Filled with trippy red and violet lights, catchy pop songs, glistening make-up and very distinct cinematography, ‘Euphoria’ is an atypical teenage drama that captures the problems that today’s young adults grapple with. Its portrayal of issues like drug addiction, self-harm, sexual harassment, homophobia, bullying and online dating is raw — it’s anxiety inducing, discomforting, awkward, and emotionally intense. Which is why it’s a show about teenagers, but not necessarily for teenagers.
It would be a sin to talk about ‘Euphoria’ without praising its cinematography, which is carefully planned by Marcell Rév, André Chemetoff, Drew Daniels and Adam Newport-Berra. Cinematography becomes the most essential means to drive the ‘emotional realism’ of the show as Marcell Rév puts it. In episode two, when Rue (Zendaya) is asked by her teacher to stand in front of her classmates and talk about her summer, we see how lighting becomes a tool to reveal her emotional landscape. Two big spotlights are focused on her; it’s almost as if the lights are attacking her, just like the judgements of her classmates.
Sunlight or yellow-orange lights are employed in scenes where Rue and Jules (Hunter Schaefer) are falling for each other -symbolic of the amount of light and hope they bring in each other’s life. Apart from this, the camera veers away from one setting to another, mimicking the fleetingness of our thoughts. At other times however, when characters are stuck in discomforting situations, the camera is closely fixated on their faces, transferring the unsettling, uncomfortable feeling from characters to viewers.
At the beginning of a new school year, Rue has just come out of rehab and meets Jules who is new to town. Rue is sort of a recluse who doesn’t have many friends because of her addiction. Jules, on the other hand, has a history of hooking up with homophobic men who treat her pathetically. Her being a trans woman is completely normalised in the show; she doesn’t openly talk about it until episode seven where she says, “If I can conquer men, then I can conquer femininity.” The idea of being with men in some ways makes her feel more feminine. When her friend Anna asks her, “Why do you need a guy to make you feel more feminine?” she doesn’t have a direct answer to the question. She is aware that she is seeking validation for her femininity from men, but at this point, she is enslaved by the societal definition of womanhood.
Rue and Jules’ relationship is dear to most fans and rightly so. They meet each other at a point in their lives where they have drifted apart from other people. Rue’s relationship with her family and friends has suffered because of her addiction. Jules comes in Rue’s life like the light at the end of the tunnel — suddenly and full of hope. While Jules is only close to her father and is still making new friends in town, Rue becomes Jules’ safe space. She doesn’t feel judged for being herself in her presence. They have each other’s backs in the way that women often do — they listen, share their darkest secrets, and watch out for each other.
HBO recently released two special episodes from Rue and Jules’ perspectives. Levinson’s own experience as an addict and Zendaya’s personality really shape Rue’s character – which is why she comes as close to reality as a seventeen year old addict can get. In this episode, we see Rue’s vulnerable side and the loopholes in her narrative. She relies too much on Jules to stay sober in the season finale; when Jules leaves town, she relapses and blames. She had essentially replaced the euphoria of drugs with the euphoria of falling in love, and now she was back to square one.
In Jules’ special episode, the viewers get some insight that was missing in season one because it was focused on Rue’s story arc. She says, “I feel like I’ve framed my entire womanhood around men, when in reality I am no longer interested in men.” We see her reach a state of self-awareness and acceptance from what she said earlier about conquering femininity. Rue plays a very important part in bringing this shift from chasing men to realising she is not interested in them anymore. With Rue, she feels that she can be the sincerest version of herself. She believes Rue sees the real Jules who’s hiding under the layers of personalities she has stolen from other people. She doesn’t need to fit into any specific idea of what a woman should be, as she learnt to do with men. Her femininity is something deeper than her outward appearance, it is something personal and even spiritual. The dialogue in this particular episode perfectly captures this newly discovered approach to being: “I think of beautiful things, that are also broad, and deep and thick and I think of something like the ocean. I think I want to be as beautiful as the ocean. Cause the ocean is strong as fuck and feminine as fuck.”
Oscar Wilde once said that “to define is to limit”. Jules provides us a more liberating alternative for people who find comfort in definitions. Linking her womanhood to something as vast and complex as the ocean, she is refusing the culturally accepted idea of femininity and defining it in her own terms. Gender can be defined limitedly or infinitely, and Jules chooses the infinite definition giving us a new philosophical, spiritual – and most importantly – a personal approach to gender. ‘Euphoria’ pushes us to broaden the boundaries that society has created for us and swim far into the ocean of possibilities that you can create for yourself.