Euphoria Part 1: Rue

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Zendaya
Zendaya
Screengrab: YouTube/HBO

OUR RATING

5/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Following on after the end of season one, the first special episode is about Rue as she attempts to celebrate Christmas after Jules leaves her at the train station and she relapses.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

When Euphoria premiered in 2019, it quickly became a phenomenon – known for its flashy shots, beautiful cast, makeup that had people around the world copying and explicit scenes of teenagers having sex and using drugs. It shocked everyone, but also pushed itself so firmly into the conversation that it is not a series you easily forget.

Season two was meant to be filmed in 2020, but Covid-19 restrictions prevented it from happening. Instead, the creator of the show Sam Levinson created two special episodes to tide fans over until they can film the next season. The first follows Rue Bennet (Zendaya) following the events of the first season. The second will follow Jules (Hunter Schafer).

The first thing the viewer notices about the special episode is that it looks extremely different from the show we know. The Euphoria we know is fast-paced, has a (sometimes unreliable) narration by Rue, has a Rolodex of different characters and a range of stunning and different sets. The special, however, takes place in a diner and with the only main characters being Rue and Ali (Colman Domingo), her NA sponsor and everything is very muted and demure.

The episode begins with a sequence of Jules waking up in a loft apartment with Rue. Jules is getting ready for college and our favourite couple seems happy. That is until Jules leaves the apartment and Rue crushes a pill and snorts it. Even in her ideal situation, Rue can't leave drugs behind. We flash out of the scene and Rue is in the bathroom of the diner, where she is meeting Ali. It's Christmas Eve, Jules has left and she has relapsed.

What follows is an hour-long conversation between the two about addiction, faith, family, forgiveness and what constitutes being a good person. It sounds tedious but is anything but. It is a beautiful, stripped down and raw piece of content. I timed myself and it only took 12 minutes for me to cry. Rue struggles past her relapse, being without Jules and seeking a reason to stay alive, while Ali gently tries to convince her she has more hope than she is aware of and that there is more to live for.

If you weren't sure why Zendaya won the Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama this year, this episode will answer your question. She is sensational. There are no crazy outbursts, no sobbing at Fez's door, no acting like a detective for an entire episode, no musical numbers. No, it's just Rue. Rue sitting on one side of a diner table eating cold pancakes and going through a range of emotions while trying to find a reason to live. Every emotion is painted on Zendaya's face. The character processes what Ali says and deals with her guilt, shame and pain.

On the other side of the bench is Ali. Ali describes himself as "just a crackhead who's trying to do a little good on this Earth before I die", which explains why he is sitting in a diner talking down a very disturbed teenage girl on Christmas Eve. And the conversation between them doesn't feel like a lecture. It feels like two people who have had similar experiences. It felt like a dialogue. Rue trusts Ali like she doesn't trust anyone else in her life, and he is someone she feels comfortable enough with that she can be truly honest, and it shows.

Colman Domingo is also amazing in his performance as Ali. He was only in a few scenes in season one, so we did not get to truly appreciate the character and his acting, but this special gives him his due. Domingo is perfectly composed during his conversation with Rue, and when he loses his composure, it feels so well-timed, so delicately acted. There is a scene where he is on the phone with his kids. You can feel the emotion in every word he utters. I hope Domingo receives many accolades for this performance.

What Euphoria does well is that it encapsulates how difficult it is to be a teenager, especially in the digital age. And focusing on Rue and her battle with addiction and how that factors into the fact that she is a teen, was brilliant. A lot of Rue's dialogue does not feel like that of an adult (I'm looking at you, Veronica, in Riverdale), it is drenched in teenage hyperboles. And Ali handles this so well, putting things into perspective for her and talking through it with her from the position of someone who has been through similar issues.

If anything, this special feels like a plea to show compassion to those who struggle with addiction, especially at Christmas. This time of year is difficult for everyone; people are mourning lost ones, mourning the idea of family and often reminiscing about their past mistakes. For recovering addicts, it can be especially hard if they feel rejected by their loved ones because of things they did while under the influence. This special talks about how important it is to forgive yourself and others.

It was written and directed by Sam Levinson, and I would be remiss not to mention what an amazing job he did. If the script was below par, it would have been very difficult to watch an hour of just two people talking, but he used his words to create such an intimate space that it felt like we were listening in on a conversation between two people sitting next to us.

Christmas specials are usually just a fun episode released by shows and Euphoria seems like the unlikeliest show to have a Christmas special. But the underlying themes of forgiveness, compassion and hope make it perhaps one of the better uses of the genre. It feels part of the Euphoria world but different from what we expect. Perhaps that is the mark of an excellent show that can change the tone, and the setting, characters and storylines can still work well within the space. 

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