Euphoria glorifies drug abuse. That’s the criticism that has been levelled at the HBO ‘teen’ series since it first aired in 2020, and it’s a criticism its creators and stars have been pushing against.  

“Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing,” Zendaya recently told Entertainment Weekly, after US drug education program D.A.R.E publicly called Euphoria out in January, saying the series “chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence, and other destructive behaviours as common and widespread in today’s world”.

It’s easy to see why people are up in arms about the series – its characters are in high school, and the cinematography is on par with a big-budget music video, which gives everything a sort of tragic-chic feel, from Cassie’s relentless pursuit of men who use her for sex to Rue’s ongoing struggle with addiction. 

That all changed in season two, episode five, ‘Stand Still Like The Hummingbird’. Finally, we saw the gritty reality of addiction, how it destroys relationships and leads to potentially devastating consequences. 

Zendaya gives a gripping performance as Rue spirals this episode. Image: HBO

To recap, Rue did not die in episode four, but she was caught out in her drug-taking by Jules, who went to Rue’s mother Leslie for help. Episode five opens as Rue confronts her sister Gia and mother about the suitcase full of pills, which is now missing. It turns out they flushed them down the toilet – which not only impacts Rue from an addict perspective as she was using them, but from a safety perspective since she was meant to sell them for Laurie, a major drug dealer.

What follows is one of Zendaya’s best performances in the series to date, which surely will see her nominated for another Emmy award. Rue is desperate and manic, screaming at her mother then begging her for help. She destroys the house in search of the suitcase, then breaks down over the death of her father, which we now know is a key factor in her addiction struggle. It’s easily the most confronting scene I’ve watched of Euphoria

In real time, we watch Rue shred her relationship with Jules to pieces, telling Jules her betrayal means the end of their relationship. She then hits Elliot in the face and screams that he’s a drug abuser, too. We also see Rue shattering the fragile relationship she’d just started to rebuild with her younger sister, Gia. In fact, it’s seeing this moment through Gia’s eyes that really makes it heartbreaking. Storm Reid does an incredible job of portraying the helplessness those close to drug addicts feel during their loved ones darkest moments.

Gia (Storm Reid) is a portrait of the family impact of drug addiction. Image: HBO

It was a fantastic episode, and definitely shed light on the dark side of drug addiction. But was it enough to prove the series isn’t glamourising drugs? The episode sort of lost me mid-way, when Rue embarked on an escape from potential rehab that could easily have fit into an action-comedy film. Bumbling police officers, comedic hijinks involving dogs, dropped cakes at disrupted parties and plenty of leaping over cars and walls – all set to what a lively soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in an action flick. It felt at odds with the overall tone of the episode, which was really about Rue sinking to her lowest level and destroying not just what was around her, but her own self in the pursuit of drugs.

Still, the episode finished well. Laurie has to be one of the most terrifying villains I’ve seen on television in recent memory. She is disarmingly calm and collected, even motherly as Rue explains that the drugs are gone. But we knew the relaxed exterior was for show, and when she personally injects Rue with morphine – the intent being to addict her to harder drugs and thus create a long-standing client (did anyone else have a visceral reaction to Laurie saying “When I first saw you I thought, this girl’s going to be in my life for a long time”) we see the real extent of her terror.

That bathtub scene was testament to how good Euphoria can be. This season in particular has seen some stunning cinematography work, but watching Rue be prepped for injection by Laurie in the background, as we focus on TV reruns in the foreground upped the horror ten-fold. If this episode was tough to watch, that scene was the toughest. There was nothing glamorous about drug addiction in that moment.

The scenes at Laurie’s home were electric with tension. Image: HBO.

But I have mixed feelings about this episode being held up as evidence that Euphoria gets it right. Yes, it showed us the realities of drug addiction. Yes, we see the devastation an addict can leave in their wake. Yes, we see how completely their addiction can take hold of their life, leading them to the darkest of places. But then, in the middle of this, we have a show that still somehow manages to make addiction look… fun? Rue’s chase through the streets of her city felt like we were watching a future anecdote of someone’s “wild years”. Rue still ends this episode avoiding all consequences of her actions – she didn’t get caught robbing the rich couple, she didn’t get hit by a car on highways, she didn’t get arrested, and she escaped Laurie’s apartment unscathed. Then again, this is a television show. Am I expecting too much realism from it?

It’s also worth noting that creator Sam Levinson is writing a series very much based on his own experiences – he told Variety in 2019 about his own drug addiction as a teenager, and it’s clear that Rue really mirrors his teen self. “Sometime around the age of 16, I resigned myself to the idea that eventually drugs would kill me and there was no reason to fight it. I would let it take me over, and I had made peace with that,” he told the publication, adding that he finally got clean via rehab at 19. Zendaya also mentioned in her interview with Entertainment Tonight that she’s had “a lot of people…reach out and find so many parallels from all ages, all walks of life” to Rue’s story. 

Perhaps Euphoria’s controversial depiction of drug addiction is so polarising because it is realistic – and realistically, drugs do give addicts the highs they seek, highs that will override the lows – until you hit rock bottom, that is. While I still feel like the series needs to show more of the fallout addiction has on those around you, it’s clearly connecting with many viewers who have gone through the experience themselves – so if it’s relevant to those genuinely struggling with it, is our criticism really just based in ignorance?

Melissa is a freelance writer. You can find her on Instagram.

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