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‘Euphoria’: Zendaya Unleashes Rue’s Inner Vampire in a Ruinous, Day-Long Sprint — Spoilers

Episode 5 puts its star through the wringer via an intense suburban saga that exemplifies "Euphoria's" power and pitfalls.

Euphoria Season 2 HBO Zendaya

Zendaya in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Euphoria” Season 2, Episode 5, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.”]

Gia Bennett, played by Storm Reid, is the first face shown in “Euphoria’s” fifth episode, and even without the contentious conversation overheard seconds earlier, loyal audiences know what her appearance means. Gia has a way of popping up whenever her older sister’s substance abuse issues escalate. In the series premiere, it’s Gia who finds Rue (Zendaya) laying on her bedroom floor in a heap of her own vomit. It’s Gia who calls the paramedics and watches the ambulance drive off. It’s Gia who’s told to check her sibling into rehab, and Gia is home when Rue points a shard of broken glass at their mother, Leslie (Nika King), when first confronted with that daunting recommendation.

In Episode 5, Rue is confronted again. Only this time, despite her sister’s anguish, Rue runs. She’s not going back to rehab. She can’t face the withdrawals. She can’t face Gia, either — not this time, and the tragedy of Rue’s situation is bookended within two shots of little sister’s worried gaze. Dejected recognition crosses Gia’s face when she hears her family fighting in those opening moments. But that shielded, trembling expression expands into a panicked scream 15 minutes later, when Rue bolts from the car into moving traffic and Gia’s worst fears are nearly realized once again. Is her sister about to die, right in front of her? Can she make it out of another disastrous situation? Will she ever come back to her? Rue is not coming back. Not until much later that night, after sprinting through the suburbs, leaving a fiery wake. And by then, it may be too late.

“Stand Still Like a Hummingbird” is a perfect title for an episode devoted to Rue’s constant motion, leading nowhere. Writer/director Sam Levinson throws all he has into her attempted flight, establishing a thrilling chase that culminates with a terrifying escape. Zendaya commits just as thoroughly, even performing a few stunts (or appearing to) that add to the near-constant tension of her desperate evasions. The visceral journey they create reflects the kind of raw, swirling energy “Euphoria” specializes in, and the added conflict Rue sparks across town should bring about a dramatic second half to the season.

Most notably, Rue unveils the most critical secret of Season 2, telling Maddy (Alexa Demie) and the rest of her friends that Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) has been sleeping with Nate (Jacob Elordi). Their reaction is about what you expect: Maddy starts threatening her now-former best friend. Cassie can barely speak, trying in vain to deny the allegation even though the fear on her face is all the confirmation anyone needs. (Sweeney, it must be said, is having a stellar season.) The adults try to keep the focus on Rue, who they’re trying to convince to go back to rehab, but the bomb she dropped is too big. The focus shifts, and Rue takes advantage of the distraction to elude her mother’s aide once more. (The staging of that moment, however, leaves a lot to be desired; it’s hard to believe Leslie would pay any attention to those bickering girls, let alone yell after them long enough to let Rue leave unnoticed.)

Rue isn’t done starting fires, though. Next, she visits Fez (Angus Cloud) and has to be forcibly removed when she goes looking for pills. Then she slides under a closing garage door, like a hat-less Indiana Jones, so she can steal enough luxury items to pay back her debt to Laurie (Martha Kelly). Of course, she gets busted, and her initial odyssey — driven by dueling desires to ingest drugs and relieve her digestion — takes a darker turn. (Part of me wants to believe the entire episode is an ode to Kramer’s quest to find an open restroom on “Seinfeld,” but even if not, Zendaya’s hunched running style must be.)

Euphoria Season 2 Storm Reid HBO

Storm Reid in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

It’s also when Levinson’s frenetic energy is put to best use. Once Rue loses her lunch in front of a suspicious patrol officer, the chase is on — there’s even an overhead zoom on Zendaya booking it down an alley, cop car close behind, reminiscent of police pursuits captured by local news helicopters. From there, Levinson’s camera gets creative. He’s hiding behind some bushes as Rue cuts through her first backyard; he’s inside a home where the only occupant is a cat crossing a long table while Rue scoots past the pool outside; and, my personal favorite, he tilts the frame up to discover Rue on top of a garage before tracking her jump down, using the closing door as her makeshift slide. (Levinson even follows the rule of threes when it comes to canines, starting with the tamed guard dog, moving to the junkyard rottweilers, and ending on a pair of yipping little puppers, politely ushering Rue off their lawn.)

