Gen Z on Film: Euphoria in Review

Kaitlin Joshua

I started Euphoria completely unsure of what I was stepping into. Like many avid Disney Channel watchers, I started keeping up with the show’s lead actress, Zendaya Coleman, when Shake It Up premiered in 2010. Coleman followed up with K.C. Undercover in 2015. Though Zendaya’s character K.C. is around the same age as her Euphoria character, Rue, the difference between the two in their stories was apparent. Zendaya acknowledged this marked difference on her social media, writing that the show was a “raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety, and the difficulty of navigating life today” and encouraging her fans to watch “only if [they] can handle it.” I was thrilled to see an actress I had watched while transitioning from middle school to high school move on to a more mature role, but the reminder that the show would be intense made me apprehensive of how that intensity would play out on my computer screen.

What I noticed first was the seamless connection of Rue’s birth to trauma. Among the first scenes is Rue, tiny, and still wrapped in a blue, pink, and white baby blanket nested in her mother’s arms. The scene is sweet, until the viewer noticed that the glow reflecting onto Rue’s parents' faces as she sleeps is the television replaying the Twin Towers falling again and again. The conflation of the traumatic, the bad, and the ill with Gen Z-ers youth and childhood is a consistent theme in the show. Just a few scenes later we see child Rue counting the squares in the light fixture above her at the dinner table. Now, having seen the full show, I see the scene as the first in a long line of depictions of Rue’s fixations: lights, then drugs, then Jules. At the time, however, Rue is diagnosed with half a dozen disorders, with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, general anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder among them. This is all foreshadowing, and comes full circle when Rue googles “can bipolar people tell they’re bipolar” in a later episode. The connection is glaring: Rue, and Gen Z by proxy, was born into trauma they cannot understand and subsequently cannot escape. Euphoria draws a straight line from existential trauma to addiction and mental illness, and the insistence on this particular narrative arc is one of my criticisms. Simply, is the line really that straight?

My other major criticism is the complete deemphasizing of race in Euphoria, though it seems almost too obvious. Though Zendaya herself is Black, there is no acknowledgement of that fact, or of what the landscape of drug addiction and mental illness looks like for Black Americans. Statistics show that addiction is markedly different from that of white Americans, and often means harsh punishment in the criminal justice system not rehabilitation. Euphoria lets Rue escape these constraints so often that the show seems naive at times: how reasonable is it that Rue is never truly racialized when young white male rage is continually personified in Nate? I think an acknowledgement of Rue’s race in the next season would give the show a needed dose of realism.

Despite these criticisms, Euphoria’s surreal visuals and enchanting characters hallmarked it as a favorite of mine within the first few episodes. Unlike other current television shows centered on Gen Z, like ABC’s grownish, Euphoria is controversial, yet hauntingly familiar. I have no personal experience with addiction, and yet Rue becomes the anti-hero I’d hoped for almost immediately: sarcastic, witty, awkward in love. Euphoria is a story of contradictions, and the episodic focuses on each character allow viewers enough of a glimpse to see just what’s bubbling beneath the surface.

While Rue is one of the less discrete characters - her peers seem to already know she’s a drug addict who spent the summer in rehab - the other starring characters face intimate partner violence, the woes of perfectionism, parental abuse, and an unquenchable desire for belonging. Some characters are more sympathetic than others - Nate is a victim, and yet far too calculated and violent to inspire much more than fear and discomfort - but each comes with a complex story of emotional events that shaped them into the 17-year-olds they now are. Beyond that, the characters’ interconnectedness makes their school feel more like an ecosystem or microcosm than simple drama. Though many of their lives just barely brush past each other, Maddy, Cassie, Kat, Rue, Jules, and Lexi all end up at the same table at Winter Formal recalling the events of the past months.

My favorite scene was without question the Detective Rue bit in the penultimate episode of the season. Here we’re faced with the climax of Rue’s relationship to her own mental illness, with careful nods to Generation Z throughout. Notably, Rue rejects Lexi’s lamentation that Rue is “too close to the case” but immediately accepts anon3203’s assertion that bipolar people cannot diagnose themselves. Comical, yes, but also a condemnation of the internet generation’s reliance on the digital as the real, and the factual. The moment felt painfully familiar in sea of moments made foreign to me by addictions and relationships with which I had no experience. Though I finished Euphoria with some criticisms and many questions, I found it refreshing, provocative, and utterly captivating.

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