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The Sublime Narcissism of Euphoria

Lexi unveiling her masterpiece is Euphoria at its best, which is inextricably bound up with Euphoria at its worst.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

Euphoria is the most audacious live-action series on TV right now, and the most annoying: a suburban melodrama about damaged, yearning teenagers and their parents that turns overcomplication into an aesthetic. The entire production is shot on soundstages and back lots, the better to enable the show’s delirious visual style, which could be summed up as Martin Scorsese’s My So-Called Life. The camera never hangs back and observes when it can lunge, recoil, swoop, track, shake, spiral, or follow characters from high overhead. There’s profligate drug use, nudity, graphic sex, and violence, and a consistent strain of emotional abuse that culminates in shrieking, door-slamming, cathartic weeping, and sometimes, makeup sex that reboots the cycle of dysfunction.

A standout season one episode, set at a country fairground — and built on a back lot, the better to allow the camera to track characters as they navigate hordes of fairgoers, board rides, and rise hundreds of feet in the air — sums up the gestalt of Euphoria. The show is barely controlled chaos in televisual form, the whole contraption perpetually on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its ostentatious virtuosity. You experience the characters’ feelings like a series of attractions at an amusement park: Ferris wheel, roller coaster, Tilt-a-Whirl, hall of mirrors.

The latest episode, the seventh of season two, uses a similarly self-referential storytelling device, though this time set on opening night of Lexi’s roman à clef, which she wrote, directed, and stars in. It’s basically Euphoria: The Play: The Episode. Titled Our Life, her drama is written as a series of vignettes sketching the torment of characters plainly based on people squirming in their seats in the audience. The staging is grandiose and clueless in exactly the way a preternaturally gifted high-school student’s breakout production would be. The title strikes the right note of cringey accuracy: Lexi is the main character and narrator, even though she’s strip-mining the crises and torments of friends and relatives whose troubles she observed from the periphery, conversations that never would’ve occurred had the other parties known they’d become “material.”

The episode’s title, “The Theater and It’s Double,” boasts an intentionally misplaced apostrophe that sums up creator Sam Levinson’s tendency to inflate subtext to the size of Stonehenge slabs and shine spotlights on it. He literally does this in the episode, a self-aware joke: Our Life is spelled out onstage by performers carrying letters as big as they are. Here, Bertolt Brecht, Bob Fosse, and Rushmore’s Max Fischer pile into the clown car of Levinson’s already overstuffed busload of influences: There’s a percussionist providing circus-style drumrolls ahead of entrances; an “Air Rotica”–style, homoerotic bump-’n’-grind musical number set in a gym; and moments where the episode cuts between Lexi’s restaging of a real-life moment, the actual moment, another character’s memory of the moment, and their anguished reaction to seeing the moment reenacted onstage. Sometimes Lexi’s avatars are played by the same people they’re impersonating. You never know when a cut is going to take you from the stage into the “real” world, which is itself a blatantly artificial construction.

Euphoria verges on gratuitously sleazy, but the tone is often naïve or “innocent” — as if the teens have no idea they’re indulging in debauchery that might shock a Hollywood studio executive; as if the series itself is oblivious to all the previous shows and films it raided for inspiration. That willed naïveté serves it well here. Lexi always knows exactly what she’s doing when it comes to practicing her art — you can see by the whip-cracking way she runs things backstage, telling one of her actresses to quit crying and accept the note she just gave her — but continues to playact the babe-in-the-woods, just-a-gal-keeping-a-journal routine because it lets her do what she would’ve done anyway. In the stage-play episode, Rue’s novelistic narration sometimes tags in for, or bleeds into, Lexi’s stage narration, suggesting that maybe we’re seeing Rue’s merciless take on Lexi; i.e., the self-absorbed teenage playwright is just one more character in a novel Rue is writing, or a film she’s making.

Euphoria often toys with its viewers when it isn’t behaving as if it’s not beholden to the audience at all. Consider Rue: She’s played by the biggest name in the cast, a co-star of two of last year’s biggest box-office hits (Dune and Spider-Man: No Way Home) who has already won an Emmy in the part and might win again for the February 6 episode, which followed Rue during a drug-related freakout as she ran all over town, trailing destruction in her wake. A pair of self-contained “pandemic episodes” that debuted in 2020 and 2021 made it seem as if the show might focus on the relationship between Rue and her great love, Jules (Hunter Schafer), the lovelorn and exploited transgender teen who’s like the better angel of Rue’s nature. But the series has proved to be no more interested in these two than in any other member of its perpetually swelling ensemble. The second season kicked off with a self-contained origin story for a character who had been fairly marginal in season one, the teenage drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud). It was directed and edited in a style so knowingly reminiscent of Goodfellas that it used Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” during a cocaine-dealing montage. Every scene was conceived for maximum oomph, including a bit where Fezco’s grandmother and criminal mentor (Kathrine Narducci of The Sopranos) used a crowbar to splatter the brains of a supplier who cheated her.

