In an upcoming episode of the HBO high-school drama Euphoria, one of the show’s characters is confronted by an armed intruder in her bedroom and forced to participate in a game of Russian Roulette. After the twisted contest has concluded, the camera pans to her dresser, where her phone displays a text from a friend who’s apoplectic over the way her boyfriend just spoke to her.
Among the things that Euphoria best captures is the sense that in adolescence, everything that happens to you, no matter how major or minor, can carry the same hyperbolic weight — that anything positive somehow feels like a trip to paradise, and anything negative is an armageddon.
Those extreme reactions hold true to Euphoria itself, which is returning for a second full season after being mostly absent for the last two and a half years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new episodes offer scenes that are so insightful or artfully presented that Euphoria can feel in that moment like one of the very best shows television has produced in a while. Then others are so exasperating and self-indulgent that they can leave you questioning whether you liked the better parts at all. Sometimes, the same scene can conjure both reactions at once.
During the long hiatus between seasons, Euphoria creator Sam Levinson wrote and directed two minimalist specials, each focusing on one of his two central characters: relapsed drug addict Rue (Zendaya) sharing her sense of suicidal despair with her NA sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo); and Rue’s estranged girlfriend Jules (Hunter Schafer, who co-wrote with Levinson) grappling with her feelings about both her gender transition and Rue. The Rue episode was sensational — a quiet tour de force for Zendaya, Domingo, and Levinson — and the Jules one both excellent and dramatically necessary, since Season One offered far briefer glimpses of her interior life. Stripped of the show’s usual excesses of style and tone, the specials were such compellingly intimate character pieces that offered the tantalizing possibility of a change in Levinson’s approach to the whole series once he had the cast and crew back at full strength.
Any illusions of that fizzle, though, within the opening minutes of tonight’s Season Two premiere, which feature a woman — Kitty (Katherine Narducci), the grandmother of the series’ affable young drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud) — marching into a strip club, interrupting a man mid-blow job, and shooting him in the leg while we see blood spray onto his erect penis. Euphoria: Same as it ever was! That extremely caffeinated style extends to our reintroduction to the rest of the ensemble: supervillain jock Nate (Jacob Elordi), queen bee Maddy (Alexa Demie), opposite sisters Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and Lexi (Maude Apatow), occasional cam girl Kat (Barbie Ferreira), plus new kid Elliot (Dominic Fike). We’re flung into a wild New Year’s Eve party(*) in which one character gets savagely beaten, another has a urine-soaked washcloth thrown in their face, and another briefly goes into cardiac arrest. Things do not get calmer as the season moves along.
(*) The Season One finale took place circa the school’s winter formal, and the Rue and Jules specials were both set shortly afterwards on Christmas Eve. So barely any time has passed for the kids, despite how long it’s been for us. No one has substantially aged onscreen other than maybe Storm Reid as Rue’s younger sister Gia, but it’s not always easy to remember what happened to these characters two and a half years ago, and what developments may be informing their behavior here. (Nor, for that matter, does it help that the show can sometimes be fuzzy about when events in one story are happening relative to events in another, and occasionally about distinguishing reality from fantasy from flashbacks.)
Levinson writes and directs all the episodes, and there are times when his sensory overload approach works wonders — sometimes in individual sequences, sometimes even for entire hours. The season’s relentless fifth episode follows Rue through an all-night ordeal to get the fix she needs without running afoul of either the cops or friendly-yet-threatening drug dealer Laurie (deadpan comedian Martha Kelly), and is yet another reminder of the masterful command Zendaya has of the screen. (She deservedly won an Emmy for the role way back in the fall of 2020.) The third installment, meanwhile, is a more or less business-as-usual ensemble episode of the show, but one presented with just enough of a light touch — Zendaya also knows her way around a joke, as demonstrated from Shake It Up through her Spider-Man movies — to make the series’ usual indulgences play as if even Levinson acknowledges they’re kind of ridiculous.
