I’ve been trying hard to meet Euphoria where it’s at for the past few weeks, hoping that the show’s visual panache would eventually translate into something more for its story line. But with two episodes left to go in the season, Euphoria’s bag of tricks appears completely exhausted. As perfunctory and joyless as its title, “The Next Episode” is a full-on retread of the carnival episode from two weeks prior. It simply hammers on the same story lines with additional force, like it’s angry about being accused of subtlety.
This week’s Cold Open Kid is McKay, whose upbringing turns out to be …exactly like his teammate Nate’s, minus the whole “Dad has a sexy secret” thing. I’m willing to look the other way on one domineering dad who only cares about success on the football field, but throwing in a second isn’t a testament to the show’s capacity for imagination. The show clearly didn’t want to depict McKay as the clichéd young black boy with an absentee dad, but simply by making Mr. McKay into Nate’s Dad, But Black isn’t a solution, either.
Like Jules’s, the cold open is full of attempts to earn brownie points for diversity without the hard work of actually depicting the inner lives of diverse characters. McKay’s childhood football exertions are set to “America,” a sonnet about black endurance in a racist society by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay (presumably the character’s namesake). In one of his earliest games, he gets ejected after attacking a white player, who calls him an inaudible, but presumably racist, slur.
Yet the show won’t say the R-word aloud, or let McKay’s dad be honest about the real reason he’s so desperate to cultivate inner strength in his son. Instead, Mr. McKay delivers the standard Toxic Masculinity Manifesto (“All your fear, your frustration, your rage, you bottle it up, and when that snap comes, you let it explode”) and the story line moves on. That delicacy might be appropriate on another kind of show, but amid Euphoria’s noisy parade of T&A (and D), the timidity toward discussions of racism, homophobia, and transphobia is notable. Euphoria’s fine with a sequence as unsubtle as a gang of masked white dudes beating up McKay after catching him sleeping with a white girl, as long as it doesn’t have to talk about it afterward.
I’d be more willing to get onboard with Euphoria’s slow roll on social justice if it displayed even a remotely equivalent amount of chill toward its creator’s having gone to film school. I could maaaaaybe buy Jules getting into the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet enough to memorize a few lines to pair with her Claire Danes–inspired angel costume. But modern teens obsessed enough with True Romance and Abel Ferrara deep-cuts to dress as them for Halloween? Come on.
The episode is full of these eyeroll moments, like Nate’s family getting turned down for a restaurant table over his assault charge (this is the SoCal suburbs, not the chef’s table at Le Bernardin), or Lexi being unaware that teen girls are “supposed” to wear sexy Halloween costumes (as if any teen girl is unaware of being sexualized at every minute of the day). Even on its favorite subject, sex, the show can’t find an approach that isn’t paint-by-numbers: We know Daniel is a “bad guy” because he literally tells Cassie he considers her a sex object, while Ethan is presented as a martyr because he’s willing to go down on Kat without reciprocation.
The show is still gorgeous, of course, with some technically impressive sequences like Jules and Rue’s sweeping underwater kiss. But even with Euphoria’s usual Instagram-scroll approach to interweaving story lines, these 54 minutes felt very draggy. Nothing’s changed from two episodes back: Rue’s still clean and hating it, and Jules remains opaque, giving Rue mixed signals as she struggles to cope with the whole Nate-blackmail thing. The wry humor in Rue’s narration has largely gone missing — not good for a show that’s already this self-serious. There is one funny sequence, where Rue and Lexi intimidate Gia’s new boyfriend by threatening to call in scary “rehab friends” who are actually just characters from The Wire. But otherwise, all the teen-drama clichés have to be choked down straight.
Sadly, it appears Euphoria is poised to remain predictable to its finish line. A desperate sidelong glance at a box of Always indicates that Cassie is, as forecast by her mother, pregnant. Nate’s junior psychopath act continues as he blackmails Maddy’s party hookup into taking the rap for the carnival assault and leans on Jules to say she witnessed him do it. Rue is clearly on the edge of using again; Kat’s increasing hubris as a findom means she’s destined for a fall. Instead of forging a new story for an up-and-coming generation, Euphoria is settling into the oldest one around: a morality play. A drag on a Juul is still a drag.