“Euphoria” season 2: a failed fantasy

“Euphoria” season two proved to be a disappointing nightmare of what was originally a well-done if not slightly out-of-the-box show.

The following review contains spoilers for Euphoria seasons 1-2.

Drugs, sex, alcohol, toxic relationships – none of these things are particularly new to HBO and its reputation for being a less-than-PG13 streaming service. Neither are they a foreign topic displayed in the coming-of-age genre. Yet when  “Euphoria” season one premiered on June 16, 2019, the show found itself in the spotlight instantaneously for taking these already mature themes to a new, brutally raw level. 

Praised for its unapologetic approach toward mature topics such as drug abuse, “Euphoria” holds several awards and is critically acclaimed by both the public and film critics alike.

— Jules Keranen

The angst-ridden, drug-driven, sex-filled cesspit of both strangely realistic and entirely romanticized lives of high school students is perhaps the easiest way to describe “Euphoria” as a whole. It follows seven main characters dealing with their respective relationships, drug and internal issues during the first season, expanding in the second to highlight several previously side characters such as Lexi Howard, played by Maude Apatow, and Fez, played by Angus Cloud.

An Introduction to “Euphoria”:

Starring Zendaya – an A-list actress best known for her role as MJ in Marvel’s Spiderman –  among a myriad of other incredibly talented actors, the stacked cast brought both fans and fantastic performances to “Euphoria” right off the bat. Praised for its unapologetic approach toward mature topics such as drug abuse, “Euphoria” holds several awards and is critically acclaimed by both the public and film critics alike.

This is not to say nobody disapproved of the show. Right away in episode one of “Euphoria”, there are entire character arcs depending on the graphic sex shown in the first hour of the show. Reminder, these characters’ ages range from 16 to 19 and while they are played by adult actors, many people expressed their discomfort with what felt like child pornography. Along with nudity, excessive drug abuse, and seemingly no classes the students attend in what’s been dubbed “Euphoria High” by fans, the show upholds a sense of disconnect from reality which some consider a major flaw. 

Even with all these criticisms, the show continued to garner massive public attention and is second only to Game of Thrones as HBO’s most-watched show. The performances of the lead actors such as Sydney Sweeney and Zendaya hold major awards. Performances of others, like Hunter Schafer who kickstarted her acting career through her role as Jules Vaughn, launched them to B-list celebrity status. Not only that, but the cinematography done by Marcell Rév is highly stylistic and contributes heavily to the impact of the show. Sam Levinson and his team of writers can’t go uncredited, either, with so many lines becoming iconic in pop culture for the witty remarks and bold statements made by characters on screen. All these factors make what at first glance a rather basic storyline into a show addicting to watch. 

Yet despite the tremendous success of “Euphoria” season one and the eagerly anticipated release of season 2, audiences found the second season to be inconsistent and disappointing. 

When credits rolled, fans collectively took a deep breath, blinked, and said – “what?”.

— Jules Keranen

When the initial trailer dropped, people had their reservations but were generally excited about the new season that had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic that hit in 2020. Speculations for where the show was going to go could be found trending on Twitter. On Jan. 9, “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” aired. When credits rolled, fans collectively took a deep breath, blinked, and said – “what?”. 

From the get-go, several key plotlines from season one were either completely written off or rewritten for seemingly no reason. 

The Characters:

The beginning of each episode of “Euphoria” kicks off with a five to seven-minute introduction of the character the episode will be focusing on. These segments are narrated by Rue, played by Zendaya, the recovering drug addict and main character of the series. 

All of these introductions establish the characters as both individuals with their own respective personalities and issues while simultaneously weaving them together in an effortless and well-executed manner that’s a mix of both Rue’s commentary and scenes of the characters growing up. The audience knows that Nate, played by Jacob Elordi, and Maddy, played by Alexa Demie, are toxic to each other; Rue has a serious drug problem; Jules faces a complex self-identity crisis; Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney, has severe daddy issues; McKay, played by Algee Smith, needs to work on his perception of masculinity in a relationship; and Kat, played by Barbie Ferreira, suffers from severe lack of confidence which she tries to combat through self-sexualization. 