Levinson’s capable of making that ever-so-slightly comic and relaxed version of the show whenever he wants to. He just doesn’t seem interested in it — certainly not as much as he is in the never-ending chicanery of Nate, a sociopath capable of talking anyone into doing whatever monstrous thing he wants, no matter how much it may be against their self-interest. Some of the characters trapped in his orbit become fully realized despite him — one episode offers an extended flashback to the high school days of Nate’s closeted father, Cal (Eric Dane), which feels like what the mid-Nineties version of Euphoria would have been(*) — but Nate himself is such a caricatured assembly of clichés that it becomes hard to take any scene with him seriously. And it plays as unintentionally silly whenever the show attempts to humanize him in spite of all the evil things he continues to do.
(*) Though even that has the downside of arriving after Showtime’s frequently Nineties-set Yellowjackets has usurped Euphoria‘s crown as the It Show about teenage girls behaving recklessly.
That’s much less a knock on Jacob Elordi than on the writing. Levinson is far better at crafting material to showcase the rest of his impressive young ensemble. Zendaya is first among equals, as believable and fascinating when Rue is at her most hostile or cynical as she is when the character’s at her most vulnerable. But Sweeney (who was so memorably terrifying last summer on The White Lotus) fiercely commits to every last whiplash turn of Cassie’s emotional journey this year, and is rewarded by being much more central to the narrative than she was in Season One(*), even if it means most of Cassie’s scenes also involve Nate. Fike slides seamlessly into the Rue and Jules portion of the show, and Schafer does well playing a more muted and emotionally conflicted Jules this time around.
(*) The plotting on the whole is more streamlined, basically with half the show focusing on Rue, Jules, and Elliot, and the other half on the Maddy/Nate/Cassie group, with some crossover. The only character to suffer in the new arrangement is Kat, who replaces Cassie as the odd woman out. She’s frequently off on her own in a subplot about her dissatisfaction in a relationship with a nice, handsome guy who treats her well, lamenting in one scene, “There’s no darkness. It’s just sweet.” Sweetness, of course, is death on a show like this.
At one point, former schoolteacher Laurie offers Rue a lesson on brain chemistry: The longer you use drugs to feel happy and good, the less your brain will process those effects, until the best you can hope for is for the drugs to make you numb. There are times when Euphoria, like Rue, never considers the long-term effects of constantly chasing the next high. When nearly every moment is at the most extreme possible emotional pitch, scene after scene, hour after hour, it becomes harder and harder for any one moment, no matter how over the top, to make an impact. It’s fun in a pop-culture karaoke way when the season-opening sequence about Fezco’s drug-dealing grandmother uses Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” — which was part of an iconic montage of similar activity in Goodfellas — but when a later scene in the same episode evokes Mr. Blonde dancing to Seventies soft rock in Reservoir Dogs (even using another song by Gerry Rafferty!), it’s wearying.
Of course, critics once upon a time accused the young Quentin Tarantino of just remixing ideas he stole from his own idols, and if the Euphoria target audience is aware of Goodfellas at all, it’s likely as some ancient movie their parents won’t shut up about. But the double-shot of retro music homages is suggestive of how Euphoria can never quite leave well enough alone. Even when it’s great, it feels like being served a small mountain of your favorite ice cream flavor: delicious at first, but you’ll pay for it the more you consume.
Late in the season, the shy Lexi decides to stop being an extra in her own life and become the star, staging a play about herself and her friends, where we see Maude Apatow and a bunch of guest stars acting out the plot of Euphoria in the school auditorium. On the one hand, this leads to another terrific, formally inventive episode, where scenes on the stage blur into scenes featuring the “real” characters. (It’s also, like the third episode, more optimally balanced between angst and self-aware humor.) On the other, the scenes are so similar, and Lexi’s voiceover so evocative of the narration Zendaya delivers in magnetically understated fashion every other week, as to make Euphoria as a whole feel like something Lexi might have written — and not in a flattering way.
Euphoria is great enough often enough to excuse at least some of its bad behavior — even if the show also takes after Cassie, who admits at one point, “I keep making mistakes and not learning from them.”
Season Two of Euphoria premieres tonight, Jan. 9, on HBO and HBO Max, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen seven of the season’s eight episodes.