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‘Euphoria’ Review: Season 2 Slips Even as Zendaya Shines in a Frustrating, Long-Awaited Follow-Up

Sam Levinson's teen drama loses its balance in a second season that struggles to emerge from its own long, dark shadow.

Euphoria Season 2 Zendaya

Zendaya in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

As has become custom for Sam Levinson’s persistently bleak HBO drama, the first 15 minutes of “Euphoria” Season 2 feature at least five moments I wish I’d never seen. There’s a baby eating a cigarette, multiple bloody assaults, and, of course, a lipstick-stained dick (or, at least, what I hope is lipstick). With its stark vision of Los Angeles, awash in extra grit whenever a drug den gets a visit, the premiere tosses viewers back into the deep end after taking a breather between seasons with its two lightly stylized, character-focused special episodes.

Welcome back to the grungy, frightening, penis-filled world of “Euphoria.” You’re not going to love it.

Despite the jarring familiarity of its opening sequence, Season 2 doesn’t live, like its predecessor, on the constant brink of disaster. While Rue Bennett (embodied by the magnificent, Emmy-winning Zendaya) is still pushed to the edge at every turn, her fellow high schoolers retreat into troubles more commonly experienced at that age: Relationships begin and end. Sexualities are explored. The school play takes center stage. For those who felt overwhelmed by the acute peril facing every character at every moment of Season 1, this new dichotomy, contrasting every parent’s nightmare with every student’s day-to-day, should theoretically draw viewers closer to these perturbed teens.

But for the most part, it doesn’t. Without getting into spoilers, Season 2 suffers as much from trying to top itself through repetition as it does from downplaying aspects that were working (which, for a freshman hit, are common Season 2 issues). Everyone shows up for the premiere’s New Year’s Eve party (a solid episode built on questionable choices), but the events set in motion by this rager, as opposed to Season 1’s fateful opening bash, fall apart quickly. Established characters from Season 1 are either written out (McKay, played by Algee Smith, pops in for the first episode and then disappears) or they’re sidelined. (Barbie Ferreira’s Kat gets the worst of it, saddled with a stagnant arc that could’ve wrapped in two episodes yet gets stretched thin over the full season.) Big, magnified moments are tossed aside too quickly. Seemingly smaller hijinks are stretched into unreal drama.

Euphoria Season 2 Hunter Shafer

Hunter Schafer in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

One effective aspect “Euphoria” maintains from season to season is the sense of isolation facing each character. Scenes aren’t constructed to separate people (for safety concerns or otherwise), nor does it feel like Season 2 is building toward bringing everyone back together. But there’s an unquestionable singularity to how each character experiences their lives. They all see things from their own particular perspective, and it shapes their actions in ways that seem avoidable if they could actually connect. Whether they’re shutting people out, being shut out themselves, or simply don’t have the tools to communicate their feelings, the sense of seclusion, of insularity sparked by fear, speaks to an unsettling yet recognizable modern reality. The easy reference would be to complain about technology — “All these kids are just staring at their screens! They’re not engaging with society!” — but Levinson (the writer-director on every episode) works to acknowledge a deeper anxiety at play. Be it fractured families, forsaken friends, or a world with no future, these teenagers are living for the present, and a lot of what’s happening now isn’t going to be fun.

That being said, it’s still frustrating to see how badly Season 2 bungles the immediately enthralling romance between Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer). As the proverbial light at the end of the show’s dark tunnel (with a shot to match in the Season 2 premiere), the series struggles mightily when its central relationship gets set aside. Despite high marks for Schafer’s bridge episode (“Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob”) and plenty of well-deserved fanfare for her breakout performance, Jules is almost a non-factor this year. It’s tricky to explain why, exactly, without revealing too many specifics, but for as hard as “Euphoria” works to let its actors emote, it’s puzzling to see a number of its stars left with so little to do.

Zendaya, thankfully, is not one of them, though how much material she’s given doesn’t necessarily correlate to how well her talents are utilized. As teased in the first season’s grand musical finale and confirmed in her 2020 Christmas episode, Rue has relapsed. Still struggling with a dependency on drugs (and hiding her drug-use from Jules), Rue’s behavior gets riskier and riskier with each passing day, creating an unnerving, off-the-rails trajectory that Zendaya’s pliable performance can carry with conviction. Her elastic expressions are what Giphy’s founders dream about, and her ability to play the fly-on-the-wall one minute before becoming a roaring lion the next is a testament to how in tune she is with Rue’s topsy-turvy journey.

Euphoria Season 2 Nate Jacob Elordi

Jacob Elordi in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

But it’s tough for any talent to escape the monotony of a character seeking the same high, again and again. Eventually, the chase feels familiar, as does the result. By the time Rue’s tearing through her family’s house — screaming at her mother, slamming doors, just as before — the sense of déjà vu goes beyond the scene’s redundancies. When you’re watching a talent like Zendaya, the lack of new challenges proves doubly frustrating.

Seeing Rue struggle with a severe relapse is as difficult as TV viewing experiences can get; her grieving teenager is all-too-real, as are the death-defying situations her addiction creates. But the seriousness of her circumstances, as well as their tense depiction, only emphasize the hang-ups elsewhere. It’s not that her friends’ problems seem insignificant in comparison; if anything, their depiction is heightened to match the teenage experience, where the stakes are always extreme. It’s that they feel inauthentic, like Levinson is either forcing emotional connections in order to provoke a reaction or using transparent proxies to work out fears surrounding “Euphoria” itself. (The school play proves particularly difficult to endure.) After seven of the eight episodes, Season 2 is exactly what a drama seeking to spark conversation fears most: It’s skippable. Not only do I wish I hadn’t seen certain scenes, I know there are many more I didn’t need to see at all.

Grade: C+

“Euphoria” Season 2 premieres Sunday, January 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly.

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