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Euphoria Season Two Values Style Over Substance

By Karis Fields


Photo: Teen Vogue – Source


The second season of Sam Levinson’s HBO teen drama Euphoria has finally come to a close with a literal bang after a controversial eight-episode run. Euphoria’s first season received immense critical acclaim, but not to the extent that its preceding season had. It was announced earlier this week that the series wasn’t only the second most watched show since 2004 but also the most-tweeted show of the decade with over thirty million tweets posted during season two’s duration. However, despite season two’s success in viewership and online talkability, all is not what it seems seeing that most fans of the show weren’t pleased with the follow-up season.


What made Euphoria’s first season such a critical success was its healthy balance of stunning visuals and cinematics with character-driven storytelling that captured the trials and tribulations of Gen Z teens in a mostly realistic light that more often than not pulled no punches with its graphicness and shock value.


Zendaya’s Rue verily depicts the highs and lows of drug addiction and the difficulties of recovery and relapse. Hunter Schafer’s Jules is shown dealing with the queer trauma and angst of being a trans teen, struggling with things such as gender identity and the hyper-sexualization of herself as a trans female. Barbie Ferreira’s Kat also faces hyper-sexualition, but the hyper-sexualization of her character as a plus sized young woman. Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie deals with the need for male attention, objectification, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Algee Smith’s McKay struggles with the transition from being the best football player in high school to the overlooked rookie in college, experiencing a traumatic hazing from his fraternity brothers. Alexa Demie’s Maddy faces domestic abuse and self-denial in defining her relationship as toxic. And Jacob Elordi’s Nate battles with toxic male aggression stemmed from sexual confusion and the need to present himself as a hyper-masculine teen.


Season one ended with an extravagant musical number written by the show’s composer Labrinth, sung by Zendaya, and performed with a sea made up of dancers dressed identically to Zendaya’s character, a gospel choir, and a marching band to depict Rue’s relapse, breaking her three month sobriety after Jules leaves on the train to the city without her. Viewers see a bit of the aftermath from this in two pandemic released hour-long specials titled “Trouble Don’t Always Last” and “F**k Anyone Who’s Not A Sea Blob”. The first episode centers around Rue having a conversation with her sponsor Ali at a diner about everything that has happened with her and her drug use since the moment at the train station while the second episode, which is written by Hunter Schafer, focuses on a therapy session Jules has talking about Rue, her gender identity, and her relationship with her mother.


While the Rue and Jules episodes lacked the bright and flashy cinematography shown in season one of the series, they easily showed that showrunner Sam Levinson didn’t need to rely on glitz and glam in order to make Euphoria a continued success. What these episodes also did was ground the show in reality. The cinematography of these special episodes carried over to season two of the drama.


Fans were excited for season two from the moment season one’s finale finished airing, wondering what was to come in the second installment of the series. Viewers were interested in the continuation of various storylines.


Who was Kat’s mystery client and will her camgirling be exposed to her peers? Where and who is the mystery child in the Jacobs’ family photo? How is Cassie going to deal with the possible trauma from her abortion in season two? Will the Nate and Jules drama continue? Is Maddy ever going to come out with what actually happened between her and Nate that night at the carnival? Will McKay’s storyline regarding his sexual assault and hazing be explored more next season?


Other than having questions like these, fans were also hoping for episodes dedicated to the backstories of fan favorites such as Maude Apatow’s Lexi and Angus Cloud’s Fezco who stole the show with what little screen time they were given. Each episode in season one of Euphoria would focus primarily on one of the specific main characters and their backstory up until the show’s present. Zendaya would narrate every episode as the self-proclaimed unreliable Rue, sprinkling in some of the other storylines from season one in each episode as well.


Although season two gave fans more story for Lexi and Fezco, it seemed to drop the original narrative from season one. Rue was still our narrator, but episodes became less character-driven. However, it did include two episodes which were formatted like its season one predecessors. The first episode, “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door”, shows fans how Fezco got into dealing drugs, the important role his grandmother played in his life up until she fell ill, and how his little brother Ashtray (Daelo Jin Walton) was brought up in the world. The third episode, “You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can”, centers around Nate’s father Cal (Eric Dane) and his tragic queer backstory. Fans were confused by the change of episodic formatting, but didn’t seem too bothered by it.


One of the things from season two that did bother fans, though, was the exclusion of some of its main characters. Even if Sam Levinson had intended Algee Smith’s McKay to come to terms with his assault this season, it wouldn’t have happened anyways considering McKay seems to have been written out of the show after episode one. McKay shows up for an incredibly short amount of time in the beginning of season two to ask Cassie if there was any chance their relationship could be mended and to answer Nate’s incredibly uncomfortable questions about what his sex life with Cassie was like when they were still together. Speculation online claims that the reason for the lack of McKay this season was due in part to Algee Smith not being COVID vaccinated, but nothing has been confirmed.


