There is something that is both enchanting yet extremely heartbreaking about Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria,” a show that somehow manages to evoke the opposite of its title while still living up to the name.
“Euphoria” tells the story of Rue, a teenage girl navigating mental health, drug abuse and social issues among an ensemble cast. Since its release, “Euphoria” has quickly become a cultural phenomenon due to its stimulating visual cinematography, soundtrack and acting talent, and has grown in popularity with the recent release of Season 2. However, amidst the show’s praise, a common controversy raised by many is its extensive portrayal of drug culture and whether or not it glorifies and glamorizes drug use. A main critic of the show, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), criticized “Euphoria” for glorifying drug use and illustrating it as common and normalized in teenagers’ lives today, even requesting a meeting with Levinson.
First, let’s situate this claim within the context of what it means to glamorize and glorify. According to Merriam Webster, “glamorize” means to depict something as glamorous or romanticized. Similarly, Merriam Webster describes the meaning of “glorify” as depicting something as admirable and honorable. It makes sense that people would perceive the show as accomplishing both of these things; the show itself does visually seem to be glamorous between the glittery makeup and vibrant colors.
However, these aspects serve to substantiate the show’s overall message: beneath the glitz and glamor lies a dangerous, scary and heartbreaking reality of mental health and drug abuse. Hence, I would argue that the show, in fact, does not glamorize or glorify drug use but instead casts a realistic spotlight on teen drug abuse and its devastating effects on the individual and their relationships.
I cannot assess “Euphoria”’s glamorization, or rather lack thereof, without referencing specific moments from the show, especially moments within the new season. So, before you read on, beware — there will be spoilers from Seasons 1 and 2 ahead, read at your own risk. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Okay, now that that’s established, let’s dive in.
D.A.R.E. may claim that “Euphoria” glamorizes drug use. However, if glamorizing means to make something look desirable, then “Euphoria” certainly does not do that. Looking at Rue in the first season, viewers are quickly exposed to difficult, heart-wrenching scenes: Rue’s sister finding her having overdosed, the many fights between Rue and her mother and more.
One of the most difficult scenes for me to watch during the first season was when Rue was banging on her friend Fez’s door in anger, begging him for drugs. Seeing Rue hurling such damaging insults, viewers feel her desperation to satisfy the cravings caused by her drug use, even if it hurts those she loves. This is the kind of grasp that drugs can have on an individual, and “Euphoria” does not shy away from displaying that.
One of the first times we see Rue truly happy in the show — smiling and laughing — is after she stops using drugs and begins to mend her relationships. Viewers see Rue roller-skating with Jules and Lexi, genuinely laughing and having fun. Here, we see the Rue that is hidden underneath the influences and effects of the drugs she took. However, the first season shows us that this happiness is temporary, bringing to life an interesting dichotomy: the relationship that drugs have to mental health.
Indeed, this complex relationship is one of “Euphoria”’s central themes. This conversation really comes to fruition post-Season 1, during Rue’s one-hour special episode. In particular, this episode features a long conversation between Rue and her sponsor, Ali. During this discussion, Rue makes the harrowing remark that drugs are probably the only reason she is still alive. Rue’s anxiety and struggles with depression contribute to her drug use as she utilizes them to escape the thoughts and feelings in her head, illustrating another reason why “Euphoria” is so prolific and impactful. For Rue, drugs are the one thing that she sees as making her life worth living. This is not a glamorous discovery at all.
Viewers…uncover “Euphoria” for what it is: a poignant, tragic story about a high schooler in an internal battle with herself over mental health and drug use, and the consequences of that reality.
This episode is important and impactful for so many more reasons, showing what “Euphoria” is all about. A lot of the reasoning behind people stating that “Euphoria” glamorizes drug use is due to the way it layers a bunch of fancy makeup and cinematography on top of the story. However, in this episode, the parties and makeup and fancy outfits are all stripped away. Instead, viewers are left with an intense character analysis between Rue and Ali, who makes heartbreaking discoveries, and uncover “Euphoria” for what it is: a poignant, tragic story about a high schooler in an internal battle with herself over mental health and drug use, and the consequences of that reality. This episode illuminates the complexity of drug abuse as Rue exposes her many regrets in the ways she treated those she loved due to drugs while also expressing her “need” for them to cope with her depression, anxiety and feelings from losing her dad.
So, what about when you bring back the lighting and the makeup, the aspects of the show that are considered glamorous? Does the show’s message get lost? I’d argue not.
Season 2, thus far, has really shown Rue’s intense downward spiral deeper and deeper into drug abuse. The latest episodes, 4 and 5, show her severing ties with everyone she loves and those who love her. She gaslights her sister, says hurtful things to her girlfriend, disrespects one of her only mentors and supporters and gets physically violent with her friends and family in search of drugs.
Seeing Rue spiral out of control and then witnessing the heart-wrenching aftermath demonstrates an accurate, raw portrayal of how drugs can affect everyone involved. None of that is admirable and the cinematography and overall aesthetic do not detract from what is going on; instead, it immerses us into Rue’s world in a sensory overload so we, as audience members, can experience the temporary euphoria she feels.
With makeup, music and cinematography, we are transcended into the colorful vibrancy that drugs give the world. However, that feeling is temporary, and when that glamor is gone, we are left with the harrowing truth of the consequences that follow. Rue’s constant transition from anger to immense sadness at her actions highlights the inner turmoil that stems from drug abuse. None of this is glamorous. None of this is glorified. On the contrary, the show utilizes the seemingly glamorous aspects as a tool to highlight the initial appeal of what it is like to be on drugs to then juxtapose it with the reality of what happens when that high fades and you are faced with the consequences of your actions. This way, viewers can truly understand the appeal and effects of drug use. The beautiful cinematography doesn’t take away from the message, rather, it enhances it.
Yet, this message is easily misconstrued due to the show’s popularity. Fans of the show throw “Euphoria”-themed parties, post tutorials for “Euphoria”-themed makeup and even release memes that stem from “Euphoria”’s content. I mean, this makes sense. “Euphoria” has solidified itself as a cultural statement and its prominence, popularity and aesthetic contribute to this. People are drawn to it. However, as we have seen, Rue’s life is far from glamorous.
“Euphoria”’s portrayal of the realities of drug use illuminates the way it can ruin friendships and familial relationships and even affect one’s perception of themself. Not only that, but it also is very impactful in showing the traumatic and difficult events each character goes through that get them to where they are now, unpacking the impact of mental health issues in the process.
In order to be guilty of glorifying drug use, the show would need to show it as idealistic and admirable. However, “Euphoria” does the opposite; it sparks conversation and brings awareness to mental health issues and drug abuse. So, next time you watch “Euphoria,” try not to get caught up in the show’s vibrant aesthetic but rather, dig deeper. If you do, you will uncover the crux of “Euphoria”’s message and of the struggles that these characters, specifically Rue, are going through.
Zuri Wilson believes that “Euphoria” utilizes ecstasy to convey the raw misery and reality of drug use in today’s culture.