‘Euphoria’ Doesn’t Glorify Drug Use — It Humanizes It

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Nate Taylor

Levinson needed to cast an actress who could portray the emotional volatility of an adolescent drug addict, in tandem with Rue’s mental health diagnoses — among them, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression — and shifting relationships with friends, family and lovers. “I think that the toughest part of writing [Zendaya’s] character and sort of portraying a character that’s dealing with addiction is understanding the root causes of it and the sensitivity behind it,” Sam Levinson said.

***Content Warning: This article discusses topics of drug use.
***Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for seasons one and two of “Euphoria.”

Trauma and healing. Love and heartbreak. Euphoria and rock bottom. HBO Max’s “Euphoria” is a union of opposites — and the gray area between them.

The show’s second season premiered on Jan. 9 and aired throughout January and February, reigniting debate about the representation of drug addiction in modern-day films.

“Rather than further each parent’s desire to keep their children safe from the potentially horrific consequences of drug abuse and other high-risk behavior, HBO’s television drama ‘Euphoria’ chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world,” Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) said in a statement to TMZ on Jan. 26.

But to say the show “glorifies” drug use is both naive and tone-deaf to the reality of high school and its interrelationship with drugs for many American teenagers today.

Directed by Sam Levinson, “Euphoria” follows the lives of several high school students as they grapple with sexuality, trauma, friendship and addiction. Viewers perceive the world from the perspective of Rue Bennett, the protagonist and narrator portrayed by Emmy award-winning actress Zendaya, as she faces the euphoric highs and lows of drug addiction, rehabilitation and withdrawal after the death of her father.

“Euphoria” is developed directly from the experiences of Levinson, whose upbringing with drugs parallels Rue’s.

“I just wrote myself as a teenager,” Levinson said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “I think those feelings and memories, they’re still extremely accessible to me, so it’s not a hard reach. I just write myself and what I was feeling and what I was going through when I was younger and I was dealing with addiction.”

Season two, episode five — entirely shuts down allegations that “Euphoria” glamorizes drug use. The episode marks Rue’s lowest point as a drug addict — she resorts to theft, gets into a violent confrontation with her mother and severs ties with her close friends and girlfriend, Jules, in a desperate attempt to find opiates to suppress her withdrawal symptoms.

“I thought the episode that tackled withdrawals where [Rue] was not eating and her mood completely shifted because she was dependent on the drugs and how she kind of turns into a whole different person was so crucial to the season,” junior *Matt B. said. “And I thought it was accurate because I know what a withdrawal feels like, and it completely changes my mood. You don’t want to be productive anymore, like you have no energy, and you say things you regret.”

*For purposes of anonymity, this student requested to be named “Matt B.”

I thought the episode that tackled withdrawals where [Rue] was not eating and her mood completely shifted because she was dependent on the drugs and how she kind of turns into a whole different person was so crucial to the season … And I thought it was accurate because I know what a withdrawal feels like, and it completely changes my mood. You don’t want to be productive anymore, like you have no energy, and you say things you regret.”

— Junior *Matt B.

“Euphoria” deliberately casts light on its characters in a way that is not entirely black or white. Maddy can be loved for her loyalty just like she can be loathed for framing a man for a crime he did not commit. Jules can be loved for her resilience after her parents divorced just like she can be loathed for unapologetically cheating on Rue.

Levinson paints a picture of Rue and her addiction with a remarkable gray area — and combined with the show’s beautiful cinematography, viewers can easily mistake the fact that Levinson avoids demonizing Rue as “glamorizing” her relationship with drugs.

“It’s my hope for people watching that they still see [Rue] as a person worthy of their love and worthy of their time, and that she has a redemptive quality still, and that we still see the good in her even if she can’t see it in herself,” Zendaya said on Instagram on Feb. 6, just hours before season two, episode five, premiered. “If you can love her, then you can love someone that is struggling with the same thing and maybe have a greater understanding of the pain they’re facing that is often out of their control.”

Beyond its cinematography, extravagant plot devices and comedic one-liners, “Euphoria” does what Hollywood despises: it humanizes its characters’ flaws. In “Euphoria,” viewers can appreciate Rue’s positives as a character, like how she fervently tries to protect her sister, Gia, from drug abuse. Viewers can also sympathize with Rue’s upbringing with addiction even when her actions hurt the ones she loves.

Without this gray area, Rue would be just another baseless character who perpetuates unforgiving stereotypes of drug addiction all too prevalent in media today.

“You can see that there is something human about [Rue] when she is sober, because the director does such a good job of humanizing her and making her feel remorse for what she did when she was high,” senior Chloe Don said. “I was so happy that Rue decided to put herself first and walk away from Jules, as hard as it was, because I feel like this is the longest we have ever seen Rue actually sober, and she is doing good things with it — it is really satisfying to watch and, as a viewer, made me proud of her.”

“Euphoria” does not glamorize drug addiction — it does not demonize it either. It spreads awareness about how multifaceted and complex drug addiction is in society today. And it is this distinction that makes “Euphoria” as authentically euphoric as it is.

(Euphoria was renewed for its third season on Feb. 4 and is expected to release at the beginning of 2024.)