Entertainment

The 'Euphoria' Finale Was a High That Will Be Hard to Come Down From

ZENDAYA
HBO

This post contains spoilers for the first season of Euphoria. 

In its first season, HBO's Euphoria has oscillated between exploitative and tender, fantastical and truthful. It's a show that wants to have its cake and eat it too, presenting a quote-unquote real picture of Gen Z life, while also crafting a lavishly stylish visual landscape where all parties are steeped in purple light and all teens have professional-grade eye makeup skills. The first season finale, which aired Sunday night, encapsulated the series' best and worst tendencies, exploding its music video aesthetics into a full on music video. 

The episode was bizarrely anticlimactic and somehow entirely a climax, as creator Sam Levinson left numerous plot lines hanging in limbo, and instead built to the moment which, after the fact, seems like an obvious conclusion. Rue, portrayed brilliantly by Zendaya, has narrated all the action throughout the season, omnisciently detailing the scandals and heartbreaks of her classmates, allowing herself to almost fade into the background as she struggles to remain sober after getting out of a stint in rehab following an overdose. As viewers became consumed by the dramas involving Kat's (Barbie Ferreira) burgeoning business as a fin-dom (look it up) and Nate's (Jacob Elordi) abusive psychopathy, Rue, our entry into this world, was the most static character on screen, just trying to keep to a space where she stays healthy. 

Left heartbroken by her best friend and quasi-girlfriend Jules (Hunter Schafer), who chooses to go to the city even when Rue has doubts about their plan to run away, Rue returns to her house on the night of Winter Formal and snorts a line. As the sounds of Labrinth's "All For Us," a track that had been used as a theme throughout the previous installments, start to thrum, her body uncontrollably jolts around. When the verse kicks in, it's Zendaya as Rue singing, stumbling through a tableau of her family. Levinson cuts away and she's suddenly surrounded by a chorus on her suburban street. The robed vocalists are almost menacing, throwing her around, the physical embodiment of her trip, comforting and violent all at the same time. As Rue sings about "disappearing into that good night," the screen goes black, leaving some fans to speculate that perhaps she died. (For what it's worth, I don't think she does -- it's just a representation of her falling back into old habits.)  

The number is sort of quintessential Euphoria. It's gorgeous, but also uncomfortably glamorous given the context. Watching a girl with substance abuse issues relapse shouldn't feel quite so fun. Indeed, there's something disturbingly triumphant about Rue's return to drug use. In an early episode, Rue casually explains that, although no one wants to admit it, "drugs are kinda cool." In these final moments, the show itself seems to think they're pretty cool, too. 

euphoria
HBO

Levinson built to this moment by laying seeds of "All For Us" throughout the score, composed by the multi-hyphenate musician Labrinth. But narratively, the episode feels sloppy, jumping back and forth in time and offering little emotional payoff even as it goes for big setpieces, like Nate's return to football or Cassie's (Sydney Sweeney) ice skating fantasy during her abortion. Levinson stubbornly refused to close any of the doors it opened over the course of its initial eight episodes. Nate is still blackmailing Jules; Kat still doesn't know the identity of the mysterious person who pursued her online, hidden behind a voice modulator and a webcam. There are, of course, benefits to these dangling stories: the already-announced Season 2 will have a lot to cover, and Euphoria is in no rush to speed through high school, avoiding the curse of many a teen drama. 

Since it first debuted in June, I've grown obsessed with Euphoria. Even when it goes to extremely dark places, it's still compulsively watchable television, mainly thanks to the talented cast, almost all of whom seem destined for superstardom. Zendaya's already nearing that pinnacle, of course, but performers like Schafer, Ferreira, and Alexa Demie give depth to their characters beyond the memes their outfits inspire. And yet, I still feel like I can't let Euphoria off the hook. It's too often guided by a weirdly moralistic streak that punishes its characters for the same behaviors it encourages. It gives us a moment like Kat's confident, bad bitch walk of pride through a mall, only to then have her overcome with shame after her period of experimentation. The empathy it has for its characters only goes until they do something that it thinks deserves a tsk, tsk and couches it all in its dreamlike, glittering palette. 

This all adds a layer of grim anticipation to that last sequence of the season: It's thrilling, affecting, and I know the comedown is going to be exceedingly bleak. Rue doesn't just stop after saying "drugs are kinda cool" in that second episode. She adds: "They are cool until before they wreck your skin, and your life, and your family. That's when they get uncool." I'm still not sure if Euphoria isn't too enamored with what's even briefly "cool," but I can't wait to keep watching. 

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