When the pandemic hit, it halted the planned second season of HBO’s Emmy-winning “Euphoria,” resulting in this week’s minimized Christmas episode titled simply “Euphoria Part 1: Rue.” Filmed during the pandemic, the show that’s often so full of characters and settings that one can lose track has been reduced to a two-hander between a girl and her sponsor near Christmas. Picking up right after the end of season one, when Rue (Zendaya) relapsed after her relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer) fell apart, it is an actor’s showcase for its star and the amazing Colman Domingo. Spiraling through a brilliantly written conversation about addiction, revolution, and depression, this is one of the best hours of TV in 2020—an incredibly moving piece that hints at the limitless potential of "Euphoria"'s future.
At the end of season one, Rue backed out of running away with Jules, but the special episode opens with a fantasy imagining what if she had taken that leap. The two are in a cute apartment, waking up happy together. Kisses, encouragement, cuddles … and then Jules leaves. Rue takes drugs from under the bed and snorts them all, the camera panning up to the mirror and then revealing the fantasy. Rue is in a diner, and she’s not with Jules, she’s with Ali (Domingo), her sponsor. For the next 55 minutes, the two simply talk, Ali pulling at why Rue relapsed and what happens next without pat resolutions or false praise.
The conversation between Ali and Rue circles her addiction from multiple angles without feeling overly scripted. It’s like a great stage play, and it allows the two performers to really shine. Domingo is an incredible character actor who imbues Ali with just the right amount of earned wisdom and realistic skepticism. He’s seen it all. As he tells Rue, she’s playing pool with Minnesota Fats. She may think she’s done horrible things, but he’s got her beat. And yet what’s so essential about the success of this episode is how much Domingo understands not to talk down to Rue. He’s fallible too. We all are. His addiction has given him insight and experience, but he’s keenly aware of the imperfections of us all. This is just a conversation—not a conclusion or a morality lesson. Things may change after it. They may not. And the ending of the hour is wonderfully open.
The conversation, expertly written by Sam Levinson, goes unexpected and incredibly moving places, especially for anyone who has ever dealt with depression and addiction. It touches on how hard it can be, especially for a teenager, to see the future. Teens have a habit of thinking they’ve ruined their lives before they even turn 20. What “Part 1: Rue” really gets right is how much this kind of focus on mistakes and general self-hatred can lead to stasis. If we think we’re irredeemable or that we won’t make it to 20 then there’s no reason to change. Why make an effort if you're not planning on sticking around? The future that we think we don’t deserve is impossible to fight into existence. It’s such a smart script.
And then there’s Zendaya. She was excellent in season one, but she digs even deeper here than in that Emmy-winning performance. She has a few beats near the end of the episode that are breathtaking, not only in the decisions she makes but in how much room Levinson gives her to feel her way through her own emotions. Rue is angry and demonstrative in parts of this conversation, but she’s mostly listening, thinking, and feeling. It’s more about what she doesn’t say to Ali than what she does. The emotions that she allows to wash over her face and then pull back before approaching melodrama make for such a finely-tuned piece of work.
Ultimately, as someone who has dealt with depression, “Euphoria Part 1: Rue” really hit me on a personal level. Yes, Ali has a tendency to ramble a bit in the midsection—although a beautiful centerpiece with a phone call and a song divides the piece nicely—but these are minor complaints for an excellent hour of television. What’s truly invigorating about it is that “Euphoria” is a show that’s known largely for its excess in imagery, character, and even style, but Levinson proves here that he can do the other extreme too. It bodes very well for the future of Rue and the show about her. More than any other show, I can't wait to see where she goes next.