When Euphoria premiered earlier this year, it quickly became one of the most buzzed-about shows of the summer. It tapped into the angst-filled zeitgeist with a sharp prick of dick pic montages, trans-positive storytelling, and brutal addiction flashbacks that flooded our collective minds. Amidst the haze of drugs and alcohol, set to the backdrop of a perfectly-curated soundtrack, and tinged with the kind of fatalistic, anxiety-ridden existence teenagers can’t help but live with, Euphoria attempted to teach us a truth most Gen Z’ers already know: living – especially in this world – ain’t easy.
And if the first season built up that undeniable fact, the show’s finale hammered it home, touching on everything from teen abortion to domestic violence, relapses, renewal, and a haunting musical number that left more than one main character’s fate hanging precariously – or jumping off a pile of bodies into the great unknown. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable watch.
Euphoria has never been a linear-fashioned series, preferring to keep viewers as unsettled and unsure as its main characters by scattering timelines and making us question where (and when) events are happening. The finale takes that disorientation and ramps it up a notch, flitting between real-time – the school dance – and the events leading up to it: a football game for Nate that ends with a troubling confrontation, Cassie’s abortion, Maddy’s break-up and discovery of Nate’s paraphernalia, and Rue’s spa-like stay at the hospital thanks to her depression-fueled kidney infection.
It’s a manic mess, much like Rue herself, who’s enjoying free Jello cups and the freedom from anxiety that hospital admittance promises. (There’s an offhand joke about the hospital being the best place to be in the event of a mass shooting that lands with a dull thud that the show’s inherent sarcasm couldn’t soften after this weekend’s double mass shootings.) She reunites with Jules, who apologizes for leaving, and soon the two are preparing for the formal with the rest of their class as Rue’s mother narrates with a written ode that feels like the first true insight we’ve seen from an adult on this show.
But Euphoria isn’t about parents who just don’t understand, it’s about Rue and her love for Jules and how the two seemed destined to be pulled apart despite their sincere and intense connection. It’s also about Cassie, who hardens herself after her abortion and the events that led her to it. It’s not the most memorable musical bit of the episode but watching Cassie drift off into a dream-like fantasy as the doctor performs the painful procedure is one of the most poignant, beautiful moments this series has given us so far and it may just be the most inventive “abortion scene” we’ve seen on TV. Cassie confronts the harsh reality of womanhood by escaping to a place the constraints of her femininity can’t touch, she counters the unfairness of her position by imagining a world where she’s gifted the opportunity to pursue her dreams, free from the sh*tty circumstances she’s been dealt.
But everyone on this show is wading through their own identity crises – like Kat, who finally accepts that she may be worthy of love, and Maddy, who meets Nate’s abuse with a declaration that they’re finally “over.” Even Nate himself, the embodiment of toxic masculinity who’s been so easy to loathe this season, has a kind of reckoning, confronting his father after the game, physically assaulting both him and himself in the process. Say what you will about the godawful jock that’s plagued Rue, Jules, and the rest this season, but Jacob Elordi’s performance has been undeniably powerful. Second to Zendaya, he’s given the most memorable turn this season.
Which brings us to Rue, whose ambiguous ending in the season finale left most fans more than a little worried. Rue has always been an unreliable narrator. She’s an addict, one who experiences the world through her addiction, not through any inherent reality of circumstance. She lies because she must in order to score her next high, she bends the truth to us in the same way she does her family and friends. So it’s not surprising to see that, after a failed runaway attempt that leaves Rue on the station platform as Jules rides off to the city, she relapses with a line of coke, and flashback-ridden spiral, and a performance that feels more like a Kanye Sunday Service than an ending to a teen drama.
What is shocking are the revelations that scene brings – about Rue, her relationships, and her future.
Rue refusing to join Jules might be heartbreaking for the couple’s shippers, but it’s the first time we’ve seen her truly consider how her actions affect those who love her. She’s reluctant to leave them behind, terrified of how her sister will cope, unwilling to disappoint her mother yet again. She carries baggage Jules doesn’t, a kind of guilt her friend just can’t understand. It’s why their relationship, as romantic as it is, has always been tragic, if not problematic. Rue places so much responsibility, however unknowingly, on Jules to help maintain her sobriety while Jules is too selfish to ever even notice. It’s that co-dependence that thrusts Rue into a downward spiral when Jules chooses her own wants and Rue is forced to confront existence without her. Can she still be sober – and more importantly, happy – without this person on whom all her hopes have been placed?
The answer is no.
We see Rue inhale a line before stumbling through memories of her childhood, both happy and sad, that end with the revelation that her trademark hoodie, the one Jules had begged her to shed in favor of more revealing wear for the dance, belonged to her father. It’s the last piece of him she has and she clings to it as tightly as she does to memories of brawls with her mother over her drug use and snippets of her time with Jules. As she navigates these moments, the show delivers a transcendent musical number with an original song performed by Zendaya, a choir accompaniment, and a kind of reverent flash mob of people in matching hoodies. It ends with Rue jumping from a pile of bodies and the credit rolling, causing us to question what the hell just happened.
To be fair, that’s how every episode of this season has ended – with us questioning reality – but the finale teases all kinds of unknowns. Is this relapse happening in the present or past? Is Rue dead – a popular theory since episode one? If she’s not, what does this mean for her sobriety in the already confirmed season two?
It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s doubtful that Rue dies at the end of this episode. Just on a logical level, she only snorts one line of cocaine – we’ve seen her consume far more narcotics than that. And though the scene features numerous flashbacks to the past, the Rue in those memories looks markedly different from the Rue at the end of this season. She’s wearing the makeup, and sporting the same hairstyle, as she did at the dance, which suggests this sequence is happening in real-time. And if it is, those flashbacks could signal what Rue experiences when she gets high. We’ve seen her dazed, climbing up walls at house parties and catatonic on Fez’s couch, but maybe Rue turns to drugs to inhabit this world – a past where her dad is still alive, her parents are happy, she’s not depressed, and things are the way they’re supposed to be. Eventually, she’s got to come down from that high, which is why these lighter memories are doused by arguments with her mother and her father’s death, but it’s a hauntingly beautiful way to portray addiction – not the consequence of it, the blackouts and loss of control, but the hollow promise it brings of an escape, a moment devoid of pain, where Rue can exist in a life that was stolen from her.
What this means for the character in season two is even harder to pin down than the sequence of events in season one’s finale. Maybe Rue will return to heavy drug use, maybe she won’t. Maybe Jules will come back and the two will confront their issues, maybe she’ll stay in the city and focus on her own problems. But the show touches on that uncertainty earlier in the season – when Rue meets with a therapist who spouts off some life wisdom that directs the character in later episodes.
In life, bad times can still come with the good. The trick is to push through them, to make it to the next happy moment. The first season of Euphoria has been an exercise in that hard-earned lesson, but we’re pretty sure that there’s more these kids have to teach us.