Euphoria is one of those shows that defies definition. It’s not Breaking Bad set in puberty. It’s not My So-Called Life but with OxyContin. It’s a show very much unique; not only in its approach to telling the contemporary struggles that young people face in a modern culture that is over-saturated, hypersexualized, and interconnected, but also how it deals with their mental health struggles and addiction. Normally in episodic television, people are either good or they’re bad. Protagonist or antagonist. Sometimes there’s an anti-hero that we root for, but when you understand why people truly are the way they are – what made them the way they are today – the labels of good and evil become much murkier. In a sea of cop dramas and FBI thrillers that demonize drug users, Euphoria shows compassion to those suffering with addiction, rather than criminalize them.
Zendaya’s portrayal of Rue, along with some of the memorable portrayals by co-stars like Hunter Schafer, Jacob Elordi, and Colman Domingo, offers the message that sobriety requires support – not jail time or ostracization from society. Because Rue is an adolescent, the show masterfully shows how to reach the hearts and minds of teens struggling with addiction in a realistic way without romanticizing it. Here’s all the ways Euphoria accurately depicts teens as works-in-progress, deeply affected by trauma, and utterly, beautifully human.
On Sunday, the second special episode of Euphoria, entitled “F**k Anyone Who’s Not A Sea Blob,” aired; the companion to the first special episode in December, “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” where Rue sat in a diner with Ali from Narcotics Anonymous and talked for an hour about all the ways she feels she has let down her friends, family, and Jules. Now, it was Jules’ turn to talk, and this time, it was in therapy. Through the unflinching prods of her therapist, Jules makes some incredible breakthroughs. She finally sees the parallels in her life: how her mother’s drug addiction has affected the burden Jules feels for Rue’s addiction; namely, if she’s not there for Rue, Rue will relapse, and that will be Jules’ fault. How the trauma Jules experienced at a young age (institutionalized in a mental health facility against her will and incidents of self-harm) has understandably affected her decision-making process today. In a moment of clarity, the therapist remarks how hard Jules is being on herself, something that Jules hadn’t previously considered. It is an incredibly powerful moment that doesn’t rely on any flashy dance sequences, strobe-lights, glittery under-eye makeup, or musical montages to tell the story.
In “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” we saw just how powerful talking to someone can be for a young person’s mental health. In this case, Rue turned to her wise NA buddy Ali, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He tells her exactly how it is, and refuses to mince words. He may not be a trained professional, but he recognizes when Rue’s ego is getting in the way of enlightenment. And all he has to ask is how she wants her family to remember her.
“As someone who was trying so hard to be someone I couldn’t,” she replies.
In this moment, Rue and Jules, separately, realize that they are not okay. They are struggling. But Euphoria makes sure to show that there’s beauty in struggle. It’s part of the healing process. And like Miss Marsha says, “Trouble don’t last always.” It’s okay to not be okay. With the help of loved ones, you’ll get through it.
Throughout the series, Euphoria has shown us that sometimes good people can cause irreparable harm to others, even the ones they love, because they themselves, too, are hurting. Ali, even though we love him, has a terrible relationship with his daughters who don’t trust him because of his drug abuse. Jules abandons Rue at the train station just like her own mother abandoned her at the mental health facility. Kat had her heart broken at a young age, so she in turn goes out of her way to belittle and diminish a boy at school who endlessly crushes on her. Nate, who is the perfect villain of the show, is shown to have been deeply traumatized by his duplicitous, callous, cold, and calculating father who brings him to the brink of a breakdown with his constant emotional abuse.
In this way, we see that people who struggle with mental health or addiction aren’t bad, they’re just imperfect, frightened, worried, not thinking straight, flawed, and deeply affected by previous trauma. Teens don’t turn to drugs, or harm themselves, or fall into depression because they’re evil, weak, or lazy. It’s because not every hurdle can be overcome magnanimously. We all take rocky, complicated roads to healing, surviving, and just getting through the day. Like that old adage says, you never know the pain the someone is silently dealing with. So be kind. Always.
The trouble with a lot of TV shows and movies today is they can glamourize drug abuse as something cool, flashy, exciting, or hilarious. Often, those very shows don’t show the consequences of addiction, like the breakdown of families or marriages, or the cost on the children who witness it. “Drugs are bad” might sound Polly-Anna and silly for a 21st century audience that scoffs at such vanilla messaging, but the beauty of Euphoria is it very deftly shows consequences without laying blame, or hitting you over the head as if it were a morality play.
In “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” we meet Miss Marsha, a waitress and recovering addict (who, as Zendaya revealed, is a real survivor named Marsha Gambles they encountered during filming). In an absolutely illuminating monologue, Miss Marsha informs Rue and Ali that “What’s good to you isn’t always good for you.” Drugs, like dating, and sex, can also just be elaborate methods of self-harm. Miss Marsha decided she needs to choose between dating and sobriety, and chose the latter. Ali encourages Rue to do the same; if she wants sobriety, she can’t focus on Jules. Because Jules is just another addiction. That is an incredible statement from a series that shows the beauty of “Rules,” a.k.a. Rue + Jules. Their love is a thing of epic poems and love ballads, but right now in their lives, is it a boon or a hindrance? Food for thought.
Whether it’s a detailed how-to on how to take the proper d*ck pic, or the best texts for sexting, or even how to get a dedicated following on OnlyFans, Euphoria doesn’t shy away from the hyper-sexualization of teenage girls *amongst teenagers.* In several episodes throughout the first season, we see boys peer pressuring girls to have sex (like Kat), or taking videos without consent and then circulating it as revenge porn (like Cassie). Other girls are taught to be hardened sex kittens by their parents or boyfriends (like Maddie), and even Jules doesn’t think twice about having a potentially dangerous sexual encounter at a motel with a man she met online (who – spoiler alert – turns out to be Nate’s abusive father Cal).
In return, the boys at school offer even more stigmatization and othering of the girls. Nate catfishes Jules and threatens to call the police on her for child pornography, which would of course further brutalize a trans-teen already brutalized by society. Cassie’s boyfriend claims he loves her, but he also slut-shames her for a revenge porn video her ex took of her that was beyond her control. Kat’s grade 6 rejection by Daniel leads to her poor self-image, resulting in her turning to sex work on OnlyFans for validation, and finds it difficult to recognize real affection. When a boy shows interest, she thinks there must always be an ulterior motive (and to be fair, most of the time there is).
Sex is difficult and complicated enough, but the modern added layers of Tinder, sexting, revenge porn, catfishing, and slut-shaming make being a teenage girl almost unbearable. With deftness and exactness, Euphoria shows young girls struggling for balance and sense of self in a society that wasn’t designed with them in mind. No wonder depression amongst teen girls is on the rise. Instead of treating young teen girls as Mean Girls or Heathers or mega b*tches, Euphoria always reminds us that young girls historically have been the punching bags of society. They need understanding, not stigma.
When it comes to mental health, every action counts! Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 28, and help create positive change for those living with mental health issues. For every text message, mobile or long-distance call made by Bell, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for every tweet or TikTok video with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest or TikTok, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But that’s just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.
[video_embed id='2125920']BEFORE YOU GO: Dr. Rheeda Walker on her book 'The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health'[/video_embed]