HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ Closes Its First Season in Waves of Visual Ecstasy and Longing

Euphoria” ends its unforgettable first season in an ecstatic finale that could serve as a requiem for Gen Z. One of HBO’s best offerings this year, “Euphoria” is a rare show that stands out amid a sea of conventionalism. Brimming with hallucinations, performances of youthful vigor and darkness, generational insights and an absorbing soundtrack, “Euphoria” is both an aesthetic experience and potent social drama. The finale, titled “And Salt the Earth Behind You,” brings to a head the show’s framing of contemporary high school as an arena where all of our human passions and wants play out, enhanced by teenage hormones. Amid the neon images is drama so subtle you should watch the episode (or season) again for the sheer meaning.

When we last saw Rue (Zendaya) she was experiencing the beginnings of a kidney infection brought on from holding water due to a deep depression (mixed with the usual side effects of being a recovering addict). Emotionally broken, and in love with her friend Jules (Hunter Schafer), Rue reaches a breaking point and is finally taken to a hospital. It is here that she reunites with Jules, who knows her friend’s breakdown was partly caused by her leaving. The two then attend their high school winter formal. Everyone is stylishly dressed but harbor their own crucibles. Cutting between the present at the formal and flashbacks we see how Nate (Jacob Elordi) and Maddy (Alexa Demie) find it hard to have sex because of his homosexual longings and distracted, increasingly erratic mindset. He shows up with a blonde to the formal and Maddy won’t just sit there and take it. We learn that Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) has made a brave decision regarding her pregnancy while Fez (Angus Cloud) makes a violent choice to pay off his menacing drug supplier. Tired of this town and its toxins, Rue proposes to Jules that they run away to the city and leave it all behind.

Fittingly the season finale is directed by creator Sam Levinson, a great emerging voice in American filmmaking and television. “Euphoria” has provided Levinson the necessary, wide canvas to explore themes he also touched upon in last year’s vastly underrated satire “Assassination Nation.” A generation raised amid transitional times, a bit aimless but full of human longing, Gen Z has found its first worthy pop art vision in this show. It’s unpredictable and edgy in areas where other episodic series would shy away. There are no rehashed plots or twisty gimmicks. What happens in these storylines always says something about who each character is. Nate wins a football game and breathes in the triumph, but he can’t find intimacy with Maddy or explain the incident where quite a number of penis photos were found on his phone (one of the show’s most viral moments). Later Cal (Eric Dane) will accuse him of losing control of his team despite winning the football game, resulting in a fight that finds the father and son wrestling on the floor. As Nate explodes into violent spasms, pounding the floor and screaming like a animal, the scene becomes piercing insight into the lack of nurture producing broken children. Maddy is completely right when Cal gives her a silently demented speech about her relationship with Nate having no chance, and she replies with observing how “fucking weird” the whole family is. Maddy will steal a CD from Nate’s room and watch it on her computer, just what it is we don’t see, but we can tell from her expression it’s a dark revelation. 

Levinson’s writing and visual style make “Euphoria” into a sensuous experience that does reach euphoric heights, but it’s never shallow. The winter formal scenes are feverishly designed, but when Maddy sees Nate dancing with someone else the sudden zooms emphasize burning jealousy. Other moments like Rue imagining pill bottles speaking and tempting her evoke with surreal creativity the perils of addiction. It’s as if the show captures in its aesthetic how it feels to have powerful emotions at such a young age mixed with sexual discovery. The finale juxtaposes moments of unease, like Rue warning Nate that if he puts her friends in danger again, as when he called the cops on Fez, she will expose his father with moments like a rather tender scene where Kat (Barbie Ferreira) apologizes to Ethan (Austin Abrams). She pulls him aside at the formal, confessing she was mean to him at the carnival out of jealousy since she was believed he was flirting with another girl. Mutual feelings are confessed and one of the show’s most loving and genuine kisses shared. Yet in a moment of emotional cruelty Nate tells Rue that Jules is so special, so unique, that eventually she will leave and forget all about her. It’s so hard when you’re a teenager and others seem to be finding acceptance and intimacy, but you’re cursed with pining for someone out of your reach. Levinson understands this with empathy rare in adult directors treating high school-age themes. Another emotive section involves Cassie deciding to get an abortion, her mother and Lexi (Maude Apatow) lend support at the clinic. It’s handled with a refined tact. This was also true of Jules as a trans character, or the way current issues of shifting sexual perceptions are weaved into the narrative. Maddy even tells Nate she doesn’t care if he’s into guys because “sexuality is a spectrum.”

The final moments of “And Salt the Earth Behind You” leave characters in what we could traditionally call “cliffhangers,” except they feel more like poetic culminations. Rue and Jules hastily decide they’ll run away, but in the moment of truth at the train station Rue backs out and watches her love leave her by the tracks. It begins to dawn on us that some scars can’t be easily healed with affection. Fez attempts to pull off a scheme where he robs the man supplying his own supplier, but the fierce drug runner is no fool and we’re left with a tense scene where Fez gives him his money but there’s no assurance he’s out of the woods. At the formal Maddy slow dances with Nate, whispering that their relationship is unhealthy and that he’s abusive and psychotic. What will be the true fate of this couple, or even Jules, is left for the next season to reveal.

Rue is the heart of this whole saga and this is why the final moments are all about her in a rather brilliant montage of flashbacks. Fights with her mother and sister, and the death of her father appear in evocative, cutting memories as Rue makes her way back home. Sitting on her bed she snorts one last line of drugs and then Levinson transforms the scene into one of the show’s great hallucinations. Rue levitates and thrashes through the house where here sister and mother go about their day unable to see Rue, but her dead father is there and he embraces her. The scene cuts to Rue singing into a phantasmagoria where a gospel chorus surrounds and lifts her almost like a sacrifice. All of it is driven by Labrinth’s theme song for the show, “All For Us,” with soaring vocals by Zendaya herself. Even a marching band, draped in gothic shadows appears. Levinson used this same expression of high school culture in “Assassination Nation.” Then Rue falls into an abyss of arms. Was that last line of narcotic bliss her last breath of life? Was it all too much? Was the entire narration of this story a look back into the past right before her demise? More to ponder until the next season. For now this final scene is one of the summer’s best television moments.

There is a visionary quality so admirable in the way “Euphoria” is structured. It captures the ecstasy of youth in perfect harmony with its dark side, if not the darker shades of society in general. Every episode seemed to explode moods and truths we all experience with the energy of youth and exhilaration of a showrunner making art out of television. It is a dramatic chronicle of Gen Z’s coming of age but its sense of uncertain times, the tensions of seeking love and intimacy in a cold world, the way life never actually works out like a movie, are roads we are all traveling through.

Euphoria” season one finale aired Aug. 4 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.