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‘Euphoria’ Review: Special Episode Lends a Helping Hand This Holiday Season

Dialing down the intensity and letting Colman Domingo and Zendaya do the work, "Euphoria's" first special episode offers a rare ray of light in a dark winter.

Euphoria Special Episode Part 1 Zendaya HBO Rue

Zendaya in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Euphoria,” Special Episode – Part 1, Rue, “Trouble Don’t Last Always.”]

The holiday season is a two-sided coin. For some, the world is filled with twinkly lights, family celebrations, and people spreading cheer. But for others, winter is hard. Those lights barely brighten these long, cold nights. Lost loved ones aren’t around to celebrate, and remembering as much can make their absence heavier. All that superficial cheer — or even the genuine kind — spurs pain in anyone struggling with depression or general hardship.

2020 has offered more hardship than usual, and the idea that “Euphoria,” of all things, would lighten the load with two mysterious holiday specials was, well, hard to imagine. Sam Levinson’s HBO drama broke out in its first season with three main waves:

  1. Zendaya’s amazing, Emmy-winning performance
  2. A killer soundtrack (both score and compiled)
  3. Scaring the shit out of parents everywhere

The first eight episodes are a blur of neon lights, family tragedy, and teenagers in crisis. With plot lines involving characters cutting themselves, stealing money from drug dealers, catfishing, violent assault, heaving drinking, drugs, and more, the series earned an edgy, dangerous reputation, even as it ingratiated itself to a growing army of young fans.

Its ninth episode is an abrupt change of pace. “Trouble Don’t Last Always” — aka, Special Episode “Part 1, Rue” — is essentially a two-hander between Zendaya’s lead character and her sponsor, Ali, played by Colman Domingo. After an opening fantasy showing what could have been if Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer) had actually run away together in the Season 1 finale (instead of Rue fleeing home to relapse via music video), the special episode spends its entire time in a diner pulled straight from an Edward Hopper painting.

Euphoria Special Episode Part 1 HBO Colman Domingo

Colman Domingo in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

Rue starts the scene by snorting coke in the bathroom, before walking out, sitting down, and trying to convince Ali she’s found a happy balance in life — one that lets her keep using drugs. Ali, being the seasoned former user and good sponsor he is, breaks down that argument fairly quickly, pushing Rue to confront her actions and reasons for them. The two wade through self-pity, self-blame, self-hatred, and plenty more difficult topics, and it’s a credit to writer-director Sam Levinson that the conversation progresses with substance.

But Zendaya and Domingo get all the credit for making it watchable. From Domingo’s voice built on crackling embers to Zendaya’s elastic jawline, the two thespians give and take with a natural grace. Without going too big or dialing it down too far, the duo entrenches themselves in the reality of the moment in a way that “Euphoria” rarely did so sparsely until now. Clearly, shooting under pandemic guidelines resulted in some creative changes, but the episode still feels like a sturdy bridge spanning a wild first season and the studied sophomore effort coming next. Its calmness and maturity is welcome, after so many episodes that built up to a big, shocking reveal.

Even in the special episode’s closing shot, where Rue fights off sleep as Ali drives her home, I half-expected a twist: that Ali wasn’t really there, the diner was just purgatory, and Rue’s relapse might still have greater consequences. Rue has already shown signs she’s an untrustworthy narrator. Whether it’s the lengths she goes to justify her drug use to the audience or the finale’s music video ending which left everyone wondering what really happened, her perspective is her own, it’s not definitive. The audience needs a broader picture, and “Trouble Don’t Always Last” relies on Ali to fill in her gaps.

Euphoria Special Episode Part 1 Hunter Schafer Zendaya HBO

Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

So it was a relief to see the credits roll without any subversion of the last hour, especially when the message of the first special episode was so timely. As Rue tells Ali why she doesn’t “plan on being here that long,” they both agree that these are dark times. Ali says there’s not a lot of hope out there, and Rue goes further: “The world’s just really fucking ugly, you know? And everyone just seems OK with it.” These kind of feelings creep up with more intensity during the holidays, and “Euphoria” dials down its own typically intense storytelling in order to talk about them. The world may seem ugly, reality may seem dark, and it may seem like these troubles may never end.

But they do. One way or another, they do. Rue is trying to overcome them. Ali has faith she can. It’s a simple idea to end on, but an effective one. After talking about repeated relapses and the worst things they’ve ever done, these two individuals really see each other, and finding a truthful moment amid all the fake revolution and holiday hardship is as powerful as it is important. Their shared effort and belief in each other matter. Being seen and hearing support are fundamental building blocks of good health, and the “Euphoria” special episode offers both to anyone watching that feels even a little bit like Rue. It works to dispel the darkness and encourages everyone to reach out, to talk, and to connect.

Who knew “Euphoria” could offer such a beaming ray of light?

Grade: B

The “Euphoria” Special Episode, Part 1, is available to stream on HBO Max. It will make its linear debut Sunday, December 6 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Part 2 has yet to be given a premiere date.

If you or someone you love needs help, text Euphoria to 741741 or visit EuphoriaResources.com

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