Littered with enough dick shots to make a parent faint, Sam Levinson’s teen drama Euphoria painted Gen Z (played here by a bunch of attractive actors in their mid-twenties) as the most terrifying generation yet. They party hard, get high, and send nudes in a period where you’re forced to grow up early. Whether Euphoria is successful in representing modern adolescence is still in debate. Before it had even started (Remember the 30 penises drama?), the show had weathered accusations of provocation for provocation’s sake, dipping its toe into every hot-button topic imaginable from drug addiction to abortion, often lacking in nuance.

Euphoria has also faced criticisms for prioritizing style over substance, resorting to dream sequences and ostentatious cinematography to distract from its weak writing. As for this writer, I’m firmly in the middle of public opinion, appreciative of its beauty but not so receptive when it indulges in its worst impulses. One prime example: the ending of season one. The breathtaking sequence set to Donny Hathaway brings Rue’s past and present together for a devastating buildup to her relapse, only to be undercut by an unnecessary music number. Zendaya’s voice is beautiful, but please save it for the credits.

Nevertheless, the show carried on strong, gaining a devout following and an Emmy award for Zendaya. And then COVID hit. Filming for the next season was delayed by a year, but to satiate fans’ appetites, it briefly returned with its biggest shocker yet: a display of restraint. The two holiday specials may have been limited physically by the constraints of a pandemic, but in simply allowing Rue and Jules to speak candidly for an hour in the aftermath of their separation at the train station, they enriched Euphoria for the better. (The episodes also did wonders for their characters who were becoming worryingly one-note, especially pixie dream girl Jules.) In a surprise change of pace, Euphoria had delivered its finest episodes yet.

My concern going forward, then, was if Euphoria would be able to reconcile the tender delicacy of the specials with its extravagant default mode. That question is answered immediately in its first episode back, with a slow-motion sequence involving a strip club, two gunshots to the thighs, and, naturally, an exposed penis. It looks like the specials were truly a one-time thing. But at least it’s the Fezco episode! (A fan favorite and the only major character who doesn’t come from a middle-class background, his episode has been long overdue.) In his backstory, we’re introduced to his grandmother (Kathrine Narducci, stealing the episode from minute one), who rescues him from his abusive father and brings him into her drug deals. In a series where teens act older than their age, Fez has been saddled with adult responsibilities far longer than everyone else. He’s not a kid or a grandson, but a business partner. And on top of his family’s dealing operations, Fez is also forced to take care of the new baby he suddenly finds in their living room, christened as Ashtray after he eats a cigarette.

From childhood to now, Fez has always carried the burden of responsibility without a word of complaint, and so it’s in his nature to take Rue along for a meeting with a replacement dealer following Mouse’s death. There’s a double-edged quality to Fez’s care; he calls Rue his “family,” but he’s also his drug dealer, afraid to admit that he supplied her addiction. And though he tries to keep Rue away from danger in his car with heroin user Faye, she gets pulled into it anyway in an escalated repeat of her encounter with Mouse in season one. Fez’s tendency to shy away from consequences is reflected in his grandmother’s attitude toward his uncle’s death by McDonald’s: Blame the individual, not the supplier. When Lexi later asks him how he can deal drugs and still believe in God, he recounts that same McDonald’s analogy, only to be shut down. (“If I were God, I don’t think I’d let McDonald’s CEO in heaven,” she retorts.)

It wouldn’t be Euphoria without a Project X level party, and this season kicks off with a New Year’s Eve bash that’s as messy as ever. It’s a rough one for Cassie, who ditches Lexi after they fight on the car ride over, but she’s soon picked up by a now-single Nate who offers her a ride filled with suggestive staring and reckless driving. Even when accompanied by the swooning sounds of Orville Peck, Euphoria’s most carefree moments contain an undercurrent of darkness. (After that deliberate shot of Cassie unbuckling her seatbelt to stick her head out of the window, I truly thought she was going to get Hereditary’d.) But despite Nate breaking speeding laws like it’s nothing, they make it anyway and hook up in the bathroom.

I love the entire sequence of Cassie hiding in the bathtub to avoid Maddy. It’s both a one-location thriller and the closest thing to slapstick Euphoria will ever get, with Sydney Sweeney’s eyes blown up like balloons to articulate the true terror of Maddy’s wrath — and her pee-stained towel. That said, this episode has a lot of these fake-out moments where momentum builds toward something horrific, only to screech to a halt. Put the bathroom scene in contrast with Fez’s sudden assault of Nate, and it’s clear that Euphoria’s idea of drama is a sudden, shocking event. The structure of this episode mirrors a schlocky horror movie. One that tries to catch you out with false jump scares, then surprises you with the real monster when the tension has already dissipated.

This episode spreads itself so far to catch up with everyone that it only just makes time for Rue and Jules. Their reunion is woefully rushed, and it’s confounding that the resolution to a two-year cliffhanger is to … have them get back together again? I guess it’s fairly consistent for teenagers — a breakup is never really a breakup — but it’s as if the specials never happened. What happened to Rue’s anger at Jules for leaving her at the train station? What about their awkwardness around each other at the end of “Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob”? Even earlier in this episode, Jules confesses to Kat that she’s over the past year, drinking it away in a shot glass. (“My world got too small, and I didn’t feel good.”) In her therapy session, she admits she doesn’t want to be held responsible for Rue’s sobriety, and yet she barely says a word when Rue blames her for her relapse. A very short amount of time has passed since their breaking point on the platform. Has their resentment just evaporated?

And don’t get me started on the blinding light show that replaces the conversations they should be having. The bells and whistles of Euphoria are relentlessly frustrating because they obfuscate the wonderful performances from its cast. You would think that the two specials (Rue’s especially) are evidence enough that Zendaya and Hunter Schafer can carry a scene — heck, even an entire episode — but no one seems to have learned that lesson. After showing such promise last Christmas, Euphoria is already regressing back to its old ways.

Among the things that Euphoria best captures is the sense that in adolescence, everything that happens to you, no matter how major or minor, can carry the same hyperbolic weight — that anything positive somehow feels like a trip to paradise, and anything negative is an armageddon.

Those extreme reactions hold true to Euphoria itself, which is returning for a second full season after being mostly absent for the last two and a half years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new episodes offer scenes that are so insightful or artfully presented that Euphoria can feel in that moment like one of the very best shows television has produced in a while. Then others are so exasperating and self-indulgent that they can leave you questioning whether you liked the better parts at all. Sometimes, the same scene can conjure both reactions at once.

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