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TV Review: Euphoria S2E1 “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door”

Euphoria

After over two years off and a couple special episodes to tide viewers, Euphoria is back for second season and doesn’t waste any time getting back in full swing. Writer/director Sam Levinson uses “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” to check in with all the main cast members from season while also telling the origin story of Fez (Angus Cloud), East Highland’s drug dealer with a heart of gold.

The episode kicks off with a potent opening sequence shot on gorgeous, grainy film stock by cinematographer Marcell Rev and introduces us to Fez’ grandmother (A scene-stealing Kathrine Narducci), who is truly a “motherfucking G” as Zendaya’s voice-over puts it. Levinson does tracking shots through the bowels of a strip club before stopping on a dime as Fez’s grandmother puts two in the legs of his father while he’s getting oral sex from one of the strippers. (This is the first of several scenes with male full frontal nudity.) Then, she goes back to the car where young Fez, who has a black eye from his dad’s abuse, is waiting and drives him home launching into full flashbacks of how he became partners with her. This is in addition to being Ashtray’s (Javon Walton) brother and guardian after his mother abandons him.

This flashback reinforces Fez’s strong bond with those he considers to be his family, including Euphoria‘s protagonist Rue (Zendaya) and that him being willing to kill for them isn’t just an exaggeration. The opening scene establishes a cycle of violence that Fez is caught up in and can’t escape by chilling on the couch and chatting with Lexi (Maude Apatow) about the origins of Christmas and the ethics of drug dealing. Fez’s world is full of tension, and he’s 100% aware of that like when he chides Rue for joking around after a drug buy where Fez, Ashtray, and her have to strip down because their supplier is paranoid that they’re wearing wires. Zendaya’s facial expressions when a burly drug dealer named Bruce tells her to strip down are pure trauma and going from that charged environment to a New Year’s Eve party takes a toll on both her and Fez, who doesn’t leave the couch until the end of the episode.

The New Year Eve’s party with its unbridled, hazy atmosphere of drugs, sex, booze, and wash cloths covered in shit is a great device from Sam Levinson to take the temperature of the main characters of Euphoria and also play with some different pairings of characters. Until the Labrinth/lens flare/ring light finale of the episode, Rue actively is avoiding Jules (Hunter Schafer) so she spends a lot of the episode dancing and having a good time with Kat (Barbie Ferreira). Kat and Jules bonded pretty early in Season One, but Jules’ relationship with Rue took center stage and made her world “smaller”. It’s nice to see her circulating around the party even as she keeps an eye out for Nate (Jacob Elordi), who manipulated and blackmailed her last season. As mentioned earlier, Lexi and Fez bond, and his upbeat attitude and the fact that he’s generally impressed with helps her enjoy the party while she tries to figure out where her sister Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) went. It’s a real opposites attract situation, and you can tell in Apatow’s eyes that Lexi is happy to spend time with someone who genuinely cares about what she has to say instead of trying to get something from her. Lexi and Fez were both underrated characters in Euphoria Season 1, and it’s nice to see them get the spotlight off the bat.

Euphoria

The third pairing is the darkest and saddest, Nate and Cassie. Before viewers even get time to settle into the party, Sam Levinson whips over to Cassie buying powdered donuts at a gas station and generally wallowing. Of course, she runs into Nate and his big truck, who offers her a ride to the party. Nate’s recklessness and objectification of women is on full display on the ride up as he drinks beer and hits triple digits on the speedometer. Sweeney hits a great range of emotions on the ride up from total fear to elation as she sticks her head out of the window while Orville Peck plays on the stereo. Cassie is struggling with her self-perception, and if she wants to be in relationships or just keep it casual. She’s not in a good place, and Nate takes advantage of this in a messy bathroom hookup that is one of the main sources of tension in the episode as Cassie hides in a bath tub while Nate’s star-crossed ex Maddy (Alexa Demie) uses the facilities and roasts a former classmate, Travis for trying to fit on her. Cassie’s ex McKay (Algee Smith), who isn’t that bad of a guy, tries to have a conversation about possibly getting back together, but she can barely speak after the utter humiliation of hiding in the tub, betraying her best friend Maddy, and being present for yet another instance of male full frontal nudity.

