tv review

Euphoria’s Finale Was Visually Stunning, But What’s Beneath the Sheen?

Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and Lexi (Maude Apatow) at the winter formal in the Euphoria season finale. Photo: HBO

There was one moment in Euphoria’s season finale that constituted an actual moment of euphoria. It happened when Kat (Barbie Ferreira) and Ethan (Austin Abrams) finally admitted their feelings for each other and kissed at the winter formal.

That kiss stood out as one of the few genuinely positive, happy moments in the episode, and really, the whole season. Kat and Ethan’s confirmation of love for one other another, sealed with a sweet kiss and underscored by the sound of “Euphoria” by BTS, seemed to be ripped from a teen movie, albeit a teen movie about a high-school girl who runs a lucrative sex-chat business and gives it up when she realizes she’s worthy of genuine love. It was what we expect from our coming-of-age stories, on television and in film: for lessons to be learned, and for kids who engage in “bad” behavior to eventually normalize and find a path toward goodness again.

Throughout its first season, the rest of Euphoria stubbornly refused to adhere to that formula. At the end, every other character is still flailing emotionally or making poor choices. When Kat and Ethan gleefully say, “Let’s get out of here” at the dance, their exit enables them to get away from all the drama and negativity. Later, when Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) — Euphoria’s own Romeo and Juliet — say those same words and also leave the dance, there’s a sense that they can’t run from their darker influences, or at least Rue can’t. The final moments of the episode basically turn into a confounding but gloriously staged Beyoncé video — complete with a marching band, backup dancers and an original song sung by Zendaya — that serves to tell us that Rue has relapsed and, maybe, perhaps, depending on your interpretation, even died. It’s a visually stunning, confusing note on which to end, one that’s uplifting to watch but deflating to think about because it implies Rue has not made the progress we thought she might have. But that also seemed right. If Euphoria has been anything this season, it’s been visually stunning and sometimes confusing in its ability to convey cogent themes, capable of moving its storytelling forward and then taking a few steps backwards.

To its credit, the first season became increasingly compelling as it progressed. A show that was initially known for the number of dicks it put onscreen wound up sculpting its characters into young people that we cared about and sympathized with, a testament to the writing by Sam Levinson (the series creator who penned all the episodes and directed five of them, including the finale), and performances by a cast of young actors determined to reveal the vulnerability points in the teens they portrayed. As the lead and most damaged soul in Euphoria, Zendaya’s Rue was the heart of the show and a believably broken one. Her performance is one of the series’ strongest assets.

Euphoria may be the ultimate Instagram-generation show, not only because of the age group on which it focuses but because of its approach. Every detail in every frame seems designed to dazzle: the shiny stars and baubles that accent Jules and Rue’s glittery eye shadow; the trippy way it careens, especially in the finale, from one scene to the next; the audacity of closing with that Zendaya musical number. Euphoria was fixated in every episode on how it presented the surfaces of things, as are today’s teens (and for that matter, today’s adults, too). It took longer for it to drill down and get to the realness underneath all that sheen.

That slow-burn approach worked most effectively this season with regard to Cassie (a soft but fiercely intelligent Sydney Sweeney), a girl who comes across at first as sweet and unfairly branded as slutty. Euphoria doesn’t delve super-deeply into her background until episode seven, which, among other things, reveals that she repeatedly felt pressured by previous boyfriends to be photographed naked or filmed while having sex. If she seems like an exhibitionist, it’s because she’s been conditioned to believe that’s what makes her worthy to others. When she realizes she’s pregnant in the same episode, her current boyfriend Chris McKay (Algee Smith) immediately tells her she needs to have an abortion. Cassie has a beautiful body that never feels like it belongs to her. She’s constantly being told to reveal it, or shamed into covering it up, or told what decisions she should make about how to handle what’s happening inside of it. All the layers of that, and how that’s affected her self-esteem, are peeled away slowly and with great sensitivity.

In the finale, as Cassie lies on an operating table, her heels settled into stirrups while she has an abortion, Euphoria flashes through imagery of Cassie ice-skating, an activity that her deadbeat, disappointing dad once encouraged her to pursue and that she once loved. All of this unfolds to the sound of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage,” making this sequence a powerful testament to the war Cassie wages, internally and externally, over control of her physical self. But instead of holding with that moment, Levinson cuts from Cassie to a scene where Fez (Angus Cloud) robs a home, then to a conversation and a kiss between Rue and Jules, then back to Cassie. The original power and meaning of Cassie’s moment get diluted because the show is doing too many things at once. It’s like Euphoria itself gets too easily distracted by other shiny objects. The show has a lot in common with its teenagers, in that it has a great deal of promise, but often loses focus and lacks discipline.

In the end, the first season leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Did Maddy (Alexa Demie), the on-again, off-again, abused girlfriend of Nate (Jacob Elordi), acquire footage of Nate’s father engaging in sexual acts with underage men and women? Assuming Maddy did — a shot of her with DVDs in her possession certainly implies that — what did she do with them? Are Rue and Jules totally over now that Jules has escaped to the city without her? Related, but less pressing question: Why isn’t Jules more concerned about letting her extremely supportive father know where she is?

And most important: What has happened to Rue? In a scene that runs through the episode, Rue’s mother, Leslie (Nika King), speaks in a church about Rue’s life. At first this seems like another step in Rue’s recovery process. But increasingly, and especially after that last image of Rue, jumping off a pile of dancers into darkness at the end of that climactic musical number, it seems like it might be a funeral, even though Rue is sitting right there in the pews.

As she sits there, she is wearing the burgundy hoodie she cloaked herself in for much of the season. In one of the many — I would argue too many — flashback moments in the finale, it’s finally clear why she wears that thing so often. It was her father’s. We see her take it from his death bed and she’s been wearing ever since. That hoodie, the show tells us, is her armor. It’s also how she keeps her daddy close.

It’s been right in front of us the whole time, but we couldn’t understand its meaning without more context and background. Euphoria implies repeatedly that this is a crucial issue for teens, and society, in 2019: that we misinterpret obvious symbols and signs, or just ignore them entirely. But that message gets lost in the Euphoria finale’s timeline trickery and the wide net of high drama it casts. The first season ends — note: there will be a second — by deciding “Let’s get out of here.” Then Euphoria does, leaving us behind, alone, to wonder where exactly everybody went.

Euphoria Is Visually Stunning, But What’s Beneath the Sheen?