TV Review: “Euphoria Special Episode Part 1: Rue”
Because of restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, writer/director/creator Sam Levinson gets creative and crafts an episode of Emmy-Award winning show Euphoria that is stripped down of its usual visual, costuming/makeup, and musical flair. “Rue” begins with a dream sequence of Rue (Zendaya) living her ideal life with Jules (Hunter Schafer) complete with lots of kissing, cute conversations, and not having to sneak out of the window because Jules is in art college, and they share an apartment. However, reality floods in as Rue snorts pills and relapses. This leads to her meeting with her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) at a diner on Christmas Eve. They talk for the remaining 50 minutes of the episode about life, addiction, loss, their families, faith, and “real shit” until he gives her a ride home in the rain while Euphoria composer Labrinth sings a gorgeous cover of “Ave Maria” that is definitely going on the holiday playlist.
“Rue” reveals that Euphoria has a hell of a lot of substance underneath. Domingo is a veteran theatre actor, and he and Zendaya embody the old adage that “acting is reacting” in this episode. Because she is high, Zendaya plays Rue in a heightened way at the beginning of the dinner as she slurs her way through talking about how she’s a functioning addict. However, Ali is a great listener, asks good questions, and finds out that when Rue does drugs, she doesn’t want to kill herself. He responds to this with empathy about addiction is a disease, and that while some people want to keep folks like them out of sight and mind, that he knows what she’s been through. Ali even reveals to Rue that he has been clean for seven years, not 20 telling her that he had a relapse after being clean for 13 years.
Sam Levinson doesn’t really play any of the dinner between them for melodrama, but Zendaya’s delivery becomes a little less flat as they launch into a fascinating conversation about the role of faith and a higher power in Narcotics Anonymous. Levinson does a great job connecting both Ali and Rue’s current life situations to the larger world around them in a more organic way than, say, Euphoria’s pilot, which strung together Rue’s birth, the beginning of the universe, and 9/11 in a frenetic opening sequence. Ali is a devout Muslim, which Rue finds out when she wonders why he said his name used to be Martin in a quick bit of comic relief before she sarcastically defines “higher power” as something in nature or an Otis Redding. But the real reason that she doesn’t want to believe in God or a higher power is because of her father’s death because she’s tired of hearing survivors of tragic events say that God “saved them for a reason” when her dad had the purpose of raising her and her younger sister.
This scene hits a real emotional vein and also exhibits Ali’s emotional intelligence as he kiboshes the religious angle and gives a stirring, almost in character monologue about the life of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights movement. He wraps it up with a personal anecdote about Nike’s “Our Lives Matter”, and how they co-opted the Black Lives Matter movement and the work of activists like Colin Kaepernick to sell expensive shoes made by Chinese Muslim slaves. Domingo’s passion comes out in this dialogue, and Levinson crafts a study in contrasts between him and Rue, who is too busy dealing with the shit in her own life and how she can’t forgive herself, to pursue activism or revolution, which he says is “spiritual”.
And this “busyness” flows nicely into their side conversation with Miss Marsha (Marsha Gambles), who shares Gambles’ own story of recovering from addiction and being clean from 17 years while telling Rue (Who got a “Miss you” text from Jules while Ali smoked and called his daughter, Imani) that she needs to focus on her sobriety before getting into a relationship. And speaking of relationships, the chat that Ali and Rue have about her relationship with Jules shows a tiny bit of a generation/communication gap as Rue thought she was exclusively dating Jules because they kissed a lot, said they loved each other, and wanted to get matching inside lip tattoos. However, they didn’t have an actual conversation about their relationship status and instead reveled in the messiness, which can be fun, but usually ends in heartbreak and drama like Jules getting on a train and leaving Rue behind at 1 AM. Storywise, it’s really satisfying to have Rue open up about how she feels about Jules and the connection to her addiction to a third party that is unaware of the utterly fucked up reality of her high school. (See everything about the whole Nate Jacobs situation.)
One of my favorite parts of “Rue” is the “interlude” I mentioned earlier where Rue listens to the thematically relevant “Me in 20 Years” by Moses Sumney and sees a text from Jules while Ali goes outside and tries to reconnect with his daughters (Who Rue asked about earlier) while taking a smoke break. This short scene does a good job of fleshing their characters as Rue retreats to the sanctuary of her music, and Ali tries to show his daughters that he’s a good person even though they witnessed him assaulting their mother when he was high in the past. Rue is at the stage of her life and addiction where she just wants to retreat and try to feel good for her last few years while Ali is trying to make amends. Colman Domingo really nails both sadness and emotional honesty in this scene, and this grief is why they have a strong connection and “like talking to each other” like they both say towards the end of the episode.
With clear shots of both Rue and Ali’s faces, Sam Levinson shows that this isn’t just a polite truism, but they actually like having someone that they can basically empty all their darkest thoughts, saddest feelings, and sometimes, brightest hopes around. They are both characters that are not into bullshit (Unless Rue is skirting a talk about her addiction.) and small talk, and this episode reveals this in a beautiful way with some lived-in performances from Domingo and Zendaya. Levinson also shows detractors that Euphoria isn’t just a flashbang show meant to scare mommy blogs and pearl clutchers, but is deeply invested in the emotional lives of its characters.
In “Rue”, Sam Levinson doesn’t lump Rue’s relapse with a dozen other plots, but he puts it into full, bloody focus. This allows viewers to understand the nature of her addiction, and how it personally affects her and her relationships with her family, Jules, and yes, Ali. Zendaya’s delivery and scrunched up facial expressions enhance this intense character study (Give her a second Emmy already!), and I’m intrigued to see how Euphoria Season 2 explores her addiction, depression, emotions, and relationships.
Overall Verdict: 8.9