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Euphoria Season 2: TV Review [HBO]

Sam Levinson’s hyperactive teen drama starring Zendaya returns with a more introspective and melancholic second season.

Euphoria Season 2:

The second season of Euphoria is preoccupied with a timeworn moral sentiment. “I don’t know if I’m a good person,” one character says tearfully during the first episode. “You’re not the good guy,” another exasperatedly declares later in the season. “I did not say you are not a good girl,” bemoans another.

What makes a person “good” or “bad” might seem like a stodgy concern for a show whose popularity is built on a bleak and hyper-stylized portrayal of Gen Z antics. But futilely chasing an absolute answer is a rather fitting endeavor for the misguided, and stress-inducing, teen characters at the center of the HBO series.

Euphoria’s first season:

A mixed bag of stunning visuals, mesmerizing performances and occasionally shallow storytelling — ended on a disconsolate note. Rue Bennett, our awkward recovering teen addict protagonist (played with remarkable finesse by Zendaya), stood on a deserted platform, watching best friend and crush Jules Vaughn, an endearing trans girl with killer makeup (assuredly played by Hunter Schafer), sitting on a train as it rolled out of the station. After hatching a half-baked plan to run away from their claustrophobic town, Rue couldn’t bring herself to abandon her life.

Jules, who had a taxing year as the new kid at the local high school, boarded the train away. Shattered, Rue tearfully walked home. The season ended with a rhapsodic portrayal of her relapse.

Because production for the second season was interrupted by COVID-19, the show’s creator, Sam Levinson, released two specials — one about Rue and the other about Jules — to satiate viewer appetites. These hour-long episodes, set around Christmas, didn’t explicitly resolve the drama of the previous season. Instead, they scrutinized its psychic aftermath and primed us for what to expect, emotionally, from the two teens, whose electrifying relationship animates the show.

They affirmed the talent of Euphoria’s leads and forecasted sturdier storytelling: If the show detached itself long enough from the burden of interpreting the zeitgeist, it could focus on its characters’ more compelling search to make sense of themselves.

Season 2, or at least the first seven episodes provided for review, gets us somewhat closer to realizing this vision. The plotlines are mostly predictable, but the problems Rue, Jules and their friends, who include Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), Maddy (Alexa Demie), Lexi (Maude Apatow) and Kat (Barbie Ferreira), face are heightened by a deeper interest in what motivates their behavior. Their attention spans might be fickle, but their interest in love and acceptance aren’t.

These teenagers yearn to be loved — how and where they find that love depends on, well, everything. It could be through the thrill of desire, as it is for Cassie, who, after getting an abortion last season and breaking up with her college-aged boyfriend McKay (Algee Smith), finds herself single for the first time. Or an obsession with loyalty, like it is for Maddy, whose toxic relationship with tortured high-school quarterback Nate (Jacob Elordi) takes a seemingly irredeemable turn.

Maybe, as for Lexi, love means respect, and earning it requires asserting your perspective through artistic endeavors. Or as for Kat, it’s only by formally entering a relationship that you begin to understand the kind of love you’re looking for. This quest for affection pulsates through the crew’s interactions, drives their questionable decision-making and nurtures their fixations on absolutes — hence that recurring preoccupation with being either good or bad.

Of course, the second season doesn’t dive into all this headiness immediately. It picks up from another first season cliffhanger, a tense exchange between Fezco (Angus Cloud), Rue’s sheepish drug dealer, and his supplier, Mouse (Meeko Gattuso).

A cold open, narrated by Rue, acquaints us with Fez’s backstory, which explains why he deals drugs and offers insight into his relationship with his younger brother Ash (Javon “Wanna” Walton). Fez, we come to understand, was thrust into this business more by responsibility to his aging grandmother than by desire. He prefers to keep their operation low-key. So when Ash smashes a hammer into Mouse’s skull, the stakes change. Fez, Rue and Ash end up at the house of an unlikely kingpin — a schoolteacher turned drug dealer.

They manage to cover their tracks about Mouse’s death and escape the harrowing interaction only somewhat shaken. The next time we see the trio, they are at a New Year’s Eve house party with the rest of the East Highland student body. Here Euphoria settles into what it does best, rendering the celebration in its signature hyper-pop visual language. Although nothing should be considered unlikely in a show like this one, in which realism is far from the point, a few unexpected encounters prime us for a season of fascinating match-ups. Lexi and Fez have a conversation that leaves the former pleasantly surprised by the latter’s warmth and curiosity; Jules and Kate share a heartfelt moment; and Rue befriends new kid Elliot (portrayed with surprising ease by musician Dominic Fike), whom she stumbles on getting high.

For all the ways Euphoria has improved as an ensemble show, though, it remains most narratively dexterous and fulfilling when focused on Rue’s addiction. Early in the season, she finds comfort in Elliot, with whom she can freely do drugs. But as her dependency deepens, it becomes harder to hide her relapse from her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo), her mother Leslie (Nika King), her sister Gia (Storm Reid) and Jules.

Zendaya, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of Rue in the show’s first season, continues to excel, finding new ways to embody her character’s erratic shifts from elation to cruelty, insouciance to anger. And Schafer, whose character’s interiority I hope the show explores more boldly, is still thrilling to watch. Our understanding of Jules is enlivened by her expressiveness. How the pair navigate their love for one another — whether apart or in the same frame — makes for some of the season’s highest points.

Even Levinson’s messages about love and goodness gain greater vivacity when applied to Rue’s addiction. Love partially drives Rue — who craves memories of her father — to use. But love, too, must be the foundation of her recovery. Darkness encroaches on Rue’s life this season, as she repeatedly betrays the people around her, leading to a chaotic and intense intervention episode. Desperate, impractical, painful and pellucid, it reminds us that despite Euphoria’s effortful thrills and frills, the series is most worth watching for Rue’s journey.

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