‘Euphoria’s Newest Special Is The Episode We Both Needed And Deserved

When life gives you a pandemic, either go hard or go home. The past seven months have taken a crippling toll on the entire world, America in particular, and Hollywood is no exception. While some productions have chosen to stay shut down and others have opened back up until the first COVID outbreak shuts it down, it has been a hard year for the entertainment industry. Few stories produced during the pandemic have impressed, let alone grossed.

When it was announced that production on Season 2 of Euphoria would shut down, not days before it was scheduled to begin, adoring fans were broken-hearted. With the finale of Season 1 ending in such a—for lack of better words—clusterfuck, the ever-growing fan base was hungry for answers. It was only a matter of time before the show’s writer-director and auteur extraordinaire, Sam Levinson, used his never-ending creativity to think outside of the coronavirus-shaped box. And in a year of endless disappointments and lack of silver linings, this episode was neither. In fact, this was exactly what we needed.

It’s better that these 60 minutes of slow-paced, borderline serene (per the show’s standard) intensity is what we got instead of the onslaught of colorful chaos that is sure to be Euphoria Season 2. Levinson has perfected the art of telling a story with every inch of frame, from the set design to the camera movements to each winged eyeliner look. However, what has not been made clear yet is Levinson’s directorial prowess without all of that (albeit incredibly impressive and titillating) mise en scéne. One thing was made clear: Levinson has flourished into a talented director who can create a compelling scene stripped of the show’s now iconographic theatricality. The drama is still there, and the story as well, but my god, it was a relief to breathe with these characters after all we have been through with them.

The episode starts with what seems to be a fantasy sequence of Zendaya’s Rue Bennett and Hunter Schafer’s Jules Vaughn living together as lovers/girlfriends/partners. Starting with such a sweet and simple scene—a scene that we viewers have craved since we first saw sparks fly between Rue and Jules in Episode 1—is a grateful respite. But we know it must be too good to be true. Sure enough, once Rue has helped Jules get together her portfolio for art school and kissed her goodbye, Rue moves into the bathroom to snort a substance. As she checks her reflection in the mirror, we match cut into the bathroom of a diner, where the rest of the episode takes place. We are left to wonder whether this dreamy opening is foreshadowing or just a reoccurring scene that plagues Rue’s obsessive mind—likely the latter, as she fantasizes herself self-sabotaging the relationship even though it is “everything [they’ve] ever wanted.”

Once in the diner, it is revealed that Rue is getting some late night breakfast with her sponsor, Ali, portrayed exquisitely by actor Colman Domingo. We learn that yes, Jules did leave town without Rue, leaving Rue to relapse, and Rue is still using, presumably having snorted something before returning to the booth where Ali sits, asking only of Rue that she not “bullshit” him. Rue tries and fails, as Ali is still himself in recovery, and tells her that he knows she is high and only requests that she “own it.”

Rue is taken aback when Ali is not unnerved by her statement that she does not want to get clean. Ali proceeds to explain that she’s only a “piece of shit” because she’s a drug addict, not the other way around. He aptly notes that addiction is a disease, a fact that the show has yet to state verbatim in its dialogue and an important classification to make given the content. Ali also notes that society does not view addiction as a disease, another fact of the world that is important to establish.

Ali goes on to reveal that he himself was clean for 12 years, relapsed for about a year, and now has been clean for 7 years. Also, that his name is Martin—or it was before he converted to Islam. They begin to talk about religion, “greater powers,” and of course, Otis Redding, as hinted in the trailer for the episode with its track of Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee.” The power dynamic in the conversation shifts as Ali puts his foot in his mouth and Rue asks if her father is dead because God didn’t believe in him, reminding us, as the show always does, that adults do not have all of the answers (if any). Ali even explicitly says he does not have the answers and he does not know why Rue “deserves” to be alive over “better” or more “respectful” 17-year-olds.

