‘Euphoria’ Season 2 Feverishly Begins With Drugs, Sex and a Bloody Climax

The second season of HBO’s “Euphoria” returns with the feel of a dramatic powder keg that has only been building in the two-and-a-half years since the series first premiered. After Rue (Zendaya) dropped into the arms of a chorus as she spiraled in the first season’s finale, world events intervened and the pandemic forced production to temporarily halt. Creator Sam Levinson tried to mend the gap with two special episodes that were essentially stream of consciousness meditations, relying heavily on dialogue (no doubt because of social distancing measures). Their value was that they settled the question plaguing fans about Rue’s fate. Levinson now returns the show back to form, feverishly evoking a party that captures all that is riveting, doomed and aching about this Gen Z visio.

“Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” opens in the past with a striking recap of the childhood of drug dealer Fez (Angus Cloud). We meet his grandmother, played brilliantly by Kathrine Narducci as a tattooed blonde sporting a jacket that proclaims, “Gods Words, Gods Will.” After she walks into a strip club and shoots a big shot getting a blow job in each leg, the whole tale of how Fez became who he is comes into focus. We also learn how Ashtray (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton) came into his life as an infant given to grandma as collateral by some junkie client. They never came back for him and Ashtray became a permanent sibling to Fez. Now in the present, a relapsed Rue joins Fez and Ashtray as they go do some usual drug running business on New Year’s Eve. It culminates with the three, Fez’s associate and his strung out girlfriend being maniacally strip searched by a paranoid dealer called Brucie. After that close call, they go to a New Year’s party where we catch up with other regulars from Rue’s high school. Amid the revelers Rue also finds the source of her immense heartbreak, Jules (Hunter Schafer). 

After Rue’s relapse following Jules leaving her at a train station at the end of season one, Levinson had crafted the kind of narrative that can either cage itself in or open up to strong dramatic possibilities. “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” begins with the show’s energy and grit, without ever compromising on its taste for upfront violence or sex. But there is also a melancholic power in its sense of time passing. Some things have changed in Rue’s world while much has not. Life struggles along. Levin’s vision of Gen Z, or at least as it leaves in certain corners of suburbia, is of an almost nihilist society seeking love and escape in all the wrong places. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) weeps tipsy outside of a convenience store, after a fight with sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) on their way to the party. This puts her in the path of Nate (Jacob Elordi), the perturbed jock who caused so much havoc in many lives last season. Six-pack in hand, his intentions are obvious when he offers Cassie a ride. The ensuing ride is one of the episode’s best moments where lust, a sense of danger and freedom all collide. Nate pushes the speed limit, a beer bottle spills onto Cassie’s dress and she removes her panties, hair blowing in the wind. 

The party scene that is the center of the episode advances the characters while also providing a general portrait of their existence. For Levinson a Gen Z party, with DMX blasting in the background, is like a debauched, slapstick version of Dante’s Inferno. Lexi desperately tries to find out where her sister is, while Cassie is having sex with Nate in a bathroom. Nate’s ex, Maddy (Alexa Demie), who he still pines for, of course comes knocking at the door. The solution is for Nate to insist he’s dropping a deuce while Cassie hides in the bathtub. It’s quite an ordeal for a popular girl, who then has to overhear Maddy flirting with another party goer before later wiping herself with a towel and throwing it unknowingly on Cassie’s face. Some have accused Levinson of excess, but can we really doubt this goes on during a stew of teenage hormones and alcohol? The material is raw, but not senseless. Even the abundance of penis shots in this episode are really more of a testament to the uninhibited world everyone operates in. Later Cassie will get a more serious moment when she has a talk with her own ex, McKay (Algee Smith), expressing her sense of being lost. 

Amid the party debauchery the story of Rue and Jules plays out as a dreamlike state of being apart. Jules, now with a bob, seems to be having a good time and wishes to blackout the year. Rue does some heroin in Fez’s car and wanders the party in a haze, eventually finding another attendee doing drugs in a laundry room. This remains another role demonstrating Zendaya’s range. She can be Peter Parker’s tough girlfriend in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and last year showed off intelligent maturity in Levinson’s otherwise sluggish “Malcolm & Marie” for Netflix. In “Euphoria,” she generates empathy through the sheer tragic plight of her character. A break-up is no excuse to relapse into a dangerous drug habit, unless you’re a lost teenager with no idea how to navigate brutally hurtful emotions. Zendaya’s scenes are the most harrowing in any moment of this show. In this episode she notices her heart rate becomes irregular and gets the other kid to crush some Adderall to fix the problem. Outside, by a small fire, Jules comes face to face with Rue and asks her when she relapsed. Rue, sending a knife to the heart, admits it began the night Jules left.

For all its neon-lit bleakness, and this is surely one of TV’s most visually exhilarating shows, Levinson still finds moments of tenderness. Amid all the sneaky guys and creeps, it’s Fez who has a genuinely sweet conversation with Lexi about God and history. She knows what he is, yet gives him her number. Rue and Jules admit they miss each other and will kiss when the new year begins at midnight. Maybe there is hope. It can also be easily shattered. The final moment of the premiere sees Fez approach Nate, who reported him and Ashtray to the police last season, at the bar and smash a bottle on his head, before proceeding to beat his face into a bloody pulp. Vicious and emotive, “Euphoria” commences its second season with an artistry missing in so many other shows about youth. And yet, it isn’t just about Gen Z, it’s about America as well. We’re a society where suburbia and the underbelly flirt with each other, while sex and violence mix with loneliness in a powerful whirlwind. 

Euphoria” season two premieres Jan. 9 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.