These solid facts are the main drives for the characters throughout the first season but practically disappear in the second. 

Season Two And The Downfall of “Euphoria”:

Yet instead we got a messy, confusing love triangle that felt as if it were only there to add dramatic effect.

— Jules Keranen

At the end of the first season, Rue and Jules are separated as they both realize how destructive their relationship was, with Rue’s sobriety depending on Jules’ loving her in a way that became a burden to Jules, and this continues throughout the first episode of season two. 

“Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” is not a bad episode. It takes place on New Year’s Eve as the main characters congregate at a house party where they set up the major plotlines of season two. First, Maddy and Nate have officially broken up. Nate finds Cassie, who’s recently broken up with McKay after her abortion and cheating on him at the end of season one, sitting on the curb of a gas station following a fight with Lexi where she got out of the car. He offers her a ride which ends in the two having a steamy make-out session in the bathroom of the party. They’re interrupted by Maddy pounding on the door, and thus the trio falls into a sick love triangle of Nate and Cassie being secretly together while Nate still wants to win Maddy back and Cassie desperately tries to keep both her best friend and new love by her side. 

Fans of the show were taken aback by this sudden change. 

Nate’s ambiguous sexuality had been hinted at throughout season one, with much of his anger issues and toxic masculinity being attributed to finding his father’s homosexual sex tapes as a child. Rue gives an entire monologue on his likes and dislikes in women and all the traits he disliked were notably boy-like. 

For years there were theories circulating the internet that Nate might become interested in Jules, who he’d manipulated in season one, or that his sexuality would at least be explored in the second season. Yet instead we got a messy, confusing love triangle that felt as if it were only there to add dramatic effect. 

Rue has relapsed, and we find her snorting cocaine in the laundry room at the house party when she meets a new character named Elliot, played by Dominic Fike. The two become quick friends as they do drugs together. At the end of the episode, Rue apologizes to Jules, with the two getting back together. It feels somewhat rushed, especially as neither is shown to necessarily have matured away from each other, and later in the season, Jules ends up cheating on Rue with Elliot, something that fans both saw coming from the attitudes of the characters toward each other and were surprised by as it didn’t seem to have any contribution to the plot. 

Kat is essentially written out of the show, breaking off her healthy-yet-boring relationship with Ethan, played by Austin Abrams, by lying about having brain cancer in an avoidant, childish nature that seemed like an easy-out for both Kat and the writers to effectively dissolve her into the background.

Ektachrome is known for its ability to capture fine grain and vibrant colors – two things that heavily contributed to the intensely raw scenes “Euphoria” is known for.

— Jules Keranen

Shot entirely on 35mm Kodak Ektachrome film, the season has a grainy, vintage style to it that plays into the deeply emotional settings the characters are in. The choice to shoot the season on film was a daring choice made by Sam Levinson, which Marcell Rév commented on in an interview with IndieWire, “We took the visuals to their extremes in Season 1, but for Season 2 we wanted to dig a little deeper rather than broadening the visual horizons.” He continued, “Season one was very in the moment and contemporary and season two is more intimate and has something to do with the way we remember things.” 

Ektachrome is known for its ability to capture fine grain and vibrant colors – two things that heavily contributed to the intensely raw scenes “Euphoria” is known for.

The cinematography in season two differed from season one with its much more highly artistic influences. In episode four, “You Cannot See, Think Of Those Who Can”, there is a roughly two-minute-long shot depicting Rue and Jules as characters from famous movies such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Titanic” and “Snow White” among many other classic films or paintings. Another scene, this one of Cassie, depicts her sitting in a silk top surrounded by beautiful blooming flowers that were inspired by Mexican murals of the 20th century. These set design decisions contribute to the manifestation of the character’s inner turmoils, even if they have no logical reason to exist at first glance. 

