What's Happening with Cassie on 'Euphoria'?

Sydney Sweeney is giving an incredible performance, but Cassie's storyline is punishing this season.

sydney sweeney cassie euphoria
HBO

This week's Euphoria is almost entirely focused on Zendaya's Rue, who, upon receiving an intervention courtesy of her girlfriend and her mother, goes on the run. But for a brief moment the attention turns to another character. No, we can't make it through an episode of this show without the ritual humiliation of Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney.

Sweeney is giving a towering performance this season as Cassie, the bombshell with a heart of gold who has endured slut shaming and a broken home. She's Gena Rowlands-esque as a woman on the verge of a breakdown, her eyes almost always wet with tears while she fights off her inner demons while trying to hide her new relationship with Nate (Jacob Elordi), the ex of her best friend Maddy (Alexa Demie). It's work that's both easily meme-able—see, for instance, the image of her hiding in the tub; her shocked face that she looks like a character from Oklahoma!—and very funny. She nails her character's frantic panic and kills the punchlines writer-creator Sam Levinson gives for her. But as the season progresses it's getting harder not to feel like those punchlines are at her expense, turning Cassie into a flattened cartoon and using Sweeney's talent for cruel laughs.

As Rue tries to escape from a trip to rehab she stops at Cassie's house for refuge. Cassie's mother (Alanna Ubach) takes her in, but when Rue's mom (Nika King) shows up, Rue starts looking for a way out. So she turns the attention on Cassie, telling everyone gathered that Cassie is having sex with Nate. Maddy, predictably, goes apeshit, and Cassie, panicked, tries to lie. Sweeney's eyes grow big, as Demie waves her tentacle-like nails in her face. In an hour that's almost unbearably tense, Cassie is the comic relief.

sydney sweeney cassie
HBO

It's a cherry on top of the shit sundae that has been her arc, which opened with her drunk, quivering behind a shower curtain while Maddy peed. Levinson has documented Cassie waking up in the dark of morning for a laborious beauty ritual that culminates in her dressing in increasingly outlandish outfits in order to impress Nate. In the montage, she attacks her face more violently every time we see her repeat her routine. And then, at Maddy's birthday party last week, Cassie, jealous, gets trashed and pukes in a hot tub, while wearing an underboob revealing bathing suit.

How did we get here? In the first season episode where we get her backstory—and her pregnancy diagnosis—we learn that Cassie's propensity for falling hard for men comes from her deep seated daddy issues, after her father abandoned her family following a split with her mom, a car accident, and a painkiller addiction. Rue's deadpan voiceover explains that she's the kind of girl who loves being in love, which also means that she allows guys to take advantage of her, letting them film her performing sex acts on them knowing they will invariably spread those images around. She ends the season alone, having just had an abortion and broken up with her boyfriend McKay (Algee Smith), who is now basically absent from the narrative.

Nate picks her up in front of a liquor store on a way to a New Year's Eve party during the second season premiere. They promptly hook up, and Cassie dives into a deep debilitating obsession. Maybe there's something to say here about a woman who can only define herself by relationships with men, but Levinson's not hitting that. Sweeney—just off her fantastic turn in The White Lotus—is clearly relishing the opportunities she's given to go big, but her storyline just grows more and more punishing as she turns into a caricature of a hysterical woman. As Levinson strives to bring more depth to Nate, a bully and abuser whose actions have been unmistakably evil, Cassie has become a one-note disaster of a human being. Season 1 proved Nate was an irredeemable blackmailer, who nearly strangled Maddy, consistently plotting to ruin the lives of his peers. But he's framed as the quote-unquote reasonable one in this fucked up love triangle.

Though Sweeney has praised Levinson for allowing her to not to do any nudity that wasn't "necessary," the Euphoria cameras still weaponize Cassie's body against her. She's topless as she's panicking in the New Year's eve party bathroom as Maddy bangs on the door. In one shot, her breasts take up half the frame and her face isn't even visible, but Nate's is. When she teeters out in that barely there bathing suit at Maddy's birthday party, even her friends are scandalized by what she's wearing before she vomits all over herself. Her nakedness makes her more vulnerable, but the way she's photographed also suggests there's a shamefulness to it too. When she's undressed, or nearly undressed, she's a laughingstock.

Maybe by the end of the season there will be some justification for the character's spiral, but for now it just feels grotesque. Sweeney, to her credit, is putting on a remarkable show with the material she's given, but that material is getting relentlessly degrading.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.