Humiliation and disgust along with the little bits of violence are recurring motifs in “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” with Rue mixing heroin and cocaine and almost overdosing on her new buddy Elliot (Dominic Fike) only saved by her knowledge of drugs’ effects and bringing her pulse back to normal with Adderall. There’s a warm, smoky vibe around Rue and Elliott, and it’s fitting they end up smoking weed by a camp fire, which is where Jules finally finds her. Levinson and Rev pull out all the stops for a big romantic reunion while using light and dark to show there’s still tension, especially between Nate and Fez. This whole episode is full of shots of different characters keeping tabs on each other keeping an uneasy stalemate until it all boils over in a moment of violence in the final moments as Fez’s world collides with the world of the party.

“Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” sets the tone for what is likely to be a very dark season of Euphoria with Fez unleashing a killer instinct that’s usually hidden behind jokes and keen insight. Kathrine Narducci’s grandmother barely appears in this episode, but we see the impact her presence had on Fez with repeated dialogue and actions in the present day. Also, Sam Levinson and Marcell Rev have successfully changed Euphoria’s visual look to better reflect its broken and on-edge characters while the music is more oldies and nostalgic needle drops than the latest hotness as almost stand-in’s for the missing parents or homages to folks like Fez’s grandma or his new drug source, a soft-spoken former teacher named Laurie. Euphoria Season 2, Episode 1 is confident, depraved, and not afraid to get its hands dirty with an incident towards the end of the episode that has me anticipating the fallout next week and for the rest of the season.

Overall Verdict: 8.9

TV Review: Euphoria Special Episode 2- Jules

Euphoria Jules

The second special episode of Euphoria that acts as a bridge between its first season and delayed (Due to Covid-19) second season focuses on Jules’ (Hunter Schafer) character, her relationship with Rue (Zendaya) and her parents as well as other things like her gender, the toughness of moving to East Highland, and how she feels like she builds stronger connections with folks online that in real life. The entire episode is framed in a therapy session that her dad, David (John Ales) wanted her to attend after she took a train and ran away from home in the final episode of season one. It blurs the lines between reality and fantasy quite a bit, and director/co-writer Sam Levinson brings a lot of Euphoria’s visual and musical trademarks into the episode with a synth-meets-sacred score from composer Labrinth and a pair of powerful needle drops from Lorde and Billie Eilish, who released a new track “Lo Vas A Olividar” with Rosalia just for this episode.

The colorful nature and the non-linear narrative that Levinson and Hunter Schafer, who is credited as a writer on “Jules” matches the titular character who wants to go to New York and study art and has amazing taste in fashion and makeup. One of the first shots of the episode is a colorful flashback montage of all of Jules’ major moments synced to “Liability” by Lorde with the poignant lyrics creating reminders of the hurt that she has been and has caused in the past year. It sets up Jules sidestepping talking about running away and instead talking about gender, and how she is tired of having it be defined by men and crafting her gender presentation to be desirable to them. She talks about going off puberty blockers and her previous fears of dysphoria and puberty’s “deepness” and “thickness” when now those things reminds her of the ocean.

Sure, the metaphor is a little cheesy, but a quick reminder that these are high school students, and it also is an opportunity for Levinson and Schafer to make a little magic in a flashback sequence. With Labrinth’s score soaring, they show us Jules at her freest frolicking in the waves at her grandmother’s house and letting them wash over her as she lies in the sand without a care in the world. This feeling is also connected to how she feels about Rue, who makes a few appearances in flashbacks, dream sequences, and one heartbreaking one in the present as she bikes over to her episode. The way that Jules talks about Rue is a real highlight of this episode as she talks about how Rue saw her real self beneath all the parts of different people that made up herself and compared to how a mother looked at a baby before that child can make any kind of memories. Levinson conveys this emotion visually through a recurring image of Rue and Jules staring into each other’s glittering eyes: Zendaya and Hunter Schafer get a lot of power out of one look. This episode is full of intimate moments between them, like Jules showing Rue how to inject her with estrogen in one scene where they’re sleeping over.

