The second season of Euphoria is over. There’s no denying that this is unwelcome news, either because certain issues haven’t been resolved, or just because we know we will have to wait a good while before we can once again see those characters we’ve actually learnt to love, even though they might be fundamentally hateful and problematic.
Euphoria is increasingly subject to a kind of Euphoriamania: people wait for and agonize over the episodes all week, consume them greedily and comment upon them in real-time on social media like unmissable events (even the actors themselves do, like Angus Cloud on Twitter). The rest of the time there is a continued, random Euphoria obsession, at least until the next episode: conspiracy theories about the characters’ fates, memes, edits on YouTube of the best (or worst) scenes, characters’ lines that become cult phrases (“Is she auditioning for Oklahoma?”, “Bitch you better be joking”, “Lexi you’re a fucking G!”)
Starting out as a cross between the Israeli series of the same name and the director, Sam Levinson’s, own personal struggle with drug addiction, the Euphoria recipe is one full of strong and distinctive flavours: sweet, savoury, bitter, acidic, which come out in tenderness, love, desperation, melancholy, insecurity, doubt, scorn. The result is pure melodrama, or Melodrama, like Lorde’s album which features the track ‘Liability’, the ‘broken hearts of the world unite’ song used in the special on Jules for a scene that is an affective version of the psychedelic eye scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a melodrama because emotions are heightened exponentially, even when the characters don’t talk (as in the case of Cassie, who can sometimes convey her inner torments with just a glance at her reflection in the mirror, without uttering a word), but also because of the role that music plays: dramatic, electronic hip-hop by Labrinth with contributions from Arca, Billie Eilish, Rosalía, Arcade Fire, Beyoncé, Orveille Peck, Moses Sumney as well as Madonna, Bonnie Tyler, En Vogue, Depeche Mode.
At the centre of Euphoria’s world is adolescence, narrated in a way we haven’t seen since Skins. One of the memes circulating on Twitter is enough to give us a quick sense of the relationship between the two: “Skins walked so that Euphoria could run”. Indeed, the show narrates this stage of life without pulling any punches, often making it difficult to watch but giving it a profound emotional impact. All that is heightened by a music video aesthetic that recalls the best Xavier Dolan: Cassie in tears surrounded by flowers like a Mater dolorosa, Jules like Frida Kahlo with her Rue/Diego Rivera drawn on her forehead, the triumphant musical number in Lexie’s theatre show with its homoerotic undertones of toxic masculinity.
Grey-green, brown and yellowish surroundings alternate with neon greens and blues, LED lights, lasers and glitter. Every protagonist is perfectly characterized by costume and make-up: Maddy’s eyes emphasized by heavy use of eye-liner and sequins, her body clothed in items that look like they’ve come out of Fashion Nova, Jules who had incredible make-up in the first season, and Sailor Moon clothing, in the second season covers up with baggy clothing intended to embody her disappointment, Kat who wears latex and studded leather to underline her control over a body that doesn’t conform to beauty standards. And then there are Margiela’s Tabi boots, Prada sandals and Balenciaga mini bags that are juxtaposed with her flannel shirts, second-hand denim jackets and cargo pants three sizes too large.
It’s all too much in Euphoria: too much glamour, too shiny, too dramatic. And if sometimes it seems like all this excess makes it unrealistic, the result of a such an excessively formal emphasis on pathos that it seems self-indulgent, it’s impossible to deny that the forms this TV series take accurately reflect the intersections between the Gen Z aesthetic and the troubles characteristic of growing up.
The context is that of the American suburbs, where rows of neat houses with porches and huge wooden gates contrast with prefab houses, similar in some ways to an ordinary Italian province where there are beautiful houses in the town centre and high rise cement blocks in the suburb.
The themes can be summed up with a quote from Joan Didion’ Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which emphasizes how eternal they are: “The themes are always the same. A return to innocence. The invocation of an earlier authority and control. The mysteries of the blood. An itch for the transcendental, for purification. […] They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, and younger all the time. An army of children waiting to be given the words”.
And it is true, the themes are always the same: drug abuse caused by grief that cannot be overcome, or a situation you’re desperate to escape, the daddy issues exacerbated by living in a dysfunctional family, body positivity with all of its more coercive elements, gender identity, sexuality experienced online that borders on slut-shaming, the idea of not deserving love, feeling wrong in every situation, the sensation of being imprisoned in a dimension that doesn’t feel like one’s own.
What comes out of this is a close-up on adolescence that really recalls Teresa Ciabatti’s novel It seemed like Beauty (Sembrava bellezza): ruthless and confused, a claustrophobic period of endless scrutiny that makes us feel alone and hopeless, something to be forgotten rather than romanticized or remembered with any affection.
And while the criticisms or quibbles directed at the series might be understandable (the excess mentioned above), they’re missing an important detail: Euphoria narrates adolescence that exists, that is real, with all its neuroses and awkwardness, and that in Italy above all (for all that there are substantial differences between being adolescent in Italy and in the United States) is made invisible or labelled with paternalistic slogans by adults. Who remembers that disastrous and disturbing advert from the nineties: “If you take drugs you’ll burn out” featuring empty-eyed kids? Exactly. Euphoria narrates the end of the world, and for this reason, it certainly offers its viewers some consolation.
So go on, throw the first stone – as long as you haven’t changed your hair colour after a bad break-up (‘Getting my hair bleached in Taranto was the first mistake, I did it because I’d fallen for a cruiser’, wrote Arbasino). Throw the first stone if you haven’t tried to silence the voices in your head with drugs and alcohol, or smoked a spliff in the most depressing part of town. Throw the first stone if you haven’t felt affection and melancholy looking at photos of yourself when you were sixteen or thought of adolescence as the period of your most resplendent self.