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'Euphoria' Special Episodes Part 1 and 2: Both sides now

The 'Euphoria' special episodes burrow into the minds of Rue and Jules, and are a showcase for the formidable acting talents of Zendaya and Hunter Schafer

A still from 'F*ck Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob'
A still from 'F*ck Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob'

F*ck Anyone Who's Not A Sea Blob opens with a scene so simple and radical, so instantly mesmerizing, that even someone who hasn’t watched Euphoria might feel its power. It starts with a closeup of Jules' (Hunter Schafer) face as her therapist asks her why she ran away. We cut to an extreme closeup of her eye, in which is reflected moving images from the show's first season. The moments flash by, Jules cycling, dancing, kissing, brandishing a knife, indistinct and warped, the light around the eye changing from indigo to magenta to amber, as if we’re watching her watch a film of her life.

All the while, Lorde’s Liability plays, an inspired choice in a show that excels in accurate needle drops. As images of Rue (Zendaya), Jules’ best friend and, briefly, romantic partner, flash in her eye, we hear: So I guess I'll go home/Into the arms of the girl that I love/The only love I haven't screwed up/She's so hard to please/But she's a forest fire. Both Rue and Jules are forest fires, impossible to predict or control, and the chorus (They say, you’re a little much for me/You’re a liability) could apply to either. The two-and-a-half-minute sequence ends with Lorde singing You're all gonna watch me/ Disappear into the sun, as the show's title slowly fades.

Season one of Euphoria—an HBO show about the tumultuous lives and many, many troubles of a group of American high schoolers—ended with Jules telling Rue she loves her but also another girl she hooked up with. They make plans to skip town together but Rue backs out at the last moment and Jules leaves, causing Rue, a drug addict who’d just found a measure of sobriety, to spiral into usage again. The strain of the relationship ending hangs over the episodes, both set on Christmas Eve, and released on 6 December and 24 January (they’re available, along with the show’s first season, on Disney+ Hotstar). One might see them as lockdown episodes—there’s only Zendaya, Schafer, Colman Domingo and a handful of other actors—but director and series creator Sam Levinson finds surprising ways to shoot, cut, edit and score what would otherwise be talky single-location scenes.

Jules’ conversation with her shrink is punctuated with moments from the timeline of the first season and after. Taking off from the elliptical beginning, these scenes are framed in a way where it isn't always clear whether we’re watching a memory or a dream. For the first time, we hear Jules speak about being a transgender girl and possibly stopping hormone therapy (Schafer, who is a trans woman herself, co-wrote the episode with Levinson