Major spoilers for Euphoria season one up ahead.
"Honestly Howard, this whole thing is beyond logic." When Rue (Zendaya) delivered this quote she wasn't talking about the makeup of HBO's Euphoria. She was referencing the sadistic situation her friend/lover Jules (Hunter Schaffer) had found herself in with our friendly, neighborhood jock with a sexuality complex, Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi). Jacobs catfished Jules, asked her for nudes, then proceeded to blackmail her with said nude photos so he could escape going to jail for choking his girlfriend. Yikes. I, however, am going to use this quote to discuss the structure of Euphoria because this whole thing is really just beyond logic. Disregarding the show's, at times, extreme plot (see the previous sentences), I'm talking linearly.
Euphoria flings its viewers directly into the mind of an unstable addict. By lurching between its ensemble cast of characters, the teen drama weaves a nonlinear storyline. At times they leave viewers with no clue as to whether these converging plotlines are occurring in the same day, much less the same week. It's Rue's first person narration that extends an olive branch of security to the audience within this chaotic world. However, when Rue's narrative voice is quite literally lost at the end of the season, the anxiety producing structure of Euphoria is laid bare. This allows the audience to experience addiction for what it truly is. Drugs may offer reprieve, but they can just as easily diminish the user into a nightmare like montage filled with panic, depression, and helplessness.
Euphoria's filming style is crafted to make the entire show feel like one long drug bender. The most dramatic example is the magnificently filmed rotating room scene, which recreates the reeling sensation of drugs as they hit the system. Unfortunately, I'm guessing HBO cannot afford a literal rotating chamber built to manufacture the drug experience for every scene. Everything from distorted voices and pounding heart beats to pulsing lights and moody purple hues subtly construct the feeling of being constantly on drugs. The recurring spinning camera angles, including scenes not featuring Rue (Nate lifting Maddy at the bowling alley; Cassie and McKay dancing at his rush party), capture the nuance of a druggy haze.
To go beyond cinematography, the number one element in an immersive addiction story is to have an addict narrate it. Not only does Rue's narration humanize our main character, it also allows for Rue's humor to push through, forming a more complex character. Writing characters in an addiction narrative whose only personality trait is their struggle with substances seems to be a common problem among stories in the canon.
It also allows for some fabulous fourth wall breaks. My all time favorite is the Detective Bennette and Howard sequence were Rue and her best friend Lexie (Maude Apatow) embark on a grainy detective novel esq goose chase to solve the Jules-Nate mystery, complete with cop outfits and match lit cigarettes. Honorable mentions include the dick pic taking presentation and "my super brief and horrifying sexual history."
Humor, however, isn't the main purpose for this narrative style. The real reason Rue is here is to serve as a navigational guide in the time loop, roller coaster ride that is Euphoria. That is, until creator Sam Levinson takes it away. In "The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed" (episode seven) alone, the audience is taken through Rue's manic segment as Detective Bennett intercut with her depressed binge of Love Island. We then backtrack to the halloween party from episode six to pay Kat (Barbie Ferreira) and Daniel (Keean Johnson) a visit during their hookup. Next we jump to Cassie gathering her friends around a table to discuss her hookup with Daniel (apparently he's been busy). Lastly, we circle back to a depressed Rue delivering sharp one liners to her Mom's new boyfriend over a bowl of cereal. Now throw in Jules's adventure to the city, the main focus of the episode, and we're really in for a trip. It's unclear how much time has passed between all these events and the correct chronological order of Rue's scenes in her depression, a re-occurrence throughout the episode. Rue told us "the other thing about depression is it kind of collapses time" and in Euphoria, boy is she right.
Rue's voice guiding us through these events makes it seem like she is not only in control of the story, but also her own addiction. In actuality, Rue has never been in control. She's always been addicted to something. At first it was opiates, then it was Jules. This becomes clear when we lose Rue's narration all together in "And Salt the Earth Behind You," episode eight. Before that, however, the audience receives a condensed version of Rue's mental arc for the entire season in "The Trials and Tribulations."
Rue is not a logical person. She's bipolar, constantly teetering between mania and depression. Her narration is another example of a state of mania. Throughout the season she seems like she has a tentative handle on things, enough to fill us in on the inner secrets of other character's lives. In episodes one through seven we see Rue in a fairly consistent state of manic euphoria generated from her addictive love for Jules. When she loses her latest obsession to the city, she hits the opposite end of the spectrum: depression. Episode seven showcases this phenomena using manic scenes of Detective Benett mashed with Rue so depressed she gives herself a kidney infection. This mirrors what will happen in the season finale as the series hits its own rock bottom during Rue's relapse.
The loss of first person narration in the final episode is a call back to Rue's first narrative log retold from her mother's point of view. Now we as the audience have been cast out of Rue's mind and into an outside perspective. With Rue's narration at last removed from the story, we finally see how splintered the mind of an addict truly as the timelines shuffle into prickling unease and hysteria. This underlying nervousness erupts leading up to Rules goodbye at the train station and her panic attack montage that follows on the teary walk home.
By the end of the season Rue is not dead as some fans have claimed, but has instead experienced the metaphorical death of her new found resolve against drugs when she falls prey to panic and addiction once again. As the haunting notes of "All for Us" begins to play, Rue is literally dragged through her house and back to her old ways. This time, however, without a narrative voice to mediate the confusing dance montage. Her dead father crushes her in an embrace in an attempt to save her, but in the end Rue is the only one who can stop herself from being sucked back into the alluring numbness of drugs. She is helpless against the tide of figures dressed in the red to symbolise panic and her father, her unintentional first dealer.
Drugs weren't always a negative for Rue. For a time they were the only thing that made the overwhelming anxiety always gnawing at her brain go quiet. This is represented by the red figures who at first appear to support her atop their outstretched hands, but in actuality jerk her around like a ragdoll and surround her as soon as she breaks away on the ground.
Resisting drugs is an uphill battle for Rue, and she's proven to us that sometimes it's easier to let go. We see this in the closing shot of the episode when Rue, standing alone atop the mountain of bodies, plummets into the unknown abysse of relapse.
Rue can tell us all she wants about how awful it is to be addicted to drugs. She can show us the consequences of her relentless cravings through the people she hurts along the way like Fez (Angus Cloud), Lexi, and her family to name a few. However, it is this filming style and the purposeful exclusion of first person narration that allows the audience to feel the chaos and uneasiness Rue deals with everyday in her head that drives her to seek drugs as the answer.
An immersive TV experience likes this one allows the audience to empathize with Rue in unprecedented ways. We feel Rue's joy when she really kisses Jules for the first time to a crescendoing symphony. We feel the relentless pain she suffers when it feels like her world is falling apart. Rue's mother wishes she had a narrator to warn her about her daughter's struggles, but no one has an omniscient narrator to hold our hand through the bad times. This narrative technique offers a unique opportunity to feel what it's like to be a drug addict and hopefully have sympathy for those going through similar experiences. Euphoria, though criticized by some for being too dark, arrived at just the right time for a culture that can't decide what kind of relationship it will have to drug abuse. Is drug abuse be something to be fought with incarceration? A disease to be treated? An evil that stemming underlying issues we as a country need to address? Whichever way we go, Euphoria urges us to consider empathy and understanding in the complex relationship between drugs and users.
Till next season.