Euphoria Glamorizes Addicts, Not Addiction
Why A Critique Made This Week Against The HBO Hit Isn’t Without Merit
I really hoped I wouldn’t have to write about Euphoria this soon. But considering that it just got renewed for a third season and that it’s ratings have doubled to nearly — shudder — 13 million viewers a week, it seems like HBO has found its next cultural phenomena without having to start milking Game of Thrones again. (Yes, I know House of Dragon is coming; I’m not going to watch that either.) And because this series takes place in, ahem, the real world I feel that there are certain critiques that people are making that are, probably in the same way Euphoria works, false and true at the same time.
Earlier this week DARE, the anti-drug agency created in the 1980s accused Euphoria of promoting a positive image of drugs. Understandably, there was a fair share of angry feedback from the Internet, mostly focusing on the hypocrisy of a Reagan era program that did nothing for the War on Drugs attacking a TV series. I understand this point of view, and to an extent the creators of Euphoria have a point.
Creator Sam Levenson has made it clear going in that much of the series is based on his own personal struggle against drug addiction. And from the segments I’ve seen, he does go out of his way to make the business and sale of drugs look as unpalatable and disgusting as they are on shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. The sales take places in dirty, filthy apartments and Fuz, the main marketer of drugs has a very unpleasant backstory which in a way is probably close to a lot of the addicts and dealers on the street And you get a very clear picture from every scene Fuz is in how dangerous and incredibly violent the world of drugs can be. Furthermore, many of the fellow addicts who we meet in Rue’s meetings clearly have their own battles they don’t think they can get through but have — I’m inclined to believe the Colman Domingo character (who truly doesn’t seem like he belongs in this series) is a version of Levenson himself, someone who has gone through a truly horrible experience and is determined to help Rue get out on the other side. So Euphoria doesn’t glamorize the business of drugs or addiction.
We get a very different picture of what it means to be addicted in other series about drugs. Every time we saw Bubs, the major figure of the addict incomparably played by Andre Royo on The Wire it was clear just how horrible his life was on the streets of Baltimore, how many times he tried to climb out of the gutter, and what it finally took for him to stay clean. Similarly while Breaking Bad most stayed on the business side of the meth business in the second season episode ‘Peek-a-boo’, when Jesse goes to collect a debt from a family of meth addicts who’ve been stiffing him, the series made it very clear by what we saw the true horrors of what Walter White was doing in the name of getting financial security for his family. (There was also a continuing storyline of Jesse’s own addiction which would eventually lead to the death of his beloved Jane and would be the backbone of much of the action of the series after Season 2). But I think the most apt contrast between the way Euphoria looks at being an addict is with a series that has recently ended and took place in the complete opposite world Euphoria does: Shameless.
Now I spent much of the series’ run not able to understand the appeal of Shameless, a bias that I think was based on my other repulsion at seeing William H. Macy, an actor who I had known and loved for more than fifteen years for playing the likable everyman, portrayal Frank Gallagher as the absolute worst possible human being imaginable and someone who went to his grave regretting none of it. In retrospect, I didn’t appreciate that this was almost certainly by design; the ultimate job of casting against type, and you can’t argue that Macy wasn’t brilliant at it for more than a decade.
But my focus for this article is going to be the Gallagher children, and ‘Lip’ the oldest son in particular. Now anyone who watched Shameless for long enough knows that even though the entire family would like to deny their parents’ existence (their parents had pretty much given up on them before the Pilot), all of the Gallagher’s inherited quite a lot from their parents, particularly their self-destructive natures. All of them were in a level of poverty that none of the characters in Euphoria can even imagine, and all of them had to engage in a struggle for survival from day to day. They schemed against the system as much as everybody else, but they were almost all trying to find a way to support their family. For all of their constant berating each other and occasionally coming to blows, the Gallagher children were a family and when one was inevitably in trouble, the rest would come to that one’s aid.