It brings viewers back to a pay-cable prototype of serialized drama from earlier times. There, the appeal for the viewer lay not merely in the ritualized beats and revelations and rigidly scheduled Easter egg deliveries of plot and “mythology” (see The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, Peacemaker, and WandaVision, among other series that owe their existence to intellectual-property maintenance), but the dangerous energy inherent in making art to please oneself, rather than a fan base encouraged to think of itself as shareholders voting on what filmmakers are allowed to do. As in trendsetting weekly dramas such as Oz, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, as well as comparatively disciplined early seasons of such Ryan Murphy projects as Glee, American Horror Story, and Pose, Euphoria seems intoxicated by the chance to use form to surprise, upset, tease, frustrate, and baffle. For better and worse, it’s an illustration of director Chan-Wook Park’s dictum that the most important relationship in any work of popular art is the one between the storyteller and the audience.

More so than any other Euphoria episode, “The Theater and It’s Double” is clearly the product of the same person who made the overweening 2021 black-and-white two-character drama Malcolm & Marie, which crammed entitled, bad-faith gripes about critics and the culture into the mouths of two Black characters, an apparent attempt to inoculate Levinson against critiques of the project’s vindictive triviality. Yet somehow, Levinson’s morbid preoccupation with the perceptions of audiences and critics is examined in a much more perceptive, generous, and self-lacerating way here. Lexi, like Malcolm, is a Levinson avatar who does what she wants how she wants and is peevish about not being universally adored. But in Euphoria, the storyteller seems not only aware of the unflattering comparisons he invites, but masochistically eager for viewers to make them, like an opera character opening his shirt to his enemy’s knife. The episode is about the cold-blooded core of opportunism that every committed writer (and actor, and artist) must have in order to be successful, even the ones who reassure themselves that they’re caring, nice people. Lexi has several conversations with Fez (an unexpectedly thoughtful sounding board) about the ethics of raiding the lives of intimates for details she can use in her art and not alerting them in advance. It’s obvious from her questions that Lexi isn’t going to warn her inspirations. If she did, she might feel guilty and soften the piece.

Among the many complaints lodged against Euphoria is that it’s lurid, an impractical portrait of youthful sexuality and drug use; that many of the principal actors look 10 to 15 years older than the characters they’re playing; that the whole thing is so overheated, narratively as well as visually, that watching the show can be as exhausting as one of Rue’s exculpatory monologues. All of this is true. Euphoria creates a hothouse environment so hermetically sealed off from any documentary reality that it might as well be a simulation of high school occurring in a zoological moon-dome built by the sex-curious extraterrestrials in Slaughterhouse Five. But a self-enclosed world in which nothing feels real except emotions has been the province of TV since its inception, the sunny 1950s idylls of Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show giving way to the R-rated HBO moral-relativity experiments of Oz, Big Love, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. And the trembling-to-hysterical emotional baseline of Euphoria is congruent with teen melodramas dating back to the 1950s. Its truest antecedent may not be the auteur flicks Levinson lifts his moves from, but the 1955 teen melodrama Rebel Without a Cause. Director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Stewart Stern created a snow-globe world, cast the title role with an actor who was 24 and looked it, put his emasculated father in an apron, segued from a planetarium presentation emphasizing humanity’s smallness to a knife fight between two delinquents, and ended with the hero and his equally damaged friends playacting a happy family in a deserted house.

Lexi’s play has that sentimental-teen classic feeling; if it were a movie, you could imagine it sitting on a shelf next to Rebel, The Outsiders, and Stand by Me (which she and Fez discuss, bonding over its portrayal of friendship). The episode where Lexi unveils her masterpiece is Euphoria at its best, which is inextricably bound up with Euphoria at its worst. It’s self-aware and self-regarding and constructed in an intellectualized way. And yet it flows, as if you are somehow seeing an imagination in the process of thinking it. The deeper Euphoria goes up its own ass, the more sublime it becomes.

The Sublime Narcissism of Euphoria