Euphoria is a great show for a lot of reasons. There’s the dreamlike cinematography that blankets the world of the show with colors so surreal and vivid. There's the sweeping camera movements that shift from grandiose and maximalist in their attention grabbing nature to close and intimate, intently concerned with mirroring the emotional states of the characters on screen. But what interests me the most about Euphoria is how Sam Levinson is able to depict drug addiction and the intensity of interpersonal relationships within the minefield that is the high school drama.
Levinson has a great set of actors to draw upon but It’s Zendaya’s singular performance as Rue, the series protagonist and unreliable narrator, that marries these two halves of the show, that are so often in perpetual communication and battle with one another. Drugs, which Rue turns to in order to escape the visceral reality of her failing complicated relationships, and the fracturing of familial, platonic, and romantic bonds incited by her addiction and abuse of drugs in the first place. And I think that episodes 205 and 206 serve as perfect analogues for this recurring turmoil and trauma that becomes increasingly hard for Rue to obscure, and the lasting impacts of the response to that trauma on both Rue and her loved ones.
Rue’s loose relationship to mortality is made prevalent with our introduction to her in the pilot. Zendaya first lets us into Rue’s emotional psyche through her aloofness. The druggy exterior, the nonchalant attitude, the levity she applies to situations regarding her own well-being. Beginning the series coming out of rehab after an overdose she immediately goes to her drug dealer Fez to re-up.
[clip of her talking to Fez from intro]
What we key into immediately is how Rue uses humor to deflect the severity of her addiction. Rue’s entire personality, or atleast the personality she projects onto others is one of calm indifference, and there’s a detached fleeting quality to this indifference. It’s almost as if she’s removed from her actions and person, as if she's not making these regrettable choices but watching them as if done to someone else. This gets to the center of her specific brand of unreliability. Conventionally, to be an unreliable narrator is to maintain control of the narrative. To have full autonomy over our perception of her and the lens through which we view her actions. But, not only is Rue unreliable to us, she’s unreliable to herself. Unable to view her life through the same harrowing lens that others around her do. It’s why Rue is able to turn something that's so grim, so tragic and real about her character, the very likely prospect of death, into a comedy.
[ep1 I thought you were dead]
Her central relationships are messy, to say the least and its episode 205, Stand Still Like a Hummingbird that showcases Rue at the height of her anger and violence, resilient in her commanding presence of the manic state she occupies for nearly 54 minutes, but also at her most vulnerable. Her cycles of drug addiction have always made both her sister and mother ill at ease but it’s this explosion at the beginning of the episode and the lingering aftershocks over the course of it that fully epitomizes just how lost she’s become.
Once that facade of aloofness is broken we see something more authentic but also something more nauseating, a violence our unreliable narrator had shielded us from thus far. We are able to finally see Rue not through her own hazy bloodshot eyes, but through the eyes of her horrified family. Rue in effect becomes unidealized. Her labored breaths (heart beat sfx), her churtling screams (scream sfx) which shock the system, a disposition that shifts so quickly from rushing tears and deep inner sadness revealed, to threats both physically and mentally violent in nature, that can’t help but speak to the truer self that family so often has a preternatural ability to perceive[clip] It’s no wonder that in her greatest moment of anguish she’s asking for both love and forgiveness and rejecting it out of hand. Violently jerking between the states of being an adult in charge of her destiny (and autonomous), and a little kid whose need for maternal love is immensely palpable. And it’s this duality that highlights a confounding aspect to Rue’s drug addiction. It’s something that both brings her closer to her family and pushes them further away, simultaneously.
As I mentioned earlier Rue is a character who’s always had a loose relationship to mortality. She’s always felt close to death at all times, from the moment she was born into this world kicking and screaming, nearly crushed to death by her mother’s cervix. She notes that the singular moment of happiness she remembers ever experiencing was the moments before she was even born, sloshing in her own primordial pool. Still innocent. Still free from the unrelenting white noise of diagnoses and the heavy hand of expectations. Still….happy. Now she chases some piece of fragmented happiness, one that's easily found in drugs. One that is so intense and severe and so powerful that we know it must be fleeting. A kind of euphoric happiness. (glowing angelic voice, dont over do it)
It’s a powerful word, Euphoria, and like many words it's one that for 300 years has stretched itself to encompass a variety of meanings and contexts, mainly medicinal ones. From describing a feeling of bodily well-being and hopefulness, to the psychotic euphoria found in patients with mania or other mental illness. But the word knows its earliest roots in Greek. The word eu meaning “well” and the word phero meaning “to bear.” To literally hold wellness within one's being. In it’s modern context euphoria is a feeling closely associated with the state of being brought upon by opiates, the source of Rue’s addiction. More than maybe any other feeling, euphoria is one characterized by its contrast to other feelings, in this case feelings of sadness, those dark awful bitter feelings that cause you to seek it out in the first place. But it's not just a happiness, it's an unrealistic, synthetic sort of happiness. A manufactured one. And it’s because of this counterfeit aspect that defines euphoria that it's fully realized as a feeling that’s so intense, so, idk, surreal that we know it can’t last. A fire (fire burning) inside us that burns bright…but not for long (fire cuts out). That needs oxygen, or in this case drugs, to continue breathing.
When all you know of this world is darkness and pain and evil and ugliness, a moment of happiness by any means seems worth it. even it means contributing to that cycle of evil and ugliness through the vitriol we spew towards the ones we love. We might maintain hope that the “high” at the end will make reaching rock “bottom” all worth it. That the feeling that high provides can fill the void left by the death of a father or created by an uncompassionate world that made us feel doomed from the start.
This “high” is the thing that they’re all searching for, in one form or another, navigating this strange and uncomfortable time that is so extreme and bizarre, It’s the only world they’ve ever known. Being in highschool allows a level of consequence to be removed, a level of responsibility to become blurry. There’s always a home to run back to, there’s always a family or friend group to welcome you, even as that notion of unconditional love begins to waver. Constantly being pushed and pulled by forces powerful and deadly, some of which, tragically are our own making. For Rue, this cyclical nature of things mirrors the realities of drug addiction itself, where coming clean isn’t the end, when the lasting trauma of not being clean affects you and the people around you. A fact so daunting it begs the question, how long will high school shield her from a tragic end that seems so inevitable
[clip on how Rue feels alone from 205]
Euphoria isn’t the first work to tackle drug addiction, and it most certainly won't be the last. But its through Zendayas portrayal that we are afforded a certain clarity, a certain intimate point of view that allows us to see the world through her immature eyes. Understanding at once how it feels to be at the mercy of chasing a feeling that we know won’t last, but being young and dumb enough to surmise that maybe it could last forever. There’s a lot that Euphoria exaggerates about high school life but it's through this exaggeration it's able to interrogate the real lasting effects of vices that stay over our relationships even after a period of grace or spiritual cleansing. A kind of manufactured depiction that gets at an emotional root in a stroke of genius that echoes the show's name itself. But if euphoria describes an unrealistic rush of happiness, a kind of synthetic happiness, then afterglow describes a naturalistic one. A happiness that lingers long after the initial light that produced it has disappeared. A happiness we can bask in, retreating from our darkest moments that felt so world defining and deafening, into the comfort of open arms more welcoming and genuine than the constructed fleeting feelings that drugs…could ever cause.
Mind Theater is produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as upcoming episodes follow mindthearpod on twitter, instagram, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support the kofi link is in the show notes. Thanks for listening, ill catch ya next time.