Fans also felt that Alexa Demie’s Maddy was only there this season to serve as the tension for Nate and Cassie’s affair. They also felt that her character holding a job as a babysitter throughout the season served as a continuity error to her backstory in season one where it’s stated that Maddy is someone who never wants to work a day in her life.


Hunter Schafer’s Jules was another season one main character who got sidelined this season. Just as Maddy served as the tension in the Nate and Cassie affair, Jules has been subjected to being someone in a love triangle that includes Rue and newcomer Elliot (Dominic Fike). The standalone Jules episode had originally set her character up to go through more in terms of her growth and what she wants versus what she needs in season two. Season two tossed the complexities of Jules aside and reduced her to someone defined entirely by her relationships.


The character that fans were most upset to see get the silent treatment from Sam Levinson was Barbie Ferreira’s Kat. Kat was by far one of Euphoria’s most interesting characters from season one. In season two, however, she’s turned into a background character almost entirely. She’s no longer shown camgirling this season except for in a weird scene in the second to last episode of her dancing in front of her laptop in her KittenKween attire during what seemed like a questionable dream sequence from Nate. Whenever Kat wasn’t complaining about her unproblematic boyfriend Ethan (Austin Abrams), she was a background blur trying to stop Maddy from fighting Cassie. It was reported that the reason for the reduction of her character could be because of the disagreements Barbie Ferreira and Sam Levinson had on set during filming. Many entertainment news outlets have stated that Ferreira would often storm off set, one of those times resulting in Levinson dramatically writing out her character from season two. Many speculate that Levinson was trying to make Kat have an eating disorder this season, something Barbie Ferreira is against entirely as a body positive activist.


In addition to the sidelining of characters this season, storylines that had been left unconcluded in season one failed to find a home within season two. Although Cassie’s bizarre behavior this season could be explained by the trauma from her abortion last season, it’s never addressed. In fact, Cassie’s pregnancy and abortion aren’t even mentioned at all this season. The Jules and Nate storyline from season one was also nonexistent, with the two characters interacting only once this season. It’s speculated, however, that this was because of real life drama between Hunter Schafer and Jacob Elordi.


What fans were most upset about, though, was the seeming forgetfulness of major plot points throughout season two in its finale. Fans have shared their thoughts of the finale online, with the overall consensus being that they felt that there were no satisfying arcs achieved in any of the given storylines this season. One of the only somewhat satisfying endings from the finale was when Maddy finally beat up Cassie, but even then fans felt like what they were given wasn’t enough. Rue’s unresolved conflict with drug dealer and sex trafficker Laurie (Martha Kelly) seemingly disappeared in the final episode. We also don’t get any true closure with Jules and Rue. Rue’s journey to sobriety is never even shown, it’s just spoken in the ending narration (and also implied that ‘the power of friendship’ helped Rue get sober). These are only among some of the few plot holes left unfilled by the finale of season two.


Many think that the messy writing of season two could be due to showrunner and writer Sam Levinson’s refusal of having a writers room be involved in the creation of this season. The inclusion of a writers room is important because of collaboration and feedback. It’s essentially where the rough drafts go to be edited and critiqued before production begins. Season two basically felt like an eight episode rough draft from Levinson. Furthermore, the scripts had been changed continuously even during filming, most likely playing into what made season two seem so chaotic.


Something that fans are altogether in positive agreement of this season, though, is how beautiful season two looks visually. As previously mentioned, season two lacks the glittery psychedelic cinematography used throughout season one. There is a new bleakness to the cinematography here. But, while bleak, it remains beautiful; especially with the inclusion of Labrinth’s backing soundtrack and other strategically picked bops. Art is created on screen. While season one balanced art with story, however, season two appears to value cinematography more than anything. Simply put, it’s very heavily style over substance.


That being said, this season did give audiences some of Zendaya’s best acting performances. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if she received an Emmy for her portrayal of an addict going through withdrawals in episode five, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird”. This season also produced some of the funniest meme content I’ve ever seen on the internet.


Will I be viewing into Euphoria’s expected 2024 return? Well, that depends on if I have my own HBO Max subscription by then. However, I will say that I hope Sam Levinson hires a writers room for next season because I personally believe that in his hands alone Euphoria will meet the same, if not worse, fate than the ever so cringe Riverdale.