I still stand somewhat by my original assessment of HBO’s Euphoria based on its pilot that some of what is “shocking” and “provacative” about the show is that the “shocking” acts and behaviors are being committed by women instead of white, male Brett Easton Ellis characters. But yes, after this week’s episode of Euphoria, I will also concede that much of what is happening on Euphoria is just wildly unpleasant, occasionally leaving viewers with the same stomach-sinking feeling we had watching Aronofsky’s ass-to-mouth scene in Requiem with a Dream, only here with teenagers.
This week’s episode centered on Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi of The Kissing Booth), the character equivalent of Sixteen Candles’ Jake Ryan crossed with Ramsay Bolton and Mark Wahlberg from Fear. Creator Sam Levinson turned Nate’s toxic masculinity up to 11 and tore off the dial. He’s such a caricature of toxic masculinity, in fact, that not even his damaged childhood and tortured upbringing has the desired effect, which I think is to make us understand why he’s as violent, temperamental, and rape-y as he is. He grew up watching sex tapes of his father banging men and women in dimly lit motel rooms, and I completely understand why that would do a number on anybody’s brain. He’s so traumatized by his father’s sex tapes that he can’t look at another guy’s penis in the boys’ locker room without feeling disgusted, and there are plenty of penises to look at in this episode (the presence of multiple penises may have been “shocking” but there was nothing particularly shocking about the penises themselves in this context. They’re just dicks, man).
That childhood — and continuing — trauma avails itself in strange ways: He seeks out physical perfection not only in himself but in his girlfriends — with whom he has dispassionate violent sex — and even his mother, whom he hates because she is “weak, a pushover, plus she doesn’t take care of herself.” Nate’s storyline this week is troubling. In last week’s episode, his 17-year-old girlfriend Maddy f**ked a 22-year-old in a pool at a party in order to make Nate jealous. This week, because she wanted to get back with her abusive boyfriend and absolve herself of the petty f**k, she claims that she blacked out and that the 22-year-old took advantage of her, which is not really true. None of what transpires is OK. The 22-year-old shouldn’t have had public sex with a drunk 17-year-old at a party; and the 17-year-old shouldn’t have lied about blacking out, especially knowing about her boyfriend’s violent tendencies, which he acted out brutally on the 22-year-old, who had to accept a violent homophobic beating because he couldn’t go to the police.
But it gets even more icky, because Nate’s father is Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), the much older dude with the obsessively cataloged sex tape stash who had sex with the underage Jules last week. Jules continues to sext with Cal, only she doesn’t realize that it’s Nate on the other end of the phone. There is just so much about this entire situation that is upsetting and unsettling. Seeing Jacob Elordi out of character (and with a gentle British accent) was a much-needed brain cleanser afterward as if to remind ourselves that Nate is only a character.
Meanwhile, Rue (Zendaya), has sort of fallen into the downward spiral trope from every seedy indie film about drug addicts, ever. Out of rehab, she continues to use even as she becomes more enamored with her new best friend Jules (and it’s unclear to me whether it is romantic or platonic). Her need for a fix leads to a meltdown in front of her school and, later, to an intensely uncomfortable experience where her drug dealer — maybe the most likable character on the show — has to save her from another rape after a gang member hooks her on fentanyl and demands payment, in whatever form she can provide while she’s essentially passed out. (This scene did, in fact, feel needlessly and gratuitously disturbing).
There’s a lot of rape and other uncomfortable sexual experience or near sexual experiences on this show, and after two episodes, I’m concerned that Sam Levinson is going to desensitize us to all the sexual assault (and also, I understand how preoccupied teenagers are with sex, but it’s not their defining characteristic, Sam. They have personalities, too, Sam).
For instance, in another storyline, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) also had sex last week after a classmate whose name she didn’t even know used a combination of peer pressure and negging to compel her to have sex with him at a party. Another classmate recorded it on his phone, however, and the video started going around the school this week. To her credit, Kat — who is the best character on this show, so far — somehow managed to leverage the situation to her gain, belittling the principal for trying to body shame her and manipulating the guy who recorded the video into buying her a new wardrobe. Well done, Kat? I appreciate that she’s owning the situation, but also, there has to be a better way to own it, right?
I am beginning to understand why others are wondering who this show is made for. It’s not teenagers. It’s not their parents. It’s this sort of amorphous “HBO audience” accustomed to provocative material, although in the case of Euphoria, it’s still unclear what the provocative material is trying to say except that being a teenager can be really f**king unpleasant.
Header Image Source: HBO