He goes on to detail Malcolm X’s own personal journey towards revolution, how the world didn’t want his revolution and opted to accept Martin Luther King Jr.’s instead. Ali also ties in the history of slavery and drugs—more on that later. When he finishes this monologue, Rue comments that, “Maybe I’ll start a revolution like Malcolm X,” which sets Ali off on how radical revolution no longer exists.

Ali’s explanation of the world continues—a bit on the expository side, to be frank—and tells an anecdote about going into a Nike store to buy shoes and seeing a sign that reads “Your Lives Matter.” He was less chuffed about it than the other patrons—he describes them taking selfies with it—and goes on to trace the history of drugs, capitalism, and race. While Levinson made sure to exclude any pandemic era references in the episode, it is safe to assume that this is Levinson’s work to include reference to the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in summer of 2020, during which he wrote and shot a separate film about race with Zendaya, Malcolm and Marie, which has yet to be released.

Identifying this connection between drugs, addiction, and race is crucial—especially given that both Rue and Ali are Black—and once again has not yet been touched on in the show. However, the dialogue gets a bit lost as Ali explains that everyone is having or wants to have a revolution, but what the people don’t know is a revolution cannot have allies. Rambling dialogue aside, these points included in Ali and Rue’s conversation are long overdue, given the heavy content of the show, and it is such a relief to have them addressed and to be able to sit with them.

As we reach the midpoint of the episode, it feels and moves much like a one act play, a simple conversation between two people on their own journeys with differing opinions, views, backgrounds, and struggles. While Levinson’s dialogue isn’t perfect, Zendaya and Domingo’s natural performances carry it when it drags and underlines the deep emotions Levinson is poignantly addressing. The subtle camera movements and use of more personal frames—dirtied close ups, over the shoulders, and rarely wide shots—provide us an extremely intimate and uninterrupted look at both of these characters; each edit is fluid, preserving the intimacy of the scene.

Ali goes on to tell Rue that she is sick and therefore needs an internal revolution—not a half-assed one, if she wants to survive—or achieve sobriety. With this, he goes out to smoke a cigarette and while Rue sits inside listening to the second music cue of the episode. Moving with Ali outside—and thankful for it, as we need and deserve more of both Ali and Domingo—we watch Ali call his daughters to wish them happy holidays. This serves to fill in a bit more backstory for the first time, something Ali’s character and Domingo’s gifted performances deserved since he was first introduced in the show.

When Ali returns, Rue asks him what she should do—plainly, almost innocuous, as the second half of the episode moves towards portraying a more vulnerable side of Zendaya’s Rue. Ali turns to Miss Marsha, played by Marsha Gambles, a waitress counting her tips in the background. He asks Miss Marsha how long she has been clean and she replies, “Seven years by the grace of God.” She then explains, when prompted by Ali, that she couldn’t give energy to both being in a relationship and getting clean. Her performance is so powerful, so honest, it seems like she is telling her own truth; she might be, knowing Levinson’s knack for incorporating the stories of actors with their characters on Euphoria. In her final piece of advice, Miss Marsha lets Rue know that “Trouble don’t last always,” a hopeful maxim that has yet to be proven true in the show, plagued by constant movement, drama, and suffering.

This leads us into Rue and Ali’s discussion about Rue’s responsibility for her relapse which Rue deflects and blames Jules for leaving her and cheating on her. Rue says that she had planned to stay clean but that Jules ruined that plan. Ali points out this cannot be true given that earlier in the episode, when Ali asked where Rue got the drugs she was using—now and earlier—she revealed that she had some pills saved in her room. Ali also goes on to ask if she and Jules were ever in a relationship and Rue says yes but fails to prove that objectively, highlighting the importance of communicating boundaries in relationships, even at a young age, and that Rue is not always a reliable narrator.

It is wonderful throughout to watch Rue and Ali’s opinions clash and the mechanisms each character uses to navigate around each conflict. They offer each other immense differences in perspective, a theme that will likely continue into the next special episode, when we finally get Jules’ perspective.

