Last year, Euphoria left its protagonist and narrator, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), in a dark place of deep yearning. Her impetuous decision to run away from the enclave of her suburban life with Jules (Hunter Schafer) in the finale falters due to a mix of hesitancy and understanding the reality of the situation. Once it does, Rue turns to drugs once again in order to sand off the edges of her existence. Euphoria’s first of two one-off specials, “Trouble Don’t Always Last,” seeks to continue the evolution of Rue’s character — parsing out the weight of her addiction and potential futures — even as the trappings and rhythm of the show are markedly different.
Due to the necessities of filming in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, writer, director, and creator Sam Levinson was forced to pare down his usual stylings. Gone are the swooning camera movement, hyperfrantic energy, quicksilver editing, neon-drenched color palette, and reams of glitter. In their place are a grace and simplicity the show hasn’t previously shown. There have been conversations about Euphoria’s style being overbearing to the point of distracting from its lack of substance, but this show has more meat on the bone than it often gets credit for. In whittling Euphoria down to what’s most essential, Levinson and his collaborators reveal the great strengths of the series that they’d do well to rely on further going forward.
“Trouble Don’t Always Last” opens in a way that can only be a dream, even though it takes a minute to make that explicit. Jules is lying in bed, her back exposed, only to be woken up by Rue’s incessant kisses along her body, her face. They’re in bliss, trading “I love yous” in front of the exposed brick wall of their modest New York studio. Jules is getting ready to leave with a portfolio of fashion drawings under her arm. “Can you believe it?” she whispers to Rue. “It’s everything we dreamed of.” But even dreams can sour. Almost as swiftly as we were swept up in the fantasy of what could have been between Rue and Jules, the fantasy reveals itself to be more complicated than it first appears. In the seconds after Jules leaves, with languid ease Rue goes to the bathroom, crushes up a pill, and snorts it. In doing so, she snaps back into her narrow reality: snorting pills in the dim bathroom of Frank’s Restaurant. When she sits back down across from her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), Rue eagerly says the right things. She’s doing really good. She’s not looking to anyone else — as in Jules — for happiness. Instead, she’s found balance. But Ali can see right through her. “The point is your sobriety,” he says, discerning her flights of fancy for what’s really going on. “Rue, you’re high.”
Nearly the entirety of the episode takes place here, with Rue curled up in the brown vinyl seat across from Ali’s warm but piercing gaze. She lies or reveals an untold sliver of vulnerability. He nudges her to understand that “the point is her sobriety,” that there is hope to be found even though the work of staying sober is increasingly hard. But Ali isn’t speaking down to her. He understands her plight all too well. “I’m just a crackhead trying to do a little good on this Earth before I die,” Ali says early on. This is the rhythm of the conversation that stretches over the hour-long episode. That it never feels boring is a testament to the smart editing, the honesty of the storytelling, and the tremendous acting bringing these characters to life.
At one point, Ali cuts Rue to the quick: “You’re 17. You don’t know shit.” It isn’t positioned as an insult but a necessary truth she needs to hear. The early half of their conversation is especially full of such bittersweet truths. He asks her why she relapses, which sets off a conversational line that travels from her extolling how she wanted to escape her racing mind to an acknowledgment that addiction is a disease even if no one but addicts themselves often see it as such.
Rue is revealed in this episode to be strikingly unreliable as a narrator. (Just catch the moment where she lies about not getting her inner lip tattooed with Jules.) But there are moments of genuine honesty that allow these two people to break new ground in their relationship. Perhaps the most revealing truth that Rue gently unfurls to Ali is her inability to connect with Narcotics Anonymous’s second step since it relies on the addict believing in a “power greater than yourself.” Ali implores her to name a power greater than herself. Rue mentions a mack truck, the ocean, Otis Redding songs, until she honestly admits, “I don’t believe in God.” Rue bucks against the idea that some people’s lives have more meaning than others. “Why does your life have a purpose and my dad doesn’t?” she asks, stopping Ali before he can profess any religious platitudes. But part of the reason Ali is such an effective friend and sponsor to Rue is that he’s honest about his limitations, “I don’t know all the answers and I won’t pretend to.”
The gentle rhythm of their Christmas Eve conversation is only interrupted when Ali goes outside to smoke, disrupting the episode’s potential for visual monotony. He goes to the parking lot, which is punctuated by a bright pink neon sign reading “vacancy,” and another in cherry red merely reading “motel.” While outside he has a conversation with his eldest daughter that we can only hear one side of. “I’m not trying to guilt-trip you,” he says before giving a solemn “Merry Christmas.” “I’m not trying to talk to her through you,” he says at another point. In the span of just a few minutes, Colman Domingo is able to speak to the tangled familial dynamics he exists within through the furrow of his eyebrows and in the eagerness of his voice. While he’s outside Rue gets a text from Jules about how she’s missing her.
Part of the great strength of this episode is in how it reveals more about Ali to both Rue and to us as an audience. We learn his name was Martin before he converted to Islam. We learn he relapsed after 12 years of believing himself invincible, leading to a year and a half of using. He’s been sober again for seven years since. The dialogue isn’t always perfect. There’s a footnote in the conversation about Malcolm X’s evolution that oddly mischaracterizes Martin Luther King Jr., which only reminded me that this show is created and written by a white man. Levinson has strengths as a creator, but his approach to the tangled issues of identity and Blackness is not one of them.
This episode of Euphoria distills the show into its essence, revealing that it is at its best when uncovering the grooves of mental illness and addiction without artifice or hesitation. The episode garners its title when Ali turns to one of the waiters in Frank’s named Miss Marsha (Marsha Gambles) and asks her how long she’s been sober for. It’s been 17 years for Miss Marsha. But the most valuable thing she says isn’t about the length of her sobriety, but how she learned the root of something her grandma would say only when she got sober: “trouble don’t always last.” Marsha also doesn’t hesitate in discussing how she couldn’t date at the beginning of her sobriety because she needed to focus on getting better. The two impulses simply can’t go together. It’s a message Ali hopes Rue takes to heart.
The conversation unsurprisingly continues to veer back to Jules, whom Rue can’t get off her mind. “I still blame Jules for this shit […] because I was clean,” Rue says. Ali is quick to remind her that she was holding onto pills, which casts into doubt her ability to stay clean and her desire to blame Jules for her downfall. Rue then goes on to blame Jules further. “She literally cheated on me,” she says at one point. Ali keenly asks about the state of their relationship. Was it official? Had they really discussed what they wanted from each other at that point? Rue finds such discussions weird. Ali isn’t having it, “because that’s how people get into relationships, Rue. You talk about it.”
It’s interesting how Rue frames the fissure in her relationship with Jules as being because she was being forced into the idea of running away, when the reality is a bit more complicated. The longer the conversation between Ali and Rue went on the more I wondered what she was looking for within its parameters. Is she looking for absolution? Not quite. It seems as if she’s looking for confirmation that she is worthless and life is hopeless. But Ali is there to tell her the exact opposite, that she had wires crossed in her mind, that her addiction and mental-health struggles aren’t signs that she’s not worthwhile, but that she’s human. “The sentence you’re giving yourself is that you’re beyond forgiveness,” Ali says aptly.
Rue beats herself up over her past mistakes. She’s quick to note that when she threatened her mother with a shard of glass she wasn’t high. “Drugs change who you are as a person,” he carefully repeats. The most heartbreaking moment comes near the end when Ali asks her how she wants to be remembered by her mother and little sister, after her words speak to a level of suicidal ideation or an inability to imagine much of a life for herself: “[As] someone who tried really hard to be someone I couldn’t.” “I have faith in you,” Ali says to her doubt.
Euphoria ends studying its most potent terrain. No, not a glitter-soaked, neon-lit evening, but the terrain of Zendaya’s face. As “Ave Maria” continues to play, the camera cranes closer and closer to her face in the passenger seat of Ali’s truck until it nearly takes up the entirety of the screen. In her sullen mien and faraway gaze, it is evident that Rue’s present predicament isn’t becoming less knotted anytime soon.