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Season 2 of “Euphoria” Sheds Light On Rue’s Addiction

It may not be an exaggeration to say that everyone’s been talking about Euphoria. Since the hit show first premiered in 2019, it has grown in popularity to the extent that Game Of Thrones is the only HBO show that has matched its record viewership numbers. 

And Euphoria has become something of a similar cultural touchstone, the thing that everyone is talking about, object of curiosity, controversy, and debate. The show’s mix of aesthetic appeal, gratuitous sexuality, and substantial shock value keeps everyone watching, and has kept the internet abuzz with debate, think pieces, and Twitter wars discussing the much-maligned yet much adored series. 

Of course, due to the fact that main character Rue’s journey involves a serious battle with opioid addiction, some of the discussion around Euphoria has revolved around the issue of substance use disorder, with some people accusing the show of glamorizing or encouraging teen drug use with its flashy party scenes. 

Even anti-drug organization D. A. R. E. weighed in on the issue, accusing the show of glorifying and erroneously portraying addiction. However, though some of Euphoria’s critics may have a point, anyone who accuses the show of glorifying addiction may have less of a leg to stand on after the seminal Season 2 episode “Stand Still Like A Hummingbird.” 

Though even season one had contained memorable moments that explored addiction’s darker aspects, such as a portrayal of Rue’s sister finding Rue near death after her life-threatening overdose, this took the grittiness to a whole new level by closely following Rue through her rock bottom.

After Rue’s concerned friend Jules informs Rue’s mother that Rue is back on opiates, Rue’s mother searches Rue’s room, finding and throwing out her daughter’s “stash,” which consists not only of the pills Rue had obtained for her own use but of a 10,000 dollar stash she had intended to sell. 

This puts Rue in immediate danger because it means she now owes money to her sinister supplier, which only adds to Rue’s intense hysteria as she realizes she is now pill-less, meaning that withdrawal is approaching imminently.

After Rue’s panic leads her to lash out at her mother and friends in an incredibly hurtful fashion, Rue takes off to her childhood friend Lexi’s house, betraying the trust of her friend Cassie in the process by revealing a painful secret about Cassie to take attention away from her own instability and collapse. 

When Rue’s mother follows her to Lexi’s as well, Rue elopes yet again on a desperate rampage, eventually breaking into a house to recklessly steal cash and jewelry, some of which she offers as collateral to the drug dealer she owes money to, Laurie, at whose home she eventually ends up.

Along the way, Rue shows symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and tremors, which ultimately make her so desperate that she crosses a line she has never crossed before and allows Laurie to inject her with morphine. After Laurie implies that she plans to force Rue into sex work so that she can pay off her debts, Rue gets frightened enough to run away once more, finally surrendering herself back home.

Though Rue’s actions in this episode are genuinely reprehensible, she still appears genuinely sympathetic, largely due to the desperation in Zendaya’s achingly raw portrayal as lines like “You don’t fucking recognize me, well neither do fucking I!” hint at the visceral pain and self loathing behind them. 

Zendaya indicated her profound understanding of her character’s tormented state in a recent interview.

“She’s in the midst of a degenerative disease and it’s taking control of her life. And in many ways she feels out of control. She doesn’t have the ability to control her emotions, her body,” she says.  

In a later interview, Zendaya also defended Euphoria against the aforementioned D. A. R. E. attacks, citing instead the show’s empathetic mission. 

Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain,” she explained.

Showrunner Sam Levinson also weighed in as someone who has his own history with drug abuse and addiction—in fact, one severe enough that he spent much of his youth cycling in and out of rehabs. At one point, Levinson had even accepted that drugs were going to kill him, before his passion for writing and a realization about how others would remember him if he didn’t change his ways—as a liar, thief and addict— inspired him to become a better person. 

Now 14 years clean, the creator has also spoken of his hope to “inspire compassion and empathy for those battling addiction” with his work on Euphoria, and his desire to “portray addiction in an honest way,” which involves showing drugs’ “allure” and the relief they can bring, because that’s ultimately what makes them so destructive.”

Critically, in this episode and others, that allure is balanced out by realistic and terrifying consequences. Other downsides of Rue’s addiction explored elsewhere in the show include her inability to enjoy sex with her girlfriend and their relationship’s ultimate deterioration, her deranged numbness to legitimately terrifying situations, and her coming so close to overdose that she asks a friend to keep tabs on her heartbeat in case she needs to be revived.

Since Levinson recognizes that Euphoria’s content means it could be triggering for some, and is thus not for everyone, he encourages anyone to avoid it who feels the need to do so. But Levinson also expressed frustration with Euphoria’s criticisms, considering them lazy and, to some degree, to be missing the point.

Not all criticisms of Euphoria seem fully off-key to me, including D. A. R. E.’s; and some that struck me as potentially more valid than accusations of “glamorizing” are the fact that it does not show a full range of treatments and simplifies the journey to recovery, neglecting the day to day boringness of habitual drug use in favor of big dramatic and sometimes, frankly, euphoric moments. 

In a recent Baylor Lariat article, college wellness director Lilly Ettinger echoed these sentiments.

“I think it has had an impact on some people who think, ‘So I’m not as bad as this glamorized fictional portrayal, so I don’t really need this kind of help. And I’ve had some people be like, ‘It makes me remember the good times,” she said. 

But Euphoria also gets a lot of things right in the way it portrays addiction, such as by displaying Rue’s drug use as an effort to cope with her life-long anxiety issues and avoid excruciating withdrawals rather than a selfish pursuit of pleasure, and by exploring the fact that the disease can often stem from trauma, which in Rue’s case involved the death of her father. 

Rue’s bisexuality and the drug use of new season 2 bisexual character Elliot also emphasizes the fact that LGBTQ youth are significantly more likely to abuse drugs than those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual. One study found that heroin use in particular—heroin being a stronger opiate drug that Rue’s pills threatened to serve as gateway to—was over three times as high in that demographic as in a similar selection of non-LGBTQ teenagers in 2018. 

Even those who are critical of the way Euphoria presents drug use cannot say that the scenarios it presents are wholly unrealistic ones when it comes to the prevalence of addiction. As of a 2020 study, substance use disorders affect 1.6 million American adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, a full 6.3 percent of those within that age group. In fact, rates of opioid use among young people are so high that overdoses in the age group of those 10-24 accounts for the loss of more than 1.25 million years of life based on their projected lifespans.

These statistics highlight just how much is at stake in the issue of increased awareness, understanding, and empathy around the disease. One Vulture article by Zachary Siegel echoes Levinson’s statements in speculating about the value Euphoria may have in encouraging compassion for those who do drugs, especially considering the particular role that stigma can play in discouraging addicts from getting help or reintegrating into society. 

But he also points out a more practical benefit of the show in the fact that Euphoria shows characters using naloxone to revive someone who has overdosed, which makes viewers aware that the overdose-reversing drug can work to save lives.

He also points out that the way fentanyl is discussed in the show makes it clear that it is significantly more dangerous than other opioids, another piece of information that could be lifesaving. Similarly, later episodes also at least allude to the ability of medication to significantly lessen the agony associated with Rue’s withdrawal symptoms. 

And for the many who have struggled with addiction themselves, some did indeed find comfort in it, seeing themselves in Rue’s struggles. In a Cosmopolitan article strikingly titled “If Only I Had ‘Euphoria’ During the Height of My Drug Addiction,” author Emily St. Martin reflects on the fact that, in her words, “Rue embodies the hopelessness I’d recognized in myself and the many young addicts I’ve known.”  

Martin criticizes the simplified and sanitized portrayal of addiction in older shows focused on adolescents like Saved By The Bell and Degrassi, as well as modern shows like Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and The Queen’s Gambit for neglecting to portray addiction in the appropriate depth.

In her mind, Euphoria progressively broke the mold by taking addiction to the forefront in a “a three-dimensional way that rings true,” not shying from dark truths like the fact that many drug addicts feel that using is only thing keeping them from suicide, something Martin heard echoed “in rehab group after rehab group,” and that Rue is shown frankly confessing to her sponsor Alli.

Martin also mentions the benefit of showing that there are moments where Rue still shows that she cares about those she love even as her need to feed her addiction to drives her to increasing rashness and manipulativeness, emphasizing her “raw humanity” in a way that encourages understanding and suggesting that there remains a part of her former self that remains beyond the horror of her disease.

Of course, if you feel Euphoria’s storyline will be triggering to you, especially if you have close personal experience with addiction that you fear the show’s darkness could bring up, then avoid it by all means. Just because Euphoria has some valuable things to say doesn’t mean that any one person has to watch it, and noone is saying that they should, including its creators. 

In fact, maybe the experience dramatized in Euphoria is one that is more valuable to outsiders than to those who have experienced addiction’s ravages firsthand and are likely in no need of a reminder, whether that means people who have experienced addiction themselves or those who have been close witnesses to someone else’s battle with the disorder.

I have, though, heard from some people with addiction who found that others in their life showed increased understanding of their disorder after viewing Euphoria, which is one definite point in the pro column. As I’m also exploring with the blog series I’m working on in conjunction with my theatre company, stories can be a tremendously powerful way of spreading awareness and understanding. And the ability to make a connection between fictional characters and loved ones’ real life struggles might be an especially moving one for many who find it hard to hold onto hope in the face of addiction’s ravages given that we do, before season 2 comes to a close, see Rue’s story take a hopeful turn.

Fittingly, open, honest artistic expression is a part of Rue’s change of heart as well, as her portrayal in her childhood friend Lexi’s play and a loving song written for her by Elliot help her to see the good in herself. This, in turn, combined with the continual support of her family and her sponsor, helps Rue to stay sober for at least the rest of that school year. 

This arc is another reason why Zendaya felt so passionately about defending the series. 

I think that if people can go with her through that, and get to the end, and still have hope for her future, and watch her make the changes and steps to heal and humanize her through her sobriety journey and her addiction, then maybe they can extend that to people in real life,”  she explained on her Instagram. 

“Remember that we are not the worst mistake we’ve ever made,” she added, “And that redemption is possible.”

Though Rue is still in a precarious place at the end of Euphoria’s season 2, she can at least honestly say that “the thought of maybe being a good person” is what inspires her to keep trying to be a good person.

“Maybe there’s something to that,” she ponders. 

And maybe there’s something to Euphoria as well, especially given that there’s at least some small evidence beyond personal anecdote that the positive message the show ultimately espoused by allowing Rue a redemption arc actually had a positive impact on those struggling with addiction; the UK Addiction Treatment Group reported a small rise in those seeking their services for addiction treatment after Euphoria’s second season aired. 

If you or someone you love is currently struggling with addiction and is considering reaching out to get help, we hope you’ll consider Reco Intensive. Our comprehensive addiction treatment program serves those who are willing to put in the work to achieve their own redemption arc with a holistic whole-person focused treatment approach that utilizes science backed therapies led by qualified professionals as well as more innovative treatment modalities. To learn more, contact us online today or call us anytime at 561.464.6505. 









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