“Euphoria” is well known for its mind-bending visuals, with vivid purple, blue, and orange hues almost pulsating from the screen during scenes like Rue’s highs or montages. The camera work is also hyper-stylized and easily recognizable: spinning cameras to switch shots, tilting cameras to add a “trippy” effect, slow panning from a character’s face as they react to something, and close-up shots that make a scene feel that much more emotional as the audience sees the minute changes in the actor’s face. 

“It has to be colorful in a way, I think, to feel that elevation,” said Rév. “But we didn’t want it to go like rainbow colors, or with no real system in it. So, most of the time, we’re using primary colors, and I’m relying a lot on the orange-blue color contrast, which is a really basic one… We use that in night scenes, as well as in day scenes.”

Another aspect that holds up in the transition from season one to season two is the score. With original tracks done by Labrinth, a solo artist and one-third of supergroup LSD, he effortlessly blends sounds from all different genres to create a fever dream-like soundtrack that helps to blur the line between reality and fantasy that the atmosphere of “Euphoria” is made of. While none of the tracks particularly stand out – minus the horrifically awkward three-minute-long song sung by Elliot that went viral on Twitter when fans saw it – the soundtrack for season two cannot be called bad. It didn’t have the same impact as songs from season one, but it does not take away from the show at all. The best way to describe it might be just average. 

The script, on the other hand, fell flat. 

Cassie’s breakdown scene in the final episode is a prime example of the stereotypical writing that took over in season two.

— Jules Keranen

“Euphoria” has always had slightly cringy lines, from the 2013-Tumblr-sounding dialogue like “I hate everyone in the world but you” from Jules in season one episode three “Made You Look”. Even the very first line of the entire show from Rue, “I was once happy. Content. Sloshing around in my own private, primordial pool. Then one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed, over and over, by the cruel cervix of my mother, Leslie.” But boy oh boy did the writers ramp up the cringe in season two. 

Cassie’s breakdown scene in the final episode is a prime example of the stereotypical writing that took over in season two. “Well if that makes me a villain, then so fucking be it. I can play the fucking villain.” 

The writers also increase the amount of cursing, with Rue’s breakdown scene in episode five, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird” using “fuck” over and over to the point where it’s comedic. 

This was the wrong choice to make, with the show coming off as more of a teenage soap opera than a heavy drama. The overly-serious tone led to a strange mish-mash of funny quips and off-putting dialogue that didn’t match the casual-yet-impactful script season one had succeeded at. 

Costume Design:

While not necessarily a failure but a definite step down from season one, the costume design is sub-par at best. The outfits in season one were used as storytelling devices, direct manifestations of how the character wished to portray themselves down to their acrylic nails. Kat’s entire wardrobe switched up from skinny jeans and baggy shirts to tight-fitting, bondage-like alternative clothes that symbolized her sexual awakening and empowerment in her own skin. Then comes season two, where Kat is dressed like an indie-girl TikToker with the viral blue-and-red heart maxi skirt. Gone were her black-and-red monochrome outfits, gone were her chains and bodysuits and cheetah print jacket. Even her hair changed, becoming long and put up in a spiky bun for much of her screen time. 

Cassie’s wardrobe also changes, with her attempting to mirror Maddy by replicating her outfits and hairstyles. Her color palette is predominantly blue with occasional pastel accents that contribute to her naive, girlish nature. Her clothes become more adult and trendy, as well as more revealing. She’s heavily sexualized in season two, with almost all of her screen time spent half-naked or barely clothed.

Jules’ style changes as well, going from very feminine and, as Fez describes her, “all sailor moon n’ shit” to a much more androgynous style of fashion. She’s coming to terms with her perception of gender and how she applies it to herself, and Elliot even reveals that she’s begun to wear a binder. Her clothing style was heavily influenced by Hunter Schafer, shaping the character in a way that was understandable and contributed to the character’s development and self-confidence. 

