“Euphoria” Isn't “Glorifying” Substance Use – It's Being Honest About It
“Euphoria” instantly captivated me. When the credits rolled at the end of the pilot, I knew I would follow Rue’s character wherever she went. However, the substance use in the show is heavy, and season one contains multiple admittedly alluring scenes of Rue getting high. So, understandably, the show has received criticism for glamorising substance use. But through watching season two, it’s clear that the show’s goal is the complete opposite of glorification.
Too often, stories about the dangers of substance use on television start at the point when worse has come to worst. Depictions of characters who are already at the end of their rope and whose bodies have long been ravaged by the side effects of prolonged substance use disorder. While these stories are undoubtedly important, the lessons they aim to teach don’t necessarily land with younger viewers. Why? Because people generally don’t think the worst-case scenarios that play out on television will happen to them – especially not teenagers who still have that youthful sense of invincibility.
In contrast, “Euphoria” takes an honest approach to telling Rue’s story of addiction. The show is unafraid to intrigue the audience, forcing them to look at the real reasons why substance use is appealing to her in the first place and why she keeps using.
I could relate to Rue right off the bat. She’s cunning, charismatic, and deeply troubled all at the same time. Even though her substance use in the pilot episode is concerning (she did just return from rehab after an overdose, after all), the audience can enjoy the ride with her as she flits from endless parties to Fez’s house to re-up. As a viewer, I know how much doing drugs temporarily eliminates Rue’s racing, anxious thoughts as she copes with her dad’s death. While not everyone can relate to her coping mechanism of choice (it’s an incredibly destructive one), nearly everyone can relate to crippling anxiety or the pain of losing a loved one and wanting to escape from it all. That’s why Rue’s story – and pain – rings so true.
Seeing the natural progression of Rue’s addiction was far more powerful than it would have been if I’d been launched into the part of her story where she’s already reached her lowest point or is just about to get there. Getting to see Rue have a blast getting high in season one as a functioning person with substance use disorder made her gradual downward spiral in season two more impactful.
Season two started with an entirely different, darker tone than season one, but a fundamental shift happened in season two, episode five. I was in tears when Leslie confronts Rue about her relapse. I cried for Leslie, Gia, Elliot, and Jules, but also for Rue. When Rue has a panic attack that leads her to jump out of her mum’s car in the middle of traffic, I saw the fear in her eyes when she declares aloud that she can’t stay clean. I ached for her as she begins to descend into excruciating withdrawals. The chaos that ensues for the duration of the episode shows that Rue will destroy anyone and anything in her path. Because, in her mind, everyone is trying to take her away from the only method she knows to get through the day.
Seeing Rue as a little girl in the bathtub – full of innocence, infinite potential, and joy – was an equally powerful scene. It demonstrated how quickly addiction can take people to ugly places while showing that we all start out the same way – innocent and unaware of the challenges life will throw at us. It was a stark reminder that addiction doesn’t discriminate, and an infinite number of situations could lead a person to their first high.
Laurie’s story about how she developed an addiction to prescription painkillers after an injury she suffered as a college athlete only added to the intensity of Rue’s escape episode. Not only was Laurie’s story relatable, but the facts she shares about the long-term effects of opiates on your brain were terrifying. They sunk in as I watched Rue think of nothing but how sick she is and how badly she needs more drugs to help alleviate the many symptoms of withdrawal.
Out of the entire devastating episode, the scene that stood out the most was when Rue went from rejecting intravenous morphine to begging for it out of desperation. Earlier in the season, Rue is noticeably distressed witnessing Faye inject heroin while in the backseat of Fezco’s car. Her panic in that scene established a clear boundary that shooting up was a line she believed she’d never cross. It was excruciating to watch that boundary evaporate in seconds, and it effectively demonstrated how addiction can take you to places you never imagined.
In Rue’s season two, episode six monologue, she talks about people’s tendency to reduce someone’s life to their worst moment – an ugly moment – and punish them for it. She says that it’s what cops do. “It’s what you would do to me if you didn’t know me,” Rue points out.
Rue’s right. If we didn’t know her or the details of her life, we wouldn’t be able to relate to her. But the way “Euphoria” tells her story forces us, as the audience, to look past her darkest moments. We know Rue. We love her, for better or worse, and seeing the fun she has with drugs initially is exactly what terrified us beyond belief, witnessing where her substance use disorder ultimately leads her.