Euphoria Jules

Jules’ new therapist, Dr. Nichols (Lauren Weedman) tries to make connections out of this tangle of emotions and makes a painful, yet true one when she realizes that Jules’ fear and anger about Rue’s addiction is like her anger about her mother’s addiction. We don’t know where Amy (Pell James) is in the present, but there are some flashbacks like when Rue’s dad basically ambushes her by bringing her mom to make amends as part of an AA program. You can see the tension in John Ales’ face as he’s playing a character who wants to save the woman he loves, but doesn’t want to lose his only daughter. Amy overhears that Jules hates and doesn’t care about her so she leaves without saying goodbye, and later, we hear David on the phone about how she’s back at a psychiatric hospital after going on a bender. So, this is why Jules flinches, and Schafer’s lips quiver every time Dr. Nichols brings up her mother, especially when she’s trying to make a positive connection.

The other thread of conversation that Jules and her therapist have is about online relationships, especially her failed virtual relationship with Tyler, who turned out to be Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi), an abusive football player, who blackmailed Jules with her own nudes so he wouldn’t have to face consequences for assaulting his girlfriend in the previous season. Jules still dwells on the texts and sexts she sent to Tyler (Jayden Marcos) and talks to her therapist about the openness and vulnerability she feels in online relationships. This is shown visually during elaborate dream sequences where she fantasizes about having sex with Tyler in her fantasy New York apartment with sensual red lighting and Labrinth’s score building to a climax. But, instead, there’s a bass drop, the lights cut out, and Tyler’s face is replaced by Nate’s as she returns to reality. The relationship between Nate and Jules is one of the scariest parts of Euphoria, and his sweet, catfish texts as Tyler continue to haunt her as she thought she had a real connection with him.

The best and toughest scene in “Jules” is seeing and listening to the story of Jules and Rue’s first from her perspective. In the first season, the scene is shot from Rue’s perspective, and she initiates the kiss before backing off and running away because she didn’t know if Jules liked her like that. However, this episode reveals that Jules was already in love with Rue, and this was the first time she had ever kissed a girl so she was hesitant about making a move. The flashback drives home one of Jules’ key fears: that she will lose Rue. We see her frantically calling Rue and trying to express her feelings to her, which is mirrored in the present day by her missed calls and texts plus their quick, awkward encounter at the end of the episode. Through therapy, Jules can start to rebuild her sense of self and even have conversations about things like going off hormones and being a trans woman. However, she wonders without Rue if it’s all worth it, and the final shot of the episode with the rain pouring down on Jules’ window really captures the pain of losing a friend, and it being your fault while leaving things open ended for the upcoming season.

Although it sticks to one location just like “Rue”, “Jules” is far from lo-fi with Sam Levinson and Hunter Schafer unleashing a plethora of fantasy sequences, artsy flashbacks, and musical tracks to show Jules’ state of mind during a difficult time for her. From watching Euphoria Season One, I definitely knew why Rue loved Jules, but this episode nails how much Jules cares for her with Schafer covering her face in close-ups because she loves her so much and is afraid she is going to lose her. This episode also does a good job of finding a throughline between its Jules’ relationship with Rue and her mother and also talks about online relationships and being trans in a very nuanced way with smart writing from Levinson and Schafer.

These special episodes have shown that Euphoria has two of the most emotionally vulnerable actors on any TV show (Zendaya, Hunter Schafer) and have whetted my appetite for the upcoming season, which hopefully have the same level of insight to go with its visual and musical panache. Also, fingers crossed for a Lexi flashback!

Overall Verdict: 9.2

TV Review: “Euphoria Special Episode Part 1: Rue”

Euphoria 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”.

Euphoria Rue

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

Almost American