‘Euphoria’ Briefly Returns With a Striking Holiday Special That Reflects on Life and Addiction

As we reach the end of a tumultuous year, HBO gives us an ever so brief return to the angst of “Euphoria.” Season one of the Gen Z requiem was a stunning triumph of depth and edge. It closed in waves of heartbreak as its central character, Rue (Zendaya), was left behind at a train station watching her love, Jules (Hunter Schafer), leave for New York City. In one of last year’s best season closers, Rue relapsed into drugs to the feverish beat of Labrinth’s “All For Us,” collapsing into the silhouette of a hallucinated gospel chorus. Since then fans have wondered if Rue had met her demise. A full seasonal answer has of course been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced production on season two to pause. But creator and writer Sam Levinson has managed to get around the difficulties of current shooting conditions to craft a simple, striking episode that feels like both its own short story and a prologue for what’s to come.

“Part 1: Rue – Trouble Doesn’t Last Always” is in a sense a “holiday special,” but without false romanticism or commercialized Christmas stylings. It opens with Rue and Jules apparently happy in New York, waking up in bed in their clustered apartment. For a moment it all seems so blissful. Then Rue rummages for items to get high and we cut to a diner on Christmas Eve. Rue appears, dressed as she was in the season one finale. At the diner she sits down with Ali (Colman Domingo), her rehab sponsor. What follows is a tour de force of dialogue and performance. Rue will insist she has found a balance in her life through drug use which Ali immediately dismisses. He’s much older and experienced. He knows how to scope out a junkie’s excuses. They probe deeper into their histories and personalities, with Rue bleakly admitting drugs are the only thing keeping her from suicide. 

In terms of the writing and directing, Levinson outdoes himself here by having to rely on a stripped down, much simpler premise than the usual “Euphoria” episode. The series defined itself as a mixture of feverish aesthetic with sharp, introspective writing. It’s a “Gen Z series” in its characters and setting, but Levinson touched on universal themes of identity and longing. “Trouble Doesn’t Last Always” has the feel of a melancholy Christmas Eve, where not everyone is spending a holiday in some picture-perfect household. Rue and Ali are alone in this diner, sharing about each other and what addiction has wrought. But the conversation becomes much wider themes and reflections. Rue wonders if she had made her happiness and stability beholden to Jules, while Ali seems to scoff at the more simplistic excuses Rue makes for her situation. He’s done worse and points out that we all do “unforgivable” things in life, the question is how do we process and overcome them. 

Levinson’s writing also takes moments to comment on society and the world as it is today. Unlike other shows that have returned amid the Covid outbreak there are no references to the pandemic. Levinson is more interested in current social upheaval. In one of his greatest monologues on this show, he gives Ali a whole aria about how even revolution has been commercialized in the 21st century. Big brands tap into the phrases used by movements like BLM and turn them into slogans for buying things. Nike will use images of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. but still sell $130 sneakers working class Black Americans can’t easily buy. The monologue builds into a stunning crescendo where Ali tells Rue that real revolution is both dangerous and spiritual, based on bringing down old orders and ways of life. 

There are other, smaller moments of intimate friendship in this meeting. Rue is surprised to find out Ali’s real name is Martin. A Black Muslim convert, he also has two daughters and relapsed after 12 years of sobriety. Ali takes a moment as well to exit the diner and calls his daughters to both reconcile and meet his grandchild. It’s the most Christmas special moment of the episode but filmed with a powerful warmth. Rue also gets a text from Jules saying “I miss you.” We have to wonder if this is all in Rue’s head, like the opening dream of being with Jules in an NYC apartment. Maybe she’s in purgatory, since much of the episode’s most haunted moments deal with grappling with past sins. Rue can’t get over threatening her mother with a piece of glass and Ali admits he grew up wishing he could murder his father, and as an adult hit his wife. It is a night of admitting one’s terrible flaws while struggling to admit there is a way forward. 

“Part 1” belongs entirely to Zendaya and Colman Domingo. The two have such a potent rhythm in this episode they deserve Emmy nominations solely for it. Domingo gives another performance this year full of experienced wisdom in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but in that one he’s more cynical and easy going. Here he’s a man carrying scars that taught valuable lessons. He treats Rue like an adult, even if he warns she’s barely 17 and has no idea about life yet. Zendaya, devoid of the high-octane dramatic moments of a typical episode, holds her own in front of the camera for the episode’s entire 57 minutes. It’s a seated performance, set mostly within the confined space of her booth. But she evokes pain, hope and friendship with such sincerity and vulnerability.

The final shot is one of Levinson’s best. Rue and Ali ride home in his SUV. On the soundtrack we hear Labrinth covering “Ave Maria,” making it a ghostly cadence. The camera zooms in dreamily on Zendaya staring across the window into wet December streets. But we can’t call her a survivor yet as we do not know her fate. “Part 2” will reportedly focus on Jules, but no release date has been confirmed for when that chapter will air. For now we have Rue back for a brief hour, wondering like all of us where the future will lead.

Euphoria Special Episode” airs Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.