The Subversive Stillness of ‘Euphoria’s’ First (Very) Special Episode
This article contains spoilers for the season one finale of Euphoria.
When we watch TV, no matter what the genre, we expect things to move quickly. Frantic cuts from one person to the next, quippy or cutting dialogue intended to convey plot, tension, and character development. The show’s editing gives you only the important bits of a specific period of time, and then we are on to the next scene of exposition. At the very least, you expect an episode of TV to cover about 24–36 hours. At the most, an episode of TV can span an entire year or lifetime if it needs to.
It is unheard of in TV to have an episode depict an entire conversation in real time without distraction. And yet, that is exactly what Euphoria’s special episode “Trouble Don’t Last Always” did.
First, the context in which this episode was filmed greatly impacted its content. it has been nearly 18 months since the finale of the first season aired, and the second season’s filming was thwarted by COVID-19. To fill the dearth between seasons (and perhaps to capitalize on Zendaya’s Emmy win momentum), showrunner Sam Levinson concocted two special episodes to air in December and January, respectively. The first episode of which focused on the show’s protagonist, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), in the wake of her season-ending relapse.
To solve the issue of not being able to film with a full cast, the episode features only two of its main characters, Rue and Jules (Hunter Schafer), as well as a recurring character, Ali (Colman Domingo). The episode takes place on Christmas Eve in a mostly-empty diner, and follows a winding conversation between Rue and her middle-aged, recovering addict mentor, Ali. The latter, who serves as a surrogate father figure to Rue in the aftermath of her own father’s death, attempts to give Rue the wake-up call she needs in order to get clean. This is an overly simplified description of what was discussed, as the talk covers a swath of existential questions many of us have been facing this year: the point of having faith, the meaning of Black life, what “revolution” looks like in the face of it all. The throughline of Ali’s soliloquy was, of course, the mental turmoil of addiction, and why Rue shouldn’t give up on her life because she can’t imagine it without drugs.
As with a real-life conversation with a friend, a mentor, or a parent, not everything in this convo sticks. There were moments of boredom and rambling and “What is his point with this again?” throughout the hourlong heart-to-heart that didn’t vibe with me. To name the biggest one: the generally-accepted ideology that addiction is a disease. I know disagreeing with this statement is controversial to many of you reading; you may think that uncoupling addiction and disease means that I don’t take the former seriously. Don’t mistake me, I do. Pulling from a perspective that admittedly is not mine (thanks internet), I’ve evolved my perspective on drug abuse and addiction to see it as more of a mental illness or coping mechanism with negative physical consequences. Thus, if you take issue with calling addiction something other than a disease, you should stop to ask yourself why you see physical health to be of more dire importance than mental health.
We commonly accept addiction as a disease because calling it such at a certain point in time was the only way the public could take it seriously, and thus implement recovery options for addicts. Associating it with language used to refer to physical ailments meant that people could accept it as only a physical health issue, rather than primarily a mental one. If one thinks about many of the tragic drug-related celebrity deaths of the last 60 years, a common thread among them was that the star was living with an untreated (sometimes undiagnosed) mental illness. They turned to drugs to, like Rue, to survive under the unbearable weight of their illness. To understand an addiction as the byproduct of an underlying mental illness would mean that we’d have to create longer term therapy more accessible, affordable, and individualized. But instead, we treat addiction recovery like chemotherapy: go to shame-y AA or NA meetings for a certain amount of weeks, only address the health issue itself, and go on about your life once its done, hoping the issue won’t come back. The underlying traumas that may have led to the problem are not addressed in treatment.
In Euphoria, it is clear that Rue is the victim of this inadequate system of recovery. She goes to NA meetings to “prove” her sobriety for an audience, and leaves them having received none of the support she needs. Her conversation with Ali was a comforting change of pace, as Ali served as a stand-in therapist for Rue. Like a good behavioral therapist, Ali asked Rue to get to the bottom of her hopeless feelings. He gave her space to talk about her father’s death, something she rarely did in the pilot season. In doing so, Rue discovered that she may, in fact, believe she’s a good person. Despite the imperfection of some of Ali’s metaphors, the conversation succeeded in delving deeper into the widely misunderstood psyches of addicts.
This entry into the show’s canon was marketed as a “special episode,” a reflective epilogue to the first season’s events. Given all discussed above, it is clear that it’s actually a Very Special Episode of Euphoria. A TV episode earns the “Very Special Episode” moniker when it tackles more serious subject matter (usually a timely issue of oppression or ongoing societal ill) and breaks from the show’s formula in order to do so. Typically seen in sitcoms, they can also appear in dramadies or straightforward dramas. In a dark teen drama like Euphoria, a show that seems to pride itself on its hectic visuals and pacing, it was disruptive to see the show stripped down to exclusively address the elephant in the room of the series: Rue’s addiction.
I cannot sing praises loud enough for the care that both actors put into this screenplay. Zendaya and Domingo have earthy chemistry that I couldn’t turn my head away from. Particularly Domingo’s performance had me hanging on his every word, even in the parts that lulled. There is something about the way he carries lines that commands your attention; his theatre experience shone through in a poignant way. Even still, Zendaya proved once again that she is a legend in the making, a star with believable, emotional range as an actress. When she cries, I feel like crying. When she’s funny, I can’t stop cackling. That’s acting.
The episode’s laser focus on this conversation also upended my expectations for TV dramas. Especially when it involves Black characters, especially on premium cable networks, I have been trained to expect the worst. There was a point in the episode where Ali leaves Rue in the diner to make a phone call to his estranged family. He wanted to talk to his kids and wish them a Merry Christmas, and Domingo’s acting was marvelous. I kept watching this scene, holding my breath, bracing myself for him to get shot or faint or something. Because TV show formulas too often use shock violence or death of BIPOC characters to drive emotional turning points for key characters of their series. But, Ali ends the phone call, and goes back into the diner to continue his discussion with Rue.
At the end of the episode, the two finally leave the diner. Ali drives Rue home, and we are subjected to a slow zooming shot of Rue looking contemplative as “Ave Maria” plays in the background. I held my breath again, waiting to hear tires screech or a violent crash before the fade to black. The camera held on Rue’s face for an uncomfortable amount of time before the song ends and the credits roll, with no incident. This was inexplicably disconcerting.
In the fog of COVID, we no longer want tragedy or violence for the sake of it in our entertainment. We have seen enough of that for a lifetime in the last 9 months. The collective trauma of the year paired with my understanding of drama TV tropes had me expecting the other shoe to drop in an embarrassingly morbid fashion. When Americans are flocking to feel-good shows to get them through these trying times, Euphoria stands out as a reminder that the trials of “normal” life still suck. Despite its title, the series and this episode in particular gave viewers some grounding. Two humans making a connection in a quiet diner around the holidays, talking about the deep shit life gets you in sometimes, was the closest to “normal” I’ve felt all year. Sometimes bad things can just be bad without needing to be worse to be valid.