December 1st, 2021
Euphoria is an interesting character study.
It took over pop culture when it was first released in 2019 and hasn't lost traction since despite the length of time that has passed between season 1 and 2. It got immense critical and audience acclaim and rightfully so. The cinematography is unlike almost anything seen before, the acting is incredible, it's just so raw! It's just so real! Right?
The show begins and ends on arguably the best storylines: Rue and Jules. They are brilliantly written, hilarious yet heartbreaking, and completely larger than life. Rue is a perfect unreliable narrator, and her addiction story hits all the right beats. It is handled with care and respect, while still allowing the story to shed light on her character flaws. And this all makes sense. The creator of the show was an addict, and this is a story he knows well and is able to add a very personal perspective to. This is most obvious in the scene with Rue and her family that are genuinely heart wrenching and hard to watch. Jules is Rue's complete antithesis, without seeming cardboardly positive. At first, she can be easily written off as a one dimension stargirl, here to manic pixie dream girl away Rue's addiction, but this is quickly disproved. Jules is not perfect, and this is made very clear in the story. Even their too good to be true relationship doesn't shoo away the critical shortcomings of the two characters and allows the narrative to take it where it would realistically go. Rue and Jules are not in the right place of mind to be together (yet!). Rue's addiction is something that takes a real toll on Jules, and Jules becomes something of a drug to Rue, not someone who can swoop in and solve all her problems. And thus, they don't end up together at the end of the season, but the show still leaves the possibility of growth and return. The two special episodes after season one that highlight Rue and Jules separately are true masterpieces and perfect studies of character. In Rue's episode, Sam Levinson fully puts the spotlight on a character he knows well and can really break down the mindset of. Hunter Schafer delivers a phenomenal writing and acting performance in her episode with Jules, drawing from her own experiences as a trans person. This is Euphoria at its absolute best. If all of the show was like this, it would stand firmly on its own, and I would offer only praise.
But alas, Nate.
A lot of people point the finger at Mckay as the least developed character, and look, Mckay is fine as a character. He's not the best person, but he's not unlikable, and he has pretty good development. His season one storyline is a good jumping off point. It's just that compared to all the madness of every other storyline, it's easy to see how his character gets left behind in the conversation. Nate on the other hand is the Thanos of the euphoriaverse. Why is he Mr. Evil #1? Because his dad is kind of neglectful, and he watched porn once. Now, I'm not going to say that a thoroughly unlikable character with serious flaws needs to stem from the most dramatic and devastating backstory. That's reserved for fantasy and the avengers. But again, euphoria struggles from the kick the cow till it's dead problem. Every single aspect is heightened to an extreme. There are few characters in this show that do not have serious flaws and shortcomings, but since these flawed characters are portrayed as the likeable ones, the ones we aren't supposed to root for have to one up them. To quote the vampire diaries, they gotta turn their humanity off. An antagonist character that I believe is actually handled pretty well is Nate's dad. He's a realistic and bad person. Every decision he makes is in line with his character motivations, and he's still unlikable and still furthers the plot along. Of course, he's going to stand by his son despite the horrible abuse Nate did. It's his son, and he believes in family first. He is genuinely intimidating from what we've seen with him and Jules, but when he goes to confront her at the carnival, in a perfect moment of subversion, he breaks down and begs her not to tell anyone about what happened in the motel room. It shows that he still has vulnerabilities, and one can almost feel pity for him in that moment, but he is still an antagonist and one who can do real harm for the characters.
Nate, on the other hand, is so generically evil and a terrible person in every single scene that his character is laughable. Why is he screaming at himself in the mirror, blackmailing everyone around him, and hoodwinking the police to get off an assault charge? Because he's evil obviously come on everyone pay attention! The lake scene with Jules, him and that random girl at prom, the whole Tyler thing in general. It's just so close to teetering off the edge into Riverdaletown. His childhood backstory makes him an asshole not Jigsaw. And you can't talk about Nate without talking about the carnival scene where he chokes Maddy. It's his first actually compelling moment, but amidst how evil of a character he already is, it's not a "How could he do such a horrible thing?" moment and more of an "Of course he did that" moment. And that's not good because it takes away the message of that entire storyline: that regular people can be abusers, people that you may know and respect, and it doesn't make them any less of an abuser. In Nate's case, it's just another ticked box.
The Middle Ground.
A plus size girl struggling with her self image and coming into her identity, style, and sexuality? That's a great storyline! Now what if we make her a cam girl too. This is where my head started to hurt a bit. Everything about the previous statements is great, except for the teensy problem that Kat is in fact 16. This complaint towards the show isn't anything new, and there's really not much more to say except what the actual fuck showrunners?! But it still hurts with how much potential Kat had as a character. It's another case of the 'bring everything to the extreme' problem. Maybe the showrunners aren't confident enough in their writing and don't think that Kat's story without the whole underage sex worker thing would be compelling or novel enough, and I am here to clarify that actually it is very compelling and novel, and dearest showrunner, please put this shit down like old yeller ASAP. Plus, her romance with Ethan is very cute. And of course, I love Cassie, but with all of the other chaos happening in this show, all I can say is she's very hot, and I feel very bad for her, but her character isn't getting nearly the love and development it deserves. The show would much rather sexualize her, and say, see! Look how bad it is that a teenage girl is so sexualized! Rather than give her something else to do as a character or tie her story into the main plot's. Unfortunately, a lot of the moments that border on porno are Cassie's. She and Maddy's characters both suffer because of how much the show puts emphasis on their relationships. And while that is purposeful to show their breaking the cycle of abuse and mistreatment in relationships, there’s much more character development on Maddy’s side. That being said, her relationship with Mckay isn't the worst part of the show, and you can genuinely see how their childhood backstories play a part into how they function together. But again, because of the intensity of everything else, these moments are sidelined.
Something that I hear a lot about this show is that it's portraying realistic high school life, and if you are one of those people, you are lying to yourself. Yes, a lot of these things happen to high schoolers, but not all of them are going to happen to every single high schooler, as if they get bashed in the head by 'tv drama' roulette. One or two of these issues, maybe, but when you pile it all onto every single character, trying to checkmark as many important and risque storylines as possible, you lose the gravity of each as a singular storyline, as something that really happens to real people. Yes real teenagers have drug addictions, and it is a truly terrible thing that needs more attention in the media, but when the piece of media that's portraying it is putting it in a sandwich of pedophilia and underage sex work, suddenly, an overdose is just another plot point to get through.