All season, Euphoria has struggled with criticisms that it’s style over substance, a luscious neon haze concealing weak plotlines and thin characters. I don’t think that accusation is 100 percent merited, but I also don’t think this finale will do anything to dispel it. If you came to “And Salt the Earth Behind You” looking for plot resolution, you likely left disappointed. There was no big final confrontation with Nate or big reckoning for the kids’ bad behavior. One of the main characters, McKay, didn’t even make the episode. The ending essentially amounted to “Zendaya’s single is dropping.”
But after a season of predictable story lines and in-your-face licentiousness, I found these more elliptical moments to be really refreshing. By simply hanging out with its characters, by being instead of doing, the finale was moving in unexpected ways. The scenes of the female leads sitting around at the dance, drunkenly philosophizing and chatting about their crushes, felt more authentic to my high-school experience than anything else the show has done. A seemingly incomprehensible crosscut — Cassie dreaming of ice-skating as she undergoes her abortion —hit a hidden well of feeling so deep it gave me chills.
And while I’m sure it had tons of viewers screaming “Seriously?!” at the TV when the credits rolled, I loved the 15-minute music video that concludes the episode. Euphoria’s real avenue of communication is its visuals, and stripping it of dialogue has the paradoxical effect of making its message that much clearer. Through the strains of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You,” we see every emotion run through Rue’s anxious brain at once: grief, fear, shame, anger, and overwhelming love for her family. It’s authentic, powerful filmmaking, anchored by a stunning performance from Zendaya — delivered near-wordlessly, until she finally opens her mouth to let out that gorgeous singing voice.
The most obvious conclusion of the final “All for Us” sequence is that Rue has overdosed once again, possibly fatally. She’s swathed in the beloved hoodie that we now know belonged to her late dad — the only family member who can see her as she narcotically stumbles through her kitchen. Her Sunday service–esque sweatsuit choir becomes a pile of bodies, symbolizing the massive human toll of addiction. The brass and horns behind that final “Till Then” suddenly melt into soft wind and birdsong: Rue’s hospital soundtrack.
But having Rue relapse seems like an odd choice given the rest of her story line, in which she finally chooses the security of her family over the rush of being with Jules. Could the sequence be a flashback to her first overdose instead? Many of its elements suggest rebirth: Rue appears to snort her line off a Bible, and it’s hard to miss the symbolism of her being supported by a choir as she lies prone and Christlike. Is her final disappearance into that good night an ending or the beginning of her new life?
Regardless of interpretation, the sequence is a masterpiece, perfectly balancing the grand spectacle of a traditional musical finale with Euphoria’s unique visual palette. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.
Yet the complexity of Rue’s journey makes it clear how much the show is shortchanging its other characters. Jules, in particular, seems to have devolved into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, in love with everyone and throwing caution to the wind. We know she wants to run, but we never get a sense of what it’s toward or from. Similarly, while it was sweet to see Kat finally embrace Ethan’s affection, it didn’t feel rooted in what came before. What was the moment of being “new Kat” that made her realize that old Kat wasn’t so bad after all?
Even worse were the episode’s attempts to round out Nate and Fezco, both of which felt like too little, too late. Nate’s post-football confrontation with his dad was clearly the show’s own Hail Mary pass, a last-ditch attempt to add some vulnerability to a one-dimensional character. But Nate’s howls of anger were just comically awful, like watching a buff toddler have a meltdown. Jacob Elordi just isn’t up to the level of the rest of this ensemble, as is seen all the more so when he’s forced to play opposite the beautifully restrained performance Eric Dane is giving as his father.
Fan favorite Fezco, on the other hand, deserves more than he’s getting.
I know I wasn’t the only viewer looking forward to his cold open, and depriving him of one felt like a massive cop-out, especially since he’s the show’s only character from a lower-class background. Too much of Fez’s screen time was wasted on the bland buildup to his robbery of the cartel’s plug, and forcing him to beat up the guy in front of his son felt like a transparent attempt to make the character less likable without the effort of actually creating more depth to his personality.
With a second season already confirmed, fleshing out criminally underused characters like Fezco and Lexi is the biggest area of in need of improvement for Euphoria. Sam Levinson is a visionary filmmaker, but having him write the entire series solo may have been a mistake; he needs a room of voices as diverse as his ensemble. Characters that don’t align with the show’s plot (like McKay) or tone (like Nate) need to be dumped or reworked. And the show could stand to spend a bit more time with its parents — Rue and Cassie’s moms have a lot of promise as characters, glimmers of which can be seen in this episode.
For the moment, Euphoria may still be more style than substance. But this episode confirmed for me that the show does have something genuinely meaningful to say about addiction and a completely original storytelling language for it. Maybe next summer, we’ll get to see what it can do when it’s fully in command of its visual power. Till then …