The conversation shifts as Rue unloads all the horrible things she has done to her mother while sober—scenes we saw but couldn’t hear the entirety of in the first season. Rue says she is unforgivable, but Ali once again doesn’t bite—he reminds her that to claim you are beyond forgiveness allows you to avoid changing your behaviors; it is both way too harsh and way too easy a judgement. This dialogue is some of the best in the episode, and the more distinct their character’s voices are, the better the scene gets—Ali’s no bullshit hardness that softens and Rue’s apathetic outlook that melts into an utterly fearful vulnerability.

Rue asks if her actions aren’t so bad, what could he have done that is so terrible—once again, a little on the nose, but given that it means we hear more about Ali, I’ll allow it. Ali explains more about his past—his father who beat his mother, how he fantasized about killing his father and went on to marry his wife and have two daughters. Ali says that his rock bottom was when he used and hit his wife in front of his daughters, the very thing he vowed he would never do. “There is no rock bottom. It is bottomless… Drugs will ultimately change who you are as a human being,” Ali says. The darkness of the content is probably best matched with how static and sedentary the scene has become. We need to sit with this information just as the characters are. It also helps us understand the humanity of addiction, by focusing solely on their faces, expressions, and slight gestures—who they are as people struggling with addiction and recovery.

On the brink of tears, Rue tells Ali that she doesn’t plan on being around much longer. In this Ali-heavy episode, Zendaya’s Emmy win begins to show as she articulates Rue’s suicidal ideations. Ali engages, and they discuss the beauty of drugs and how they can make one feel like everything will be okay in an ugly world full of so much anger. Ali circles back that thinking about “all that” can be too much and that you must “believe in the poetry” of two people sitting in a diner, discussing life, addiction and loss—a meta justification of how poetic this scene and episode feels, almost Romantic in nature, but not quite. It is magical the way what Levinson does is magical, but in a much more grounded manner.

Ali asks Rue who she wants to be when she leaves this Earth, since she is set on leaving. How does she want her mom and sister to remember her? With this, Zendaya’s Rue delivers the best line of the episode: “As someone who tried really hard to be someone I couldn’t.”

Ali takes a beat, reaffirms his belief in Rue, and delivers the only joke in the entire episode. They laugh, Labrinth’s cover of “Ave Maria” begins, and Rue and Ali get into his truck, driving into the pouring rain on Christmas Eve. Levinson has used the symbolism heavy presence of rain in episodes before—a washing clean, a release of grime, or an indicator of emotional storms to come—and as Labrinth crones and organs play, one cannot help but wonder if the song itself is more than an indicator of the yuletide setting.

“Ave Maria” is often played at funerals, and given that the last dramatic beat of the scene involves Rue’s suicidal ideations, this music cue could either indicate that Rue must kill her old, internal self—start a revolution, as Ali suggested—or she will choose to kill herself and leave this Earth. One assumes and hopes that it will be the former and not the latter, but given that snorting fentanyl could have killed Rue in the finale of Season 1, we hope that if Rue does act on her suicidal ideations, that Levinson will give her another chance at life in Season 2.

After the credits, Levinson, in the BTS snippet following the episode, speaks to Rue’s attempt to ground herself in others and the danger that lies in trying to do so; Rue’s demons must be faced by her and her alone, so perhaps the opening scene was less of a fantasy situation and more of a nightmare. Levinson explicitly reminds us that Rue is an unreliable narrator but that some of the gaps in the story—particularly of the season finale—will be filled in by Jules and her special episode.

One can only hope that perhaps the adage of Miss Marsha, “Trouble don’t last always,” may hopefully be true for Rue and her arduous journey. Until then, we will hold our breath, listen to Labrinth’s “Ave Maria” on repeat, and count down the seconds until Euphoria Special Episode 2: Jules.

About the author
I have not once in my adult life used the pythagorean theorem. Follow Elizabeth on Instagram or read more articles from Elizabeth on Thought Catalog.

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