Shading humor into “Run, Rue, Run” — let alone the unrelentingly bleak “Euphoria” itself — pays dividends, especially when the fleeing central figure reaches her final destination: Laurie’s apartment. There, we learn just how morally bankrupt the monotone, pajama-clad drug pusher really is: “You want to know a funny thing about me?” she asks Rue. “I’ve never gotten angry in my entire life.” And she doesn’t get angry — not even when Rue comes up short on repayment — but its her calm, methodical demeanor that’s even more alarming. Why? Because it’s clear Laurie has been here before. Confronted with a user trying to make a plea bargain, Laurie feigns kindness and understanding while preparing the trap that could keep Rue tied to her forever.

She tells Rue she doesn’t have any pills, only intravenous drugs, which she knows the young woman avoids. Yet when Rue is coaxed to a relaxing bath, Laurie opens up a suitcase filled with pill bottles, but removes a syringe and bottle of morphine instead. Rue hasn’t even asked for them yet, but Laurie knows it’s coming. She’s done this before. She knows how to make her money back, and Rue wakes up to the living nightmare implied by Laurie’s bone-chilling “advice.” “It’s one of the good parts of being a woman,” she says. “Even if you don’t have money, you still have something people want.”

Rue avoids selling herself for drug money via one last hair-raising escape, though there’s no telling when Laurie or her cronies will come calling. (Rue isn’t exactly hard to find.) The episode ends with the sound of a door opening and closing, Leslie’s silhouette perking up from her frozen place at the dinner table. The cut to black emphasizes how quickly things can go from bad to worse when you’re desperate and terrified, but Rue’s return also harkens back to the episode’s first act. For those invested in Rue and Jules’ (Hunter Schafer) romance (and come on, who isn’t?), seeing their vehement break-up could’ve been the worst burned-bridge all hour. Passively tricked into exposing her dark side, Rue doesn’t back off. She pushes forward. What matters to her in that moment isn’t what the woman she loves thinks of her; love is but a distant memory compared to the betrayal she feels and the compulsion she has to get away.

“You’re a fucking vampire,” Rue tells a tearful Jules. “Going around sucking the fucking spirit out of everyone.” These hurtful words and many more spill easily out of Rue’s mouth because they’re fueled by pure rage. There’s little truth to them, which is part of what makes the lengthy tirade more tiring than piercing. Levinson just lets Zendaya go, which isn’t a bad idea with an actor this gripping, and her rambling attacks paint a believable picture of a substance disorder, but there’s plenty of episode left to appreciate all the aspects conveyed in the 15-minute scene. She’s angry, she’s hurt, she’s lashing out — we know, we know, we know. Zendaya is attuned to every trigger, shifting up and up and up with each new challenge, but it’s even more impressive that she’s able to highlight Rue’s core truth by dialing down. “You don’t love me!” she shouts at Jules, before faltering her way through, “You fucking left me when I fucking needed you.” The truth is harder to admit than the lies, even when the latter is being shouted at full volume.

Episode 5 is all power — so much so, that it’s frustrating to reach the end and realize we’ve been through this before. “Euphoria” told a similar story in one-tenth the time during Season 1, conveying all the fear, resentment, and heartbreak within the Bennett family via brief, telling flashbacks. Season 2’s second intervention simply makes it more explicit, the destruction more widespread, and the effect more discouraging. It’s hard to fault the series for its honesty. Many people with substance disorders relapse. Few interventions go smoothly. But like Gia, exhaustion becomes the predominant takeaway. While the episode would’ve been more artful, more moving, and more pointed had it ended with Gia waiting up for Rue, rather than their mother — a young girl still clinging to that 5 percent of hope for her sister, still waiting to be told if their future is doomed or redeemable — it’s hard to blame her for going to bed.

“Euphoria” Season 2 premieres new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The finale is scheduled for February 27.

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