for love after being dumped by her boyfriend Daniel in sixth grade because she gained weight. She grew up to be self-conscious and struggled to fit in at school, thus she resorted her feelings online from creating fanfiction on Tumblr to creating cam girl video sessions on a porn site. Her newfound popularity as a cam girl not only led her to embrace her sexuality and confidence, but also unfortunately led her to be self-centered and caused a rift in her friendship with Maddy. Meanwhile, Cassie herself grew up close to her father until her parents separated after her father struggled to hold a steady job and became addicted to drugs. Longing for the love her father could no longer provide for her, Cassie delved into numerous relationships with men that unfortunately only used her for their own pleasure.


The exploration of the characters’ complex lives is what makes Euphoria excel and essentially raises the bar for other teen dramas. Each narrative given to the characters aims to portray the flaws of human nature, how human beings are nonetheless prone to experience pain and trauma in their lifetime. It also brings to light how the pain and trauma that people experienced as early as childhood and the influences people have while growing up shape who they are as a person. These given narratives for each main character provide the audience an understanding of why they are the way they are, why they act the way they act, and most importantly on how they progress and grow as a human being. Therefore, Euphoria enables the audience to empathize with these characters regardless of how different their experiences are with them.


Euphoria may just came out of its first season, with two special episodes coming on December 6, 2020 and January 24, 2021 before the premiere of the second season, but it successfully leaves its mark on the world with its authentic, daring, and unapologetic way of storytelling. No matter how much raw and graphic Euphoria is and will be in the future, it is indeed a powerful and important series that resonates and transcends all generations, from teenagers and even to adults. Euphoria not only plays the role to portray the raw and dark side of teenage life that often gets overlooked by society, but also as a call out for each person to reach out, connect, understand, and be there for one another throughout the darkest and brightest days. 

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