When Euphoria premiered in 2019, Sam Levinson’s dark portrait of modern adolescence shocked audiences. The Emmy-winning HBO drama wasn’t wholly reduced to on-screen penis tallies, but the series’ toxically cool material made it notoriously controversial. Levinson’s no-holds-barred approach to drugs, sex, and violence, paired with Euphoria‘s super popular costume and makeup aesthetic, worried critics who felt it glorified dangerous behavior for teens. Fans argued it was precisely that rebelliousness that made Euphoria‘s oozing angst exceptional.
Then, against the backdrop of the 2020-2021 holiday season, Levinson released two Euphoria specials that were notably tamer. The restrictions of the pandemic made the dialogue-heavy episodes smaller in scope and more intellectually complex. Each focused on main characters Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) in a Marriage Story-esque narrative that finally got into the guts of the star couple’s tumultuous romance and innate incompatibilities through lengthy, intimate scenes. The specials were cozier and sadder than anything we’d seen from the show or Levinson before.
Two years into a global crisis, “Euphoria” feels remarkably grown up in its broadening of traditional teen narratives for an audience permeated by insecurity and fear at all ages.
It is from these dueling phases of Euphoria that its triumphant second season emerges at the start of 2022. The seven episodes provided to critics (there will be eight in total, released week to week) are as stupefyingly bold as any of Season 1. But in Season 2, Euphoria‘s flagrant disregard for mainstream acceptability is elevated by an earned confidence in Levinson’s writing and direction, making the series’ ballsy bluster feel better justified. If previous episodes left you wondering what the kids of East Highland High School were being put through all this emotional, psychological, and even physical hell “for,” these new installments defend and deepen the meaning of that suffering expertly.
Maybe I’m projecting. But two years into a global crisis, Euphoria feels remarkably grown up in its broadening of traditional teen narratives for an audience permeated by insecurity and fear at all ages.
Levinson achieves this growth, at least in part, by incorporating more adult characters, highlighting the downward spiral of Nate’s father Cal (Eric Dane), relentless optimism of Rue’s mother Leslie (Nika King), and quiet alcoholism of Lexi and Cassie’s mother Suze (Alanna Ubach). As the parents of Euphoria lose control of themselves — having lost any control of their children during, or long before, the events of Season 1 — the sense that this entire community is hurtling into chaos grows stronger. This show has always been about a feeling of panicked helplessness, the sort of intangible anxiety you never really age out of, and this season every character exhibits that tortured state of mind at one point or another.
The plot mirrors this emotional precariousness through an unpredictability that pairs enormous suspense with hyper-articulate character work. As with real teenagers, the time between revelation and reaction is lightning quick. At the end of the breakneck premiere, a miscalculation from Nate (Jacob Elordi) and a meltdown from Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) kicks off a season-long saga with Maddy (Alexa Demie) that never lets up. Simultaneously, Rue’s addiction drives her further into dysfunction and deception as she reassesses her relationship with Jules and befriends newcomer Elliot (Dominic Fike). (This culminates in the best hour the series has ever seen, by the way.)
In the periphery, Lexi (Maude Apatow) and Fezco (Angus Cloud) find an unlikely connection, even as Fezco’s illegal business with his brother Ashtray (Javon Walton) grows more dangerous through a host of new characters.
Occasional wisdom is offered by Rue’s sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) and the wealthy mother of a kid Maddy babysits (Minka Kelly). But for the most part, Euphoria makes its second outing stick by letting the action fly and leaving the audience to watch its cataclysmic consequences. The fallout is less predictable than last season — no one gets pregnant, for example — but it’s still Levinson’s expert rendering of all-consuming emotion that makes these various storylines, touching on a dozen different corners of life, work as a coherent whole.
That doesn’t make for an especially relaxing Sunday night show — though the nail-biting agony is eased by Levinson’s blending of reality and fantasy. The series’ characteristically trippy sequences return this time around with a second classroom lecture from Rue, a Martin Scorsese homage with Fezco, a Lexi stage play episode, and more. If it can be said that Levinson ever loses his way, then it is in some — but not many — of these reality-bending moments. There are those that are spectacular, but there are others that feel superfluous, bordering on hammy. Kat (Barbie Ferreira) suffers especially. Her provocative online sex work plotline from Season 1 morphs into a snooze-worthy drama with her boyfriend Ethan (Austin Abrams) that culminates in some fantasy sequences, including a dated Game of Thrones reference, that made me cringe.
Still, Euphoria‘s intoxicating blend of striking music, visuals, and supercharged feeling makes for a dream-like watch. From intimate betrayals to public humiliations, the agony of these newest episodes channel existential themes beyond the outrage of one generation; and Levinson delivers them in enough style to make the discomfort of that broad, cynical thesis bearable. Not to mention, Zendaya is at a career-best with a performance so dazzling they might as well engrave her trophies now.
Over the next eight weeks, you can expect a steady trickle of obsession-worthy television reaching new heights in its sophomore season. That said, waiting until it’s out might be smart. Euphoria Season 2 is an electrifying ride you won’t want to wait for.