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The kids are going to be alright. Maybe: The (very) complicated portrayal of drug addiction in &#822

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In the opening scene of the first episode of HBO’s controversial series Euphoria (2019), Rue (Zendaya), the show’s omniscient, unreliable narrator, recalls the last time she felt safe. “I was once happy, content, sloshing around in my own primordial pool,” she laconically claims. “Then one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed over and over by the cruel cervix of my mother . . . I put up a good fight, but I lost for the first time—but not the last.” Reluctantly thrust into an anxious post-9/11 world, Rue laments being crushed yet again by more circumstances even further beyond her control, coming of age in the shadow of a financial recession and the omnipresent threat of school shootings. As a toddler she was diagnosed with numerous mental disorders, her inner turmoil seemingly reflecting the instability of the era: ADHD, OCD, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder. A cornucopia of drugs was prescribed to address a problem that baffled experts, priming her for drug abuse well before she clandestinely discovered the tranquility provided by her dying father’s pain medications. Due to this bewildering amount of pharmaceuticals, Rue mournfully confesses to not remembering much of anything about her early adolescence other than “that the world moved fast and my brain moved slow.”

The only way to deal with the unwanted burden of navigating her tumultuous world, she informs viewers in a monotone voiceover, is to numb oneself to its reality, to render oneself incapable of caring so as not to hurt by creating a state of unfeeling. And opiates provided just the kind of emotional refuge she needed to escape from what she considered a broken society for which no one had prepared her. “I just showed up one day without a map or a compass, or to be honest, anyone capable of giving one iota of good fucking advice. And I know it all may seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system. Nor did I fuck it up.” In Rue’s mind, recreational drug use was a perfectly acceptable response to having to cope with the sick reality imposed upon her, Oxycodone offering a means to, at the very least, get by, to survive another day, to “outrun,” as she put it, “your anxiety.” It is a kind of agency, albeit a sad and ultimately destructive kind, for reclaiming control in a social order that afforded her none. “I found a way to live,” she asserts. “Will it kill me? I dunno.”

But it quickly becomes clear that Rue has a complicated relationship with the drugs she uses to quell her deep inner pain. “Drugs are kind of cool,” she says flatly, “I mean they’re cool before they wreck your skin. And your life. And your family. That’s when they get uncool. It’s actually a very narrow window of cool.” The pilot episode shows Rue returning home from rehab “with no intention of staying clean” just before the start of her junior year of high school, followed later by a montage of disjointed flashbacks revealing that she nearly died from an overdose. In one of the show’s more poignant sequences, Rue is asked to share something about her summer vacation while standing alone in front of a group of fellow students but is left inarticulate by a series of intrusive memories she had chosen to suppress. Violent scenes rush forcefully through her mind, the sorrow they induce registering on her anguished face as she futilely fights back tears. There’s the traumatic image of her younger sister sobbing after discovering Rue’s limp, unbreathing body. A horrific fight with her mother ensues that involved Rue smashing a family portrait and wielding a shard of broken glass while threatening to kill her.

In yet another haunting scene, the despair caused by her addiction is again captured simply yet effectively by the camera’s lingering focus on Rue’s silently distraught face. While at a party enjoying the pleasant feeling of fading away on Oxycodone, her smile slowly disappears into a distressed, vacant stare as purple, blue, and violet lights flash across her face. The scene is visually stunning, its pulsating colors dramatically conveying Rue’s psychic descent as she surrenders to the dark thoughts tormenting her. Rue’s distraught gaze meets the viewer’s, fixing intently on it as if desperately trying to communicate the hurt that she is unable to understand let alone articulate. A certain ambivalence regarding her method of coping is unmistakably present here. Rue is constantly at war with herself for resorting to drugs, not for what they do to her exactly but because of the suffering her behavior causes everyone around her. “I know you hate me,” she tells us at one point before ingesting a pill. “If I could be a different person, I promise you, I would. Not because I want it, but because they do.”

Rue (Zendaya) slowly sinking into the despair of anxiety and drug addiction

If I were to identify a scene to illustrate precisely why I think Euphoria offers one of the more nuanced and refreshingly candid portrayals of drug addiction to appear recently on film or television, Rue’s failed attempt to score Oxycodone from her conflicted, caring drug dealer/friend Fezco (Angus Cloud) would certainly be it. “Not today, Rue, I’m sorry,” Fezco says almost apologetically through a locked screen door. “Look man, all I need is like a few OC’s . . . Fez, Fez, I’ve had a really fucked up day alright . . . so I need you to open the door for me, will you please open the door,” Rue pleads in desperation. Zendaya’s typically affectless cadence now quivering and fearful, her voice sonically conveys the hopeless agony of an addict out of options. “I’m not gonna help you kill yourself Rue,” Fezco plaintively responds, the emotional depth of his inflection stemming from the guilt he feels for his role in her overdose.

Fez’s refusal prompts a surge of emotion to explode from Rue’s convulsing body, a range of feelings spanning from shockingly abusive rage to heartbreaking sorrow. “Are you doing this because you care about me?” she asks. “If you gave a shit about me you wouldn’t have sold me the fucking drugs in the first place! But you did . . . you did this to me, you did this to me, Fez. You fucking ruined my life. The least you could do is open the god damn door and fix it.”

