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Zendaya’s Extraordinary Performance in the New Euphoria Perfectly Captures 2020

The one-off Euphoria special wipes away the glitter of the season-one finale for an unfussy episode that highlights the nuance of Zendaya’s performance as Rue. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

The last time we saw Zendaya as Rue on Euphoria, she was in the middle of a drug relapse. Because Euphoria is Euphoria, that relapse, which closed the season-one finale, assumed the form of a gritty Beyoncé video, with Rue, eyelids all aglitter, floating through a choreographed routine alongside a crew of similarly dressed dancers who supported her physically as she spiritually disconnected.

In the Euphoria special episode that aired Sunday night on HBO, Rue’s glitter has been wiped away completely, even though she’s still wearing the burgundy hoodie she had on in her music-video version of rock bottom. Aside from a brief fantasy sequence in which Rue is living some happy, normal life with Jules (Hunter Schafer), she spends the entire episode in conversation with her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) in a diner on Christmas Eve. This one-off Euphoria Christmas special, which will be followed by another stand-alone installment (release date still TBA), is a bottle episode and the most stripped-down the show has ever been in its young life. It calls for raw performances from both of its main actors, but maybe especially from recent Emmy winner Zendaya, who must do the opposite of what she did at the end of that finale: be physically still while simultaneously conveying and containing the pain that put Rue, still a little wasted, in front of a plate of pancakes, in a mostly empty diner, on the night before Christmas.

In the beginning of the episode, when Rue tries to convince Ali that she’s doing fine, everything that’s happening on Zendaya’s face speaks to the battle that Rue is fighting within herself. She’s not fidgety — Rue doesn’t have enough energy to fidget. Her mouth does the fidgeting for her. “I wasn’t really trying not to relapse,” Rue admits. Right after she says this, her lower lip completely swallows her upper one, as if she’s trying to button her mouth shut and prevent it from letting such admissions slip. At various points during the conversation, that same mouth puckers, curls into a smirk, and frowns so fully that Zendaya’s mouth forms a perfect upside down U, turning her face into a mirror of the “worst possible pain” image on a medical assessment chart. Because of Zendaya’s expressions, the vessel through which Rue says what she says, becomes just as important, and even more telling, than the words she actually speaks.

We’ve all heard that great acting is about reacting, and Zendaya’s work proves that here, too. She has an incredibly gifted scene partner in Domingo and the flow between them is seamless, which helps. But there isn’t a moment in this episode where Zendaya seems anything less than fully dialed-in and truly listening to what Ali says, without being fussy or showy about the fact that she’s listening.

There is also something definitively “end of 2020” about what Zendaya captures in this performance. A key part of that is the exhaustion that radiates off of her, off of Rue. Rue is tired. Her shoulders sag. Her eyelids, devoid, like the rest of her face, of all makeup, frequently droop. She talks slowly and sometimes can’t muster more than a mumble or whisper. The expression in her eyes, when she’s not pondering some wisdom Ali is sharing, is one of surrender. For Rue, that feeling has been precipitated by the sadness of losing Jules, her disappointment in herself for the way she treats her mom and her sister, her ambivalence about trying to stay clean. But that sense of defeat is recognizable and relatable to anyone watching Euphoria as we, too, approach the holiday season at the end of this stultifying year. We’re all spent and depleted and running on the last tiny cloud-remnants of fumes. Zendaya makes manifest that feeling. Her entire being in this episode is the equivalent of a jagged, heavy sigh.

Throughout the conversation between Rue and Ali, which puddle jumps from the psychological to the philosophical to the spiritual, there are other, oblique allusions to 2020. Ali’s reference to Nike’s self-serving civil-rights messaging calls to mind the protests over racial injustice that swirled during the last several months. When Rue expresses annoyance at people who survive a disease or some other affliction and conclude that it happened to them for a reason, she asks, referring to her late father: “Why does your life have a purpose and my Dad’s didn’t?” Hearing that invites us to reflect on all the people who have lost loved ones during this pandemic, while others have run around maskless, arrogantly proclaiming they will be spared.

But it is in Rue’s devastating third-act admission where both the sadness of her circumstances and the sadness of 2020 fully overlap. “I just don’t plan on being here for that long,” she tells Ali, adding that she’s not really interested in being part of or a witness to life when it has become so irreparably messy. “The world’s just really fuckin’ ugly and everyone seems to be okay with it,” she says. That’s a pretty accurate, concise way to summarize why 2020 has wrecked so many of us.

Ali is not inclined to argue with Rue or talk her out of things. He knows that won’t change her mind-set. Instead, he does what he’s done throughout the entire hour: He challenges her instead. Given her stated desire to die, he asks how she will want her mother and sister to remember her.

This is when Zendaya does the most remarkable piece of acting in the whole episode. She just sits on the question, without saying a word, for 30 full seconds. Her expression is almost blank. But then her lips betray her again. They start to tremble. Her nose runs, and her lower lip swallows her upper one again to catch the drop.

“As someone who tried really hard to be someone I couldn’t,” she finally says. Then Ali does something that’s been tough to do for others in 2020: He reaches out and grabs Rue’s hand. That’s when a tear finally falls from Rue’s eye.

Another actor might have leaned harder into that cry, letting out a cathartic, heaving sob. But Zendaya understands that Rue’s despair is being expressed by someone who is weary to her bones. The quietness of her breakdown is more powerful and believable because of that, and so is the end of the episode, which closes in slowly on Zendaya’s face as Rue sits in the passenger seat of Ali’s truck, as she heads, presumably, home. As she has been the entire time in the diner, she is still. Her eyelids droop. Finally, she gets to do what her body has been screaming to do for the entire episode: close her eyes and find some peace.

Zendaya Is Extraordinary in the Euphoria Special Episode