Please indulge me in my bitterness about the Cal cold open. A good quarter(!) of the episode is dedicated to his senior year of high school — a bloated flashback that revels in the nostalgia of open-top car rides, skinny-dipping, and first love. This is the year he meets a freewheeling Marsha who teaches him the power of cunnilingus, but it’s also the year he falls for his best friend, Derek. After graduation, the pair sneak off to a gay bar where they share a kiss on the dance floor. But before he can soak in the joy, Marsha tells him she’s pregnant. Just as he gets a taste of the life he could have, his trajectory is irrevocably shifted. But this is the longest backstory yet that devotes far too much time to the idea that teenagers have always had the same hopes and dreams and desires. For better and for worse, Euphoria has always been a show about teenagers today and how modernity is a corrupting force in one’s coming of age. But by observing Cal, there’s something to be said about how adolescence today isn’t wholly unique. Cal and Nate are actually a lot alike as broken men weighed down by what’s expected of them. The only difference is that Cal’s repression has a paper trail while dating apps have given Nate the luxury of staying anonymous.
Cal’s segment is just the latest development to indicate Euphoria has stretched itself so thin that it can’t handle its ensemble anymore. The structure of last season gave Euphoria a sense of focus, allocating a good amount of time to each character’s story. Now that the framework is gone, the show is a meandering mess. While certain characters have taken precedence (Rue, Lexi, and, I hate to say it, Cal), others have had a major downgrade in screen time (Jules, Kat, Maddy). Part of me understands that’s just the ebb and flow of storytelling, that some characters have to be sidelined to let others flourish. But part of me just also really misses Jules, who only functions now as Rue’s girlfriend.
Cautious of Elliot, she questions him about his intentions with Rue but remains evasive when asked about her own relationship. (Rue and Jules running away to have sex afterward feels like retaliation against Elliot’s suggestion that they aren’t affectionate.) Despite the awkwardness, it’s a moment that lays the foundation for this trio’s new friendship. They joke and share secrets, but there’s also the simmering tension with the awareness that they’re all kind of attracted to each other. Knowing Euphoria, it won’t be long before this friendship stops being platonic.
Meanwhile, Lexi has an epiphany after the run-in with Cal at Fez’s work. “Lexi realized there was a reason she never tried to intervene before,” Rue’s voiceover says. “She was an observer; that’s who she was.” So in a meta twist, Lexi storms out of her house onto a film set where she is the multi-hyphenate filmmaker asserting control of her narrative. It’s immediately followed by a mockumentary sequence where Lexi explains the play she’s writing, an autobiographical story following the perpetual outsider living in her sister’s shadow. It’s a ridiculously fun reprieve from her angst, but the issue is … we saw this last week. The scenes are different, but the message is the same: she’s passive and wants to change. It has the vibe of me in college struggling to meet the word count and opening thesaurus.com so I can make the exact same point with more sophisticated synonyms.
Cassie is too occupied with getting Nate to like her to notice Lexi’s play. She starts waking up at 4 a.m. to shower, shave, and gua sha herself to doll-like perfection. But Nate won’t even give her the satisfaction of his gaze, let alone attraction, and the more he ignores her, the more she craves his attention. What was first a careful, intricate routine escalates to pure desperation. In the end, her efforts amount to nothing, as Nate cancels their weekly date to make up with Maddy. Again and again, we see that Cassie simply wants to be loved, but it’s also mildly infuriating that Sam Levinson apparently doesn’t know how to write her if she’s not attached to a man.
This is all to say that “Ruminations: Big and Little Bullys” is indicative of this season’s primary issues that are beginning to surface: the preoccupation with unnecessary details, the stagnant pacing, the imbalance of time spent with each character. But Rue’s scenes are the saving grace of this episode. The callback to the dick-pic lesson from last year is a shameless piece of fan service, but it also has its purpose. For all of its lack of subtlety, the contrast between Rue’s eccentric guide to “getting away with being a drug addict” and how she puts those instructions into practice speaks to how far she’s fallen. In her mind, lying and gaslighting is a kind of well-planned heist, a thrilling ruse made light with a wink to the camera. What we actually see is remorseless manipulation, as Rue tries to hide her relapse from Gia. The cutting back and forth between her imagination and reality highlights what a charismatic but unreliable narrator Rue is.
To make matters worse, Rue decides to get into dealing, concocting a “fucking genius” master plan that involves blackmailing students with dirt from the cloud. She takes her idea to Laurie, and miraculously, she convinces her to lend a suitcase full of opiates. (Martha Kelly’s inscrutable deadpan continues to be a highlight.) After an NA meeting that night, a suspicious Ali questions her, and she destroys their friendship with her casual cruelty. Zendaya and Colman Domingo are at their best since “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” as Rue weaponizes the intimate details they shared last Christmas against him. Played out through Domingo’s expressive countenance, his anger gives way to confusion and unspeakable pain. Ali can threaten with fatherly concern, but it’s Rue’s indifference that stings the most. With Jules still in the dark about the relapse, the only person Rue has now is Elliot. Things can only go terribly wrong from here.
I’m also starting to think Euphoria has no idea what to do with Jules anymore. Let’s just run everything that happened to her last season: She moved to town, had sex with Cal Jacobs, fell in love with a catfish that turned out to be Nate, got blackmailed by Nate, left town for a bit, and broke Rue’s heart. Compare that to what she’s doing now: She made it official with Rue and … she’s conflicted about it. I know, I know, it’s only episode three and there’s plenty more to come, but it’s almost like her story is over. (Note that every major character except Jules and Elliot has had a scene from their perspective.) But there is so much more that can be interrogated. To the show’s credit, Jules’s storyline has never been about her gender identity; it’s merely just one component of it. But the casual reveal that she’s wearing a binder at Elliot’s interrogation is treated as little more than a setup for a punchline. Surely, Jules deserves better than that.
• Lexi is out here stressing over how much of a side character she is, meanwhile my man Ethan is getting absolutely ZILCH to do this season. Some crumbs, please, I beg!
• I love the series of dares that Rue, Jules, and Elliot pull off because I don’t think Euphoria has ever been so … childish. This show is so focused on the big ideas that it’s easy to forget these characters are just kids — ones who think it’s hilarious to piss in the middle of the road.
• After the conversation between Cal and Nate about the lost disk, Cal tries to confront Fez again, only to be met by the brutality of Ash and the butt of his shotgun. Very poorly thought-out plans by both Jacobs men. Cal now has a nasty head injury, and Nate has been caught in his lies.
• Kat’s story continues to go in circles, as it considers the idea that she isn’t secure in herself enough to be in a relationship. This week, she meets Ethan’s condescending parents and stumbles when asked to talk about herself. At that age, it’s perfectly okay not to have a firm sense of identity, but for Kat, it’s debilitating — and that feeling is all too relatable.
• With Rue away working on her master plan, Jules and Elliot grow closer, but his open-hearted affection strikes a nerve. “But I’m sure Rue told you all that,” he adds. “You guys are in love, right?” Jules’s silence and dejected look in response say it all.
• The episode’s title, “Ruminations: Big and Little Bullys,” derives from the painting of the same name in which Robert Rauschenberg reflects on his early life. If this is supposed to be a reference to Cal … Rauschenberg, sweetie, I’m so sorry.