Fezco’s deep sense of shame and the way that Rue’s shrieks of despair pierce and wound him as he visibly winces is a powerful and brutally honest dramatization of the havoc drugs can wreak, on users and dealers alike. It captures how dangerous their shared reliance on illicit substances can be, and how easily and swiftly those dependencies can be taken too far. “I don’t know what kind of fucked up shit you got going inside your head,” Fezco later explains in what I take to be one of the show’s larger messages, not just for Rue but for viewers. “I don’t know how to help, but I could tell you one thing: this drug shit, it’s not the answer.”

Fezco (Angus Cloud) and Rue (Zendaya) in one of the show’s more poignant scenes portraying the anguish and destruction of drug addiction and withdrawal

Despite the scenes of misery and despair described above, Euphoria has often been denounced for its graphic portrayals of teenage drug use. The show’s ostensible eagerness to shock and horrify, to “troll,” as many put it, led more than a few reviews to draw comparisons to the film Reefer Madness (1936). “Is Euphoria the most shocking teen show ever?” asked The Guardian when opining on the “moral panic” it caused. To be fair, critics and viewers were perhaps more appalled at the gratuitous nudity, more specifically male nudity, rampant depictions of sex, and graphic violence. Still, drug use figured heavily in condemnations of the show. Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, declared that the series “appears to be overtly, intentionally marketing extremely graphic adult content — sex, violence, profanity and drug use — to teens and preteens,” incensed by what he considered “grossly irresponsible programming.” Time echoed Winter’s accusation that the show was merely exploitative, writing that it “may be the first teen drama to fully exploit the Xanax-numbed aesthetic that defines Gen Z in the popular consciousness.”

Despite noting that the show’s creator and primary director, Sam Levinson, handled themes of drug use with care, The Atlantic proceeded to claim that Levinson “seems only to want to scandalize” with graphic imagery while failing “to make a point, or a change.” Levinson, in other words, simply seemed bent on “trolling” outraged parents. Even reviews that were otherwise celebratory rebuked Levinson for his portrayal of drug use. “It definitely sensationalizes drug addiction,” wrote Nylon, “in that it makes a pretty good case as to why we should all be as fucked up as possible all the time.” All this criticism made me wonder, were critics watching the same show I was? Did they not see the scenes of unrelenting suffering and despair caused by substance abuse that I had?

Luckily, it doesn’t take long to weed out all the negative reviews and bypass the righteous fury the show has garnered to see just how much appreciation and acclaim there is for Euphoria. Many reviewers have, rightly in my opinion, argued that the show has exposed a reality that, while unpleasant, needs to be seen to foster understanding and compassion. According to Indiewire,Euphoria can serve as an introduction to a world some viewers don’t know is out there, as well as a connection for the people who are already living in it so they don’t have to feel alone.” Whereas others decried Levinson’s vision as excessively and needlessly shocking, Indiewire asserted that “that intensity is designed to help more than provoke” by exposing audiences to unfamiliar lived experiences so as to educate viewers about the singularity of the troubles afflicting Gen Z. As Levinson himself put it, “It may seem boundary-pushing, and the idea of putting them on TV may be, but somebody lived them.”

In one of the more generous appraisals of the show, Zachary Siegal of Vulture praised Euphoria for not merely bending but exploding the boundaries of the genre by unflinchingly exploring themes of identity, sexuality, and drug use in new and exciting ways. “When it comes to mental health and drug use,” he wrote when lamenting the dearth of narrative representations of taboo topics, “America’s ossified boundaries are begging for a good push.” What I found particularly intriguing about Siegal’s analysis was his argument that Euphoria functions as a kind of extended lesson on harm reduction replete with “public health messages.” Rue is frequently seen at Narcotics Anonymous meetings and having engaging conversations with her frank, no nonsense sponsor. More memorably, a tutorial on Narcan and its ability to reverse drug overdoses accompanied a harrowing scene in which Rue is forcefully given fentanyl by a menacing drug dealer. Most importantly, however, Siegal argues that the program encourages empathy for the plight of addicts. Although noting that drug addiction is widely understood in the medical profession as a psychobiological condition requiring a multifaceted regimen to more holistically address its physiological and psychological aspects, Siegal also points to the stubborn persistence of the social stigma surrounding the disease. “The cultural perception of addiction in America remains primarily one in which users are criminalized and accused of moral turpitude,” he writes. The show should thus be lauded, Siegal argues, for its insistence that the addict be treated with kindness and compassion.

And this was exactly Levinson’s hope when envisioning Rue, a character largely based on his own experience with drug addiction and mental illness. As Levinson remarked in an interview, “I think it’s crucial that film and television portray addiction in an honest way . . . That we allow for its complexities to play out. That we show the allure of drugs, the relief they can bring, because that’s ultimately what makes them so destructive.”

Although fresh off a stint as a “Disney kid,” Zendaya was Levinson’s first and only casting choice for playing Rue, fervently believing that she could capture the kind of frantic yet tender desperation required for selling the performance. “It’s really hard to depict a drug addict without an audience feeling judgmental towards them,” Levinson noted, “but [Zendaya] brings a humor, a warmth and a fragility. She’s the beating heart of it; you empathize with her in a way that I could never imagine. Tapping into having that kind of compassion for someone going through addiction is really important to that person’s eventual sobriety.”

And the main objective of the show, according to Levinson, was to start a conversation, a collective as well as a more intimate dialogue between parents and their children, about how love and understanding can preclude that destruction. When describing Euphoria’s overriding theme, he stated that “It’s about how, if you keep your heart open, there are people who can change your life. It’s about love, about being seen and heard and known. It doesn’t cure everything, but it sure as fuck helps.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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