The last season of “Euphoria” was true to just how much new kids on the block can try to prove themselves, how they can try so hard. It was all about one gimmicky, over-used, inescapable shot—the fast dolly that has the camera run toward a character’s face. It aimed to create energy and grandiosity, but they might as well have just flashed the headshot of writer/director/showrunner Sam Levinson instead. This shot wasn’t just a stylistic choice, it became a tedious trademark, a revealing philosophical appendage for creator Sam Levinson, who built "Euphoria" around young people and all the attention-grabbing “adult” activities in which they engaged.
This new season of “Euphoria,” which aired its first episode on Sunday night on HBO with a new one each week, does not use this shot nearly as often. It does not need it. It’s much more confident in grabbing your eye and holding your heart as its many in-depth fictional creations face Hell. It’s a direct part of the evolution that came from the compelling between-season interludes, which aren’t required viewing for season two but they do bridge the seasons stylistically. The characters are now so rich, they are so in pain, and some of them can’t vote; nor are their frontal lobes attached. Levinson gives all of his characters a great deal of care, often in the form of backstory that shows the secrets they store deep inside. As someone who called the original superficial, this is the season that helped me “get” “Euphoria” and what it can be. But at the same time, its plotting and long-winded nature also make a great case that it should end with season two.
Let’s start with Zendaya's performance as Rue, especially as I have to be careful about how I talk about episodes that will air in coming weeks. It is a work of a manic artistry, following up her Emmy award-winning work by going even deeper into the darkness of addiction, creating her own depiction of what this blend of fear, heartbreak, anger, and inner terror looks like. Rue is still the chaotic center of this universe, sprinting toward the dashing final chapter of her addictive behavior, while seeking a sort of happiness with classmate Jules (Hunter Schafer); the two are trying to reconcile after Jules rode away from Rue on a train after prom, a sign of their youthful impulses crashing into reality and putting their bond in jeopardy. Jules also does not know that Rue has relapsed. It’s trouble in paradise, reminding them that paradise does not exist; they achieve a certain peace, briefly, with a new friend named Eliot (Dominic Fike), who knows Rue's secret, and gets close to Jules during numerous hang-out scenes.
But “Euphoria” is about more than just the connection of Rue and Jules that gave the first season some of its more long-winded, aching, and opulent music video-ready sequences. In season two, other characters who have created their own fascinating mysteries with what is unspoken, or how they evolve, take the limelight. Sydney Sweeney, Maude Apatow, and Eric Dane (as Nate Jacobs’ hellish father Cal) are especially great with arcs that show their characters evolving into their full selves, even if that means destruction and disconnection from family, nearly swallowed by a sense of power. They are given the main stage in scenes that show how much these characters have been affected by their past, and are reaching a type of breaking point in the present. Every one on this show, really, is just so good; there are no weak links.
This is a season with more life and death stakes that feel apparent than last time, starting with the premiere episode that shows what kind of world soft-spoken drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud, an unsung hero of this show) is from, along with his grandmother’s own history of gangster activity. Levinson’s portrayal of this life hits a real sweet spot, both stylized and sincere, while letting tension from power plays and carefully chosen words build and build—all while throwing Rue into way-over-her-head danger. And it can also be darkly funny, showing off a sense of humor that comes out of nowhere but often charms.
The first episode also has a massive party, and it makes for one of the show's best episodes. It reintroduces a lot of characters, like sisters Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) and Lexi (Maude Apatow) and their juxtaposing social status; granite-solid sociopath Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) and his toxic relationship with now-ex Maddie (Alexa Demie), and the tension between Fezco and Nate that explodes with catharsis and an all-too-brief hospital trip. Without taking you out of the moment, the camera moves around the party, cuts between conversations of various intensities, and enmeshes you in this world that can be intoxicating even if you come to it more for juiciness than insight. It's sharp, and in contrast to other passages that have Levinson and his co-creators playing with how much they stretch out other events for hour-long episodes.
Levinson proves to be even stronger at creating a more natural spectacle out of the messy lives of his characters, but it’s the juggling of all their woes that proves to be another frustrating problem. Remember when last season invested time in illegal activity that got fake testimonies involved, and then that was just forgotten? This chain of events has a similar lack of care, like with a Rue criminal development that seems like one of her hallucinations come to life, but the script uses it as a cheap way to create worry that also doesn’t seem concerned with the consequences. Even worse, there can be moments when Levinson is able to create a spectacle of good dialogue, heartbreak, thoughtful characters, but we can’t help like we’ve been here before, as with where Nate Jacobs goes with his next emotionally manipulative relationship.
“Euphoria” benefits from no longer having the shock value that it used to brandish in its first season, when it was defining its voice. Now it can focus on story, character, and filmmaking that shows how framing, light, and select movement can create their own spell. At the same time, the series seems to have run out of new ideas in how to stir up sex, violence, and drugs in ways that seem earth-shaking to its young characters. “Euphoria” comes into its own here, and that also means that it might be the right time to move on. It’s still just high school.
Seven of eight episodes of season two provided for review. A new episode of "Euphoria" will now premiere every Sunday night.