And should we defend it?
Euphoria’s Season 2 finale aired only last week and even if you didn’t watch it, you definitely heard about it. Following the show’s Covid induced hiatus, Euphoria’s return to air has brought along an inescapable social media discourse—documenting, celebrating, and ridiculing the show week by week. Unless you blocked the words “Nate” and “Cassie”, your timeline likely was flooded by this cultural eruption, begging non-watchers to ask, “Why is Euphoria such a big deal?”
After only 16 total episodes, Euphoria has been hailed by some as the primary representation of young adulthood. Suburban melodrama punctuated by Hyper-Pop and neon lighting—Euphoria expresses a uniquely Gen-Z spirit. Beyond aesthetics, Euphoria’s diverse cast of characters stands out among a genre which has historically favourited the white and heterosexual. Capturing coming-of-age in intersectional and varied ways, the HBO show has answered the demand for more nuanced representation media.
More importantly, however, Euphoria does not just reflect current youth culture, but actively shapes it. Euphoria has become shorthand for a style as much as a show, used to evoke the vibe of the makeup, clothes, and general atmosphere from the fictitious world. As Gen-Z and Euphoria continue to mutually influence one another, the need for the show to represent young adults in nuanced and accurate ways is critical. The question of why Euphoria is a big deal ultimately comes down to this relationship, as the show hazards making potential misunderstandings of its primary audience, perhaps isolating or even misleading young adults.
Despite criticism from its preceding instalment, Season 2 continues to capture these threads of young adulthood in hyper-stylised ways, straying from complete realism. Why are all of these high schoolers wearing Miu Miu? Why wasn’t my teenage love life imagined as a René Magritte painting? Our immersion into Euphoria’s gritty suburban reality is constantly threatened by these choices. The banal everydayness of young adulthood and student life is all but ignored by the show, despite being set in the final years of high school. UoA student Gabbie noticed this dissonance, saying, “These people don’t have maths homework? These characters would never survive the IB programme.” For others, despite relating to the content itself, felt such intense stylisation distances them from Euphoria, Veronika saying, “The cinematography of this show makes me disconnected from its content. Did I pass out drunk at my friend’s house? Yes. Did I do that in a Tumblr-neon-glitter way? No.”
Ironically, it is the demographic that Euphoria seeks to represent that will be first to point out the show’s ridiculousness. The out-of-touch nature of the show has become an internet meme in itself, expressed in the shorthand “Euphoria High”. TikTok users are especially quick to ridicule the show’s inauthentic representations of young adulthood. Such discourse, however, is not evidence to the show being widely disliked, Bethany says, “We like it so much because it’s not fully real, it’s an entertaining fantasy. No one thinks ‘Euphoria High’ is an accurate depiction of high school in real life.” As UoA student Kelly points out, such stylisation may not only be entertaining but also lends itself to representing young adulthood in non-literal ways, saying, “I think it captures how dramatic and blown out young adulthood can be—the dramatisation, whilst not accurate, speaks volumes to the overwhelming atmosphere and emotional turbulence.”
Where Euphoria’s aesthetics may isolate viewers, its subject matter may disturb more—a prevailing criticism from the show’s target audience. Though the show’s diversity and willingness to tackle relevant issues has been praised, it’s exhibitionist tendencies have been called into question—Why do we need to see a 16-year-old naked to know they are naked? Though Euphoria’s subject matter is real and pressing, casting them onto fictional underaged bodies has raised questions around the appropriateness of the show—especially for 16- and 17-year-olds, the supposed age of Euphoria’s characters. Such controversy has elicited a response from the cast themself, lead actress Zendaya cautioning viewers, saying, “It’s a raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety, and the difficulties of navigating life today… There are scenes that are graphic, hard to watch and can be triggering. Please only watch if you feel you can handle it. Do what’s best for you.”
UoA student Hannah further affirmed these points, saying, “Euphoria is teetering on the border of glorifying drug use, toxic relationships, behaviours, and mindsets. I feel as though Euphoria should have been set in university. It would make so much more sense and maybe people, including me, would be more forgiving.”
This is not all to say that Season 2 was a failure. Euphoria’s already impressive ratings have doubled this season. Clearly, despite its criticism, Euphoria has been able to maintain a committed audience, credit to the show’s enduring and complex characters.
Notably, Rue—the show’s central character—remains the emotional crux of Euphoria. Episode 5, Stand Still Like a Hummingbird, is a stand out of the season. Following Rue on a 24-hour long drug-fuelled escapade, the episode is intimate, anxiety inducing, and anchored to our devotion to the character, despite her evident flaws. Further, it forces us to bear witness to the worst effects of Rue’s addiction, which stands against accusations of Euphoria romanticising drug use. Though episodes like Stand Still Like a Hummingbird are emotionally confronting and potentially very triggering, they ultimately remind us of why Euphoria is so culturally relevant, bringing under-discussed and pressing issues to the forefront of pop culture.
Arguably, some of Euphoria’s most valuable representation has been undermined by the relegation of characters such as Jules and Kat to the show’s periphery. However, this absence has allowed Euphoria to provide much-needed exploration of previously understated characters, namely Lexi—a new fan favourite this season. Season 2’s overlapping plots finally boil over in Episodes 7, The Theatre and Its Double, and Episode 8, All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned For A Thing I Cannot Name —the season’s final episodes—where Lexi stages a self-referential play chronicling the private lives of herself and her peers. Although the premise of her central episode is entirely unfeasible—UoA student Hannah says, “The most unrealistic part? The budget for Lexi’s play. We all know that high schools don’t give a shit about the Arts Department.”—her character is a rare inclusion of quiet normalcy amidst an ensemble of highly audacious 17-year-olds.
“Lexi feels like a godsend from all the overly gratuitous and impulsive characters in the show,” says Trevor. “It’s nice to see more calm and reserved types of young adults that don’t necessarily indulge in the highs of life, but merely act as passive observers to the going-ons around them.” Trevor continues, “I feel Rue and Lexi are the closest characters where I can see a part of myself being represented on-screen… [They are] a shining diamond of universality amongst the excessive alienating aesthetics of Levinson.” Such overwhelming positivity for Euphoria’s sole reserved character reveals our craving for relatability, fatigued by the show’s unwarranted aesthetics and overwhelming subject matter.
Simultaneously, Euphoria captures and confuses the young adult experience. Where coming-of-age literature often fails, often exclusively showing the white, cis-hetero experience, Euphoria makes some triumphs. In a singular episode, Euphoria can explore queer and trans experience, drug use, racial themes, abuse, mental health, and more. Amidst this complexity, maybe moments of inaccuracy can be forgotten. Perhaps, when more media is able to seamlessly integrate such representation, Euphoria will not bear the burden of being one of a few nuanced depictions of young adulthood. Until then, its singularity, and resulting responsibility, will continue to elicit criticism for Euphoria. Euphoria’s Season 2 finale makes it abundantly clear that Levinson understands this gravity.
If Lexi’s play is to be read as a synecdoche of Euphoria itself, Levinson ultimately responds, “It could be worse, it could be boring.”