And to be clear, Frank’s self destructiveness manifested in all of them in different ways. Debbie was sexually confused and so determined to lose her virginity that she was willing to basically assault a man and then end up keeping a baby even though she was still in high school. Ian’s problems were not so much his homosexuality as an inheritance from his mother — before he got through high school, he became bipolar and spent the rest of the series trying to stay on his meds. Carl was basically considered a criminal psychopath and had actually begun a career in drug dealing when he was scared on the right path by the death of a friend. The right path didn’t mean he became any less of a criminal though.
But I think the closest parallel is Lip, played indelibly by Jeremy Allen White. I realize that Lip and Rue appear to have nothing in common (Lip is a straight white male; Rue is a mixed-race lesbian) but both are addicts and both have a very self-destructive side to them. The critical difference isn’t just the worlds they live in; it’s the fact that they have a radically different perspectives view of their respective worlds.
Lip’s addiction was alcohol, and he was well on the path to self-destruction long before he was willing to acknowledge his problem. He had far more potential than Rue ever did; he was clearly a genius and of the Gallagher children he had the brightest future. But he constantly tried to destroy it. During Season 2, when he believed he was the father of a pregnant teen’s child, he temporarily dropped out of high school and threw everything down the crapper just so he could be the father of her dad. It wasn’t until the end of the season when it was clear he wasn’t that he went back in, and he still was drawn to this manipulative girl’s nature, until a rival hit her with a car.
He graduated from high school and not long after began an affair with an older, married professor (Sasha Alexander) in his freshman year. After they broke up, he began drinking and partying excessive to the point where he blacked out and after crashing his car, lost his scholarship to the university. An alcoholic professor helped him go through AA and even so, it took him nearly a season to realize the depths of his problems. He would end up with a happy ending, but his potential in the world was blotted out.
Now look at Rue in Euphoria who we first meet after a stint in rehab. She makes it plain early on she has no intention of staying sober. She blackmails the man in charge of her meetings into lying to cover with her mom. She frequently goes to visit her drug dealer, she falls off the wagon at the end of Season 1, when she meets with her sponsor she is moved by his story but makes it clear she has no interest in living that long, and her reaction to every time she sees violence or something related to drugs is unbridled enthusiasm, even when her dealer beats fellow student unconscious, her reaction is: “Cool!” She makes it clear she has no desire to stay clean; she hangs out with other addicts, and is now trying to go into business as a dealer.
What’s the major difference between Rue and Lip? I never once, either in a drug den or in the throes of withdrawal, ever saw Zendaya look anything less than she had made up for a photo shoot. She looks like every other screwed up kid on the series, which is ridiculously glamorous. Jeremy Allen White is handsome but from the beginning of Shameless to its end, he always looked worn down, tired and forever put upon — and this was well before he realized he was an alcoholic.
Lip — and frankly every Gallagher — would have nothing but contempt for not just Rue, but every child in her high school. Lip would no doubt do what he did throughout the early seasons of Shameless and charge huge fees to do their homework for them so they could get into a college he could never pay for. Carl would have no problem selling them Adderal and Xanax. Debbie would have a day care for the children they have in secret (and I know these people do). And all would not only gouge them for it, but be completely justified in it. The Gallaghers would look at Rue at her ilk as the entitled snotty brats they truly are. They would mock the ‘problems’ they have and having little sympathy for the baggage their parents have given them. And none of the kids in Euphoria would mind because they all get a high from being near people like the Gallaghers — they’re ‘real’ and there’s also a thrill in ‘slumming it’.
So no, Euphoria doesn’t glamorize the world of drugs. But as long as Zendaya’s Rue is the face of the series, then millions of viewers are getting the image that it’s really not that bad to be on drugs. HBO can post all the crisis warnings it wants at the end of the series; the message is going to reach far more people than The Wire or Shameless ever did. Zendaya is an icon, and her most famous character is a drug addict who has no interest in cleaning up her life. I have no doubt the series will last long enough for her to face consequences for all the horrible actions she takes, but this is Peak TV after all. So many series with drug dealers or drug addicts at the center have had everybody but the central character end up paying for their actions. The net wants to castigate what DARE saying about Euphoria as hypocritical, they have every right too. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong about the message.