tv review

Euphoria Season Two Is a Whole Vibe

Photo: Marcell Rev/HBO

The first episode of Euphoria season two opens blatantly, unapologetically, like a Martin Scorsese film.

The almost ten-minute flashback that recounts the relationship between drug-dealing Fezco (Angus Cloud) and the gangster grandmother who raised him unfolds in a briskly edited rush of imagery. There’s Grandma marching into a strip club and shooting a guy in both thighs while his erect penis is exposed; Grandma bringing a very young Fezco, her “business partner,” to a handoff of illegal substances; and Grandma sharing important life lessons with her grandson while dropping myriad F-bombs.

The content, pacing, and cutting of the sequence is all pretty Scorsesian, but the casting of Kathrine Narducci from The Irishman (and also The Sopranos) as Fez’s grandmother, along with the soundtrack appearance of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” — famously used in the GoodFellas helicopter sequence — cements the notion that Sam Levinson, creator, writer, and director of Euphoria, is trying to pull a Marty.

Levinson doesn’t spend the entirety of Euphoria’s second season mimicking the style of one of the great American filmmakers, though. As established in its first season, which unspooled on HBO in 2019, Levinson is a filmmaker with a moody vibe all his own, one he leans fully into throughout the seven new episodes provided to critics in advance. (There will be eight total.) He kicks off season two this way, perhaps, to announce two prevailing elements in this run of the dark teen drama: an interest in exploring the parental relationships and childhood patterns that have made the Euphoria characters who they are, and a commitment to going in even more audacious creative directions.

The qualities that immediately distinguished Euphoria from other coming-of-age shows remain present this season, including sequences that co-mingle fantasy with reality, an abundance of needle drops, the occasional musical number, a fixation on dim-to-dark lighting (even the wealthy families on Euphoria apparently lack a substantial lamp budget), and often graphic sexual encounters. As was the case before, there is a lot of nudity, including plenty of the full-frontal male variety. In some episodes, one might even say there are [sung to the tune of “Too Many Cooks] too many dicks!

But every aspect of this season of Euphoria — the filmmaking, the storytelling, the acting — also brims with a hunger to push harder, go deeper, and uncork more emotion. After a more than two-year hiatus, aside from two one-off episodes released last year, Euphoria is coming out of quarantine hot, with an abundance of artistic confidence that makes it intoxicating to watch even when its young people are being put through some serious wringers.

And while the HBO series feels more than ever like an ensemble piece, it’s still correct to call Zendaya its lead. Rue narrates all the episodes and her struggles with drugs — she is on them again, to an extreme degree — remain central to the series. “As a beloved character that a lot of people are rooting for, I feel a certain responsibility to make good decisions,” Rue says in a meta fantasy sequence in which she lectures a class on how to get away with being a drug addict. “But I relapsed. Now, in all fairness, I did say from the beginning that I had no intention of staying clean. But I get it. Our country’s dark and fucked up and people just want to find hope. Somewhere. Anywhere. If not in reality, then in television.”

“Unfortunately,” she adds, casually and without apology, “I’m not it.”

It’s true. Rue is in no way a role model and in fact puts herself in increasingly dangerous situations as she experiments with new substances, clashes with her mother (Nika King) and sister (Storm Reid), and tosses gasoline on her burgeoning romance with Jules (Hunter Schaefer). Zendaya, a triple (at least) threat who won an Emmy for her work in season one, is giving an even richer performance this season; she’s got so much natural charisma that even when Rue’s eyelids can barely muster the strength to stay open, she still vibrates with an energy that’s impossible to look away from. She also plays some incredibly intense moments with fierceness, authenticity, and complete lack of ego, particularly in episode five, when it becomes apparent that Rue cannot, in fact, get away with being an addict forever. That installment is basically a 54-minute heart attack, complete with violent arguments, break-ins, and mad dashes into oncoming traffic. Much of this season of Euphoria is, like that episode, a combination of adrenaline rush and sad, sobering drama, all chemically mixed for maximum effect.

Even a simple house-party sequence, a classic of the teen genre that constitutes the bulk of tonight’s premiere, seems determined to defibrillate heartbeats by rapidly switching from one tense situation (a near overdose) to the next (the sight of Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie hiding in a bathtub, hoping no one finds her and realizes who she hooked up with minutes prior). Sweeney, coming off her Side Eye Hall of Fame turn in The White Lotus, also does standout work this season as Cassie becomes entangled in a doomed romance and grows increasingly unhinged as a result.

In season two, some of the young adults get more time in the spotlight, including Fezco and Lexi (Maude Apatow), Cassie’s younger sister, Rue’s childhood best friend, and a side character who, in another meta touch, decides she needs to stop being a side character in her own life, then writes an autobiographical play that, improbably, is put on in elaborate fashion at East Highland High School. Seriously, in terms of quality, Lexi’s play makes Rogers: The Musical look like an elementary-school assembly.

Others, on the other hand, are either given too much attention or not enough. Nate (Jacob Elordi), the often abusive ex-boyfriend of Maddy (Alexa Demie), and his father, the secretly sexually adventurous Cal (Eric Dane), continue to occupy a lot of screen time. Both father and son are very messy people and Euphoria spends a lot of time explaining why, without making it clear enough why we should care. Meanwhile, Kat (Barbie Ferreira), whose online exploration of her sexuality provided some of the most arresting moments of season one, gets pushed out of frame more often than she should, stuck in a somewhat predictable storyline in which she quickly gets bored with her perfectly nice (maybe too nice?) boyfriend, Ethan (Austin Abrams). And the fascinating Jules is defined less on her own terms and more by her relationships with Rue and a new character, Rue’s weed-smoking buddy Elliot (Dominic Fike).

This season of Euphoria is doing the most, and sometimes it’s so much that key figures fall somewhat by the wayside. This is a television series that doesn’t just depict the darker impulses of adolescence — horniness, jealousy, resentment, a flippant attitude toward one’s mortality. It wears them like a bodycon dress, a fresh gel manicure, and carefully applied eye glitter. And more often than not, this version of “too much” is a hell of a drug.

Euphoria Season Two Is a Whole Vibe