overnights

Euphoria Recap: Cowardly Hearts

Euphoria

Shook One Pt. II
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****

Euphoria

Shook One Pt. II
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO

In the classic ’90s hip-hop track for which this episode is named, Mobb Deep opined that “there’s no such thing as halfway crooks.” That’s clearly meant as a bit of side-eye from Euphoria to its junior miscreants, who think their bad behavior won’t catch up with them. But it’s also a criticism easily leveled at the show itself, which is the definition of a halfway crook. Is Euphoria a thoughtful, necessarily lurid meditation on the Way We Teen Now, or is it high-budget Riverdale with actual booze and drugs? It’s hard to say after this episode, which plays at offering the former and then mostly delivers the latter.

Most of the nuance and sensitivity in “Shook Ones”’ comes from the backstory-of-the-week cold open, which centers on Jules as a tween. Like Rue, she struggled with crushing anxiety and OCD-like tendencies, to the extent that her parents decided to put her in a mental hospital. In grand Hollywood tradition, the facility is depicted as a hellish prison, full of distant, unfeeling adults and near-constant threats of violence and assault. Jules responds proportionately by slitting her wrists with a torn strip of soda can.

The sequence leading up to Jules’s suicide attempt is effective and chilling, using the show’s editing trickery to convey her mounting fear and stress. Yet Euphoria seems entirely uninterested in the details of Jules’s recovery (all it has to say post-suicide is that she “got better”), or how her mental-health issues still affect her now. Her gender dysphoria is blandly described as “hating her body” (with a brief “get it?” shot of her entering a boys’ bathroom), and her decision to start transitioning gets five seconds total of airtime, with none of it framed within the context of her mental-hospital stay.

The sequence left me conflicted. On the one hand, transitioning kids are more than their transition — Jules should be able to have the same struggles with mental health as a cis kid, without a clichéd plot about her being institutionalized by heartless parents for being trans. On the other, the sequence feels like it’s strip-mining Jules’s story for its most lurid elements (namely, her sexual licentiousness), while simultaneously skimming over what being trans actually means to her. As with Rue, Jules’s diversity feels surface-level: She could be a cis girl with body dysmorphia, and the script would barely budge.

“Surface-level” is a criticism that kept coming up for me in the remainder of the episode, which was written and directed by series creator Sam Levinson. Set over one night at a school carnival, it takes visual cues from Vincente Minelli’s Some Came Running (shown briefly in a scene between Jules and her mom) and Michael Mann’s neon-soaked SoCal fantasias, interpolated with fireworks exploding off characters like stray hormones. The episode’s desperation to impress is clear from its three-minute, full-cast intro, which is clearly gunning for this year’s True Detective Honors for Showy Tracking Shots.

But despite its good looks, the episode’s storytelling is weak and full of empty teen-drama clichés. In a first for the show, it’s almost entirely free of Rue’s pithy, self-aware narration — which only serves to prove how narratively bland Euphoria is without it.

The biggest offender is once again Nate, who continues to be more of a jumble of types — confused queer kid, toxic-masculinity-poisoned daddy’s boy, budding psychopath — than a fully realized character. Nate physically abusing Maddy then breaking down into tears over how “confused” he is should have a raw, James Dean–like quality, but instead, Jacob Elordi’s acting pushes it perilously close to camp.

It’s the same with Nate’s big reveal that he’s actually Jules’s texting buddy, “Tyler.” Nate’s attraction to Jules, and his decision to blackmail her to protect his dad, should come off as noirish, charged with equal parts sex and danger. Instead, the scene feels erotically tone-deaf, like a better-shot scene from The Room. Hunter Schafer does her best to make Jules’s distress and steely resolve feel authentic, but Elordi is about as menacing as a toothpaste ad.

The other plotlines are equally generic. Kat finally starts to warm to Ethan, but after spotting him chatting with a hot girl from a distance, she petulantly seduces a conveniently placed older bad boy, complete with the requisite accessories of cigarette and bandana. McKay refuses to call Cassie his girlfriend because she’s slutty, so she decides to drop Molly — then loudly, publicly orgasms on a carousel, ensuring even more slut-shaming. There’s a long, tedious “Gia’s gone missing!” sequence that ends in Rue finding her smoking weed, setting off a hefty dose of sibling guilt.

The best scenes of the episode, as usual, are between Jules and Rue, especially a charged sequence where Jules realizes that her Dominant Daddy is Nate’s actual daddy, and tries to prove it to a skeptical Rue. The whole thing feels authentically teenage, from Jules’s heedless rush into a potentially dangerous situation to her plaintive, sidelong glances at a horrified Rue as things spiral out of control.

The scene highlights Zendaya and Schafer’s talents at portraying the eager kids that lie just under their characters’ jaded teenage facades. Yet the show doesn’t trust them to deliver in the clutch, burying Jules and Rue’s climactic kiss under flip-flop visual effects that rob it of its delicate power. In a similar fashion, the entire episode is underscored with a bombastic classical “mischief” score, adding an element of mockery to the soulful performances that Barbie Ferreira and Sydney Sweeney are endeavoring to deliver.

In the chorus of “Shook Ones,” the members of Mobb Deep call out the “cowardly hearts” of wannabe gangsters. But to me, the teens of Euphoria seem far less cowardly than their creators, who are eager to dramatize the consequences of their bad behavior without doing the much harder work of getting into the reasons behind it.

Euphoria Recap: Cowardly Hearts