Rue is the one that changes the least, keeping her baggy shorts and t-shirts. Her oversized maroon sweatshirt that was her father’s stays with her, and when Rue hallucinates seeing her father while high he is wearing the same sweatshirt, embracing her as she breaks down. 

While an aesthetic choice that enhanced the beauty of the actors, it was, quite frankly, a lazy decision to dress up the characters in obviously designer pieces that no teenager could ever afford or wear to school.

— Jules Keranen

The costume designer, Heidi Bivens, commented in an interview with Mel Ottenberg on the costumes in season two.

“In terms of style, I played it safe the first season…I know I sort of pushed the boundaries with some of the risqué looks that might not normally be allowed at school, but in general I tried to be really consistent with what kids can actually afford. This season, that went out the window, because I just wanted to have fun. Maude Apatow’s character, for example, is wearing Miu Miu. Like, she can’t afford Miu Miu, her parents aren’t buying her Miu Miu, but I said, ‘Fuck it. She looks great in it.’”

While an aesthetic choice that enhanced the beauty of the actors, it was, quite frankly, a lazy decision to dress up the characters in obviously designer pieces that no teenager could ever afford or wear to school. 

Other Critiques:

Then there’s the matter of discourse on set, with Sam Levinson being bashed by several people he’s worked with for his unprofessional conduct on set which evidently influenced season two of “Euphoria”. Kat’s entire character was written off because of a supposed disagreement between Sam Levinson and Barbie Ferreira that ended with Barbie leaving “Euphoria” altogether. This was not the first time news outlets reported on stars complaining about working with Sam Levinson. Due to this tension on set he chose to favor specific characters over others, a stark difference from the equal importance each character had in season one.

This is not to say season two was all bad, though. Rue’s addiction was handled well, taking inspiration from Sam Levinson’s own addiction and never romanticizing itself. The audience is shown over and over how destructive Rue’s addiction is, how quickly drugs were ruining her life time and time again. The makeup crew did a solid job making Zendaya appear sallow, sweaty, worn-out, and junky as Rue spiraled into her addiction again, then returning her to a slightly sleep-deprived yet healthy appearance once she got sober. Her mental illness was also well done, from her overreactions to her full-blown breakdowns to tiny mannerisms that Zendaya attributed to the character. The episode “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird” follows Rue in the heat of her irrational breakdown as she experiences drug withdrawals, betrayal, and the consequences of her own actions all at once and just falls apart. The only real negative that happened to her was her jarring end narration where she states she stayed clean for the rest of the school year. It leaves so many questions unanswered– how did Rue stay sober, did she go back to rehab? Did she ever talk to Jules again? Did she find out about Jules and Elliot? Did she remain sober after the school year? The rushed ending denies the audience crucial information that makes the final episode feel empty. 

Finally there’s the matter of Fez and his brother Ashtray, played by Javon “Wanna” Walton, and how they’re raided at the end of season two. Faye, played by Chloe Cherry, is a junkie staying with Fez who’s introduced early on in the season and attempts to help Fez and Ash before the raid but ultimately fails and their final scene in the show is Fez being dragged away from Ash’s dead body. This storyline felt like an afterthought, with Fez becoming a more prominent character through his hinted romance with Lexi and sibling relationship with Rue expanding in season two but little to no reason for Ash to have been killed so abruptly other than shock value. 

Final Thoughts and Nod to the Future:

Overall the season is frustrating to watch, but fun to talk about. It was disappointing in nearly every aspect, yet it was still able to hold onto its reputation as an undeniable cultural phenomenon, make bank, and win awards. It’s influence on pop culture and media is noticeable even with all the backlash season two got, with Maddy becoming a role model for many aspiring “girlboss” young women. 

A hope for season three would be for something more similar to season one: a well-planned, intuitively-executed, plot-heavy drama that made the effort to explore and dissect each character individually in a way that was able to be analyzed by critics and understood by casual watchers.