There is some irony about the fact that Euphoria, a series known above all for its exaggerated aesthetic, just delivered a Christmas special about two people sitting in a restaurant eating pancakes. After the haunting musical streak that accompanied Rue’s relapse, it was unclear what was to come next – both for our hooded antihero and for the series as a whole. And while the look of Friday’s special episode might seem irrelevant, the direction it gives is promising – and the delivery proves that despite what some detractors of the series might think, its potency amounts to more than just flash and glitter.
The episode opens in a fantasy: Rue relapsed after she couldn’t bring herself to run away with Jules, but for a few minutes we see what their life might have been like. As they kiss in bed and prepare for Jules’ presentation, wrinkled noses and “I love you” abound. Then, as soon as Jules leaves, Rue grabs the pills she’s hidden under their bed, sniffs them in the bathroom, and actually wakes up. It’s Christmas Eve and she’s at an empty dinner party with her godfather, Ali. And she’s high.
But Ali is too smart to fall for Rue’s sobriety bluff. And so, instead of letting her wander over the fantastic “emotional balance” she swears she’s discovered, he asks her to dig deeper. What follows is a nearly hour-long conversation about sobriety, redemption, and, above all, the struggle to believe in anything in an ugly, impenetrable world.
It’s the kind of feat that could easily have fallen flat on his face, and in the hands of less capable actors, he would have. The writing is strong but demanding – both heartbreaking and humorous, and full of the kind of seriousness that can seem downright comedic from the wrong performer. But Colman Domingo and Zendaya, fresh off their Emmy win this year, are both more than up to the task. As the camera presses over their faces, each actor finds a remarkable array of micro-expressions to fill the much-needed breaks between them. And Domingo, above all, speaks with such a powerful conviction that one can forgive the rare moment when the writing feels a little forced.
Ali’s message to Rue is simple: even if she doesn’t believe in God with a capital “G”, she must believe in Something. “And it can’t be the ocean, or your favorite song, or the movement, or the people, or the words.” You have to believe in poetry. Because the rest of your life will fail you, including yourself.
It seems appropriate that Ali chooses poetry as a metaphor for a higher power. In a way, this belief resembles the heart of Euphoria-a series that, like poetry, focuses on a meticulous aesthetic and a (visual) metaphor to bring out truths that can sometimes escape plain language.
This episode and the second special, which will follow next year, were both filmed during the pandemic, so the practical reasons for this episode’s sparse setup are self-explanatory. But rather than a hindrance, these limitations have proven to be invaluable, allowing the series to deploy these characters in a quieter setting where all distractions can melt away. There is also something fitting about all of this. As Ali tells Rue, she’s at the bottom – or, worse, she’s staring into oblivion that has no bottom at all. Rue may not yet feel determined to get sober, but she clearly knows deep down that she is in a terrible situation. She uses, but the high isn’t the escape wonderland it used to be.
And yet, despite all of this, Rue is realistically in the best place we’ve seen her since the beginning of her story. As the old saying goes, the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. And although she has served her time in NA, Rue has never been able to look deep inside herself and find out what the problem is. (Being barely 17 certainly doesn’t help.) Now it looks like she’s about to start the real job.
A Euphoria special, even the one out near the holidays, was never going to be happy. But as appalling as this episode is, its main takeaway is hope – the promise that there is redemption, if we can find within ourselves to forgive others and ourselves. While Rue allows himself to be vulnerable and open up to his godfather, he returns the favor in kind – letting us know his own story, as someone who grew up fantasizing about his abusive father to become himself under the influence of drugs. . But even in this episode, Ali is not defined by this story; The episode’s most bittersweet moment finds him standing in the parking lot, reconnecting with one of his children on the phone. It’s awkward and tense, but Domingo still focuses on the character’s joy upon hooking up, offering the possibility that while we may never fully repair the damage we’ve done, empathy is still possible. And when he asks Rue, after having made his confession, if she still thinks he’s a good person, we already know what his answer will be.
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