Euphoria second special review: Hunter Schafer shines as provocative teen drama unfurls beyond Zendaya’s Rue

Euphoria second special review: Hunter Schafer shines as provocative teen drama unfurls beyond Zendaya’s Rue

Euphoria second special review: Hunter Schafer shines as provocative teen drama unfurls beyond Zendaya’s Rue

Last year, Euphoria (Sky Atlantic) left Jules (Hunter Schafer) in an iffy place with its audience. The finale saw her board a late-night train to New York City, abandoning her girlfriend – our protagonist, a recovering drug addict named Rue (Zendaya), to whom we had grown fiercely protective – on the platform sobbing in her prom outfit. How could Jules do this to her? How could she do this to us?

Since its 2019 debut, the Emmy-winning teenage drama by Sam Levinson has been both lauded and lambasted for its over-the-top licentiousness. Topics such as abusive relationships, sexual assault and adult predators were given the Levinson treatment, which is to say dunked in glitter, lit up by neon filters and shot using dizzying camera movements. The coronavirus pandemic, though, has changed things. The show’s two special episodes – the second of which was released today – were shot according to filming restrictions and as a result feature little of the trippy tricks that distinguished Euphoria’s first season.

While the first of the two specials focused on Rue’s downward spiral in the wake of Jules’s departure, the second – titled “F*** Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob” – seeks to kickstart the evolution of Jules. The one-hour instalment covers the duration of her first session with a new therapist, Dr Mardy Nichols (Lauren Weedman). The bare-bones format is not surprising: the Rue episode was shot with only two actors at a diner and the car park just outside it. But Jules’s episode is less of a duet and more of a soliloquy. Dr Nichols (although quietly brilliant asking the occasional question in her teal monochrome outfit) is there to listen – and so are we.

Over the course of this hour, Jules puts forward her case. Among other things, we learn that her mother, like Rue, is a recovering drug addict, and that she, herself, has been feeling suicidal (“There’s a difference between thinking about hurting yourself and wanting to hurt yourself. But I think that gap was closing”). Through her revelations, past moments are radically recontextualised, lending them a balance and nuance that was missing – the Halloween episode when she appears to selfishly abandon Rue at a party is one example. While we were watching Rue unpack all of her s***, Jules was being put through the wringer too.

Most importantly, though, the conversation does not solely concern their relationship. At the encouragement of her therapist, Jules opens up about herself. She cries speaking about the online romance that turned out to be a lie. She admits to feeling uneasy about her gender transition and reveals that she is considering stopping taking her hormones. Schafer, a trans actor, had spent hours with Levinson helping to authentically fill out Jules’s experiences transitioning, and her contributions to the series are nowhere more evident than in this episode, which she co-wrote.

<p>Schafer stars as Jules Vaughn in HBO’s gritty teen drama</p>

Schafer stars as Jules Vaughn in HBO’s gritty teen drama

(HBO)

In allowing Jules the space to speak her truth and exist beyond Rue’s perception, the episode redresses one of Euphoria’s biggest shortcomings: its solipsism. Despite its cold opens (each episode focuses on one character), the series is filtered entirely through Rue’s blinkered narration. While the show’s tunnel vision leads to wonderful complexity in our protagonist, it also gives rise to an undeniable feeling that Euphoria’s other characters – Jules included – are being shortchanged.

At times, season one saw Jules boxed into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype – written only as a simulacrum of a character to give meaning to Rue’s life. Viewed at a distance and entirely through Rue’s longing eyes, her spindly frame took on godlike proportions. Here, though, Jules is afforded some crucial intimacy – and as a result, Schafer is granted the opportunity to flex as an actor. Her portrayal of Jules is phenomenal; her vulnerability is palpable. The episode is a clear indicator that Schafer wasn’t being used to her full potential in season one.

The special finds its strength in sparseness, something it occasionally loses sight of in favour of psychedelic fantasy sequences more typical of Euphoria’s aesthetic. The strongest scenes are of Jules on the couch simply attempting to find the words for her feelings, and when the camera careens into purple-hued sex montages, your only wish is to be brought back into the calm of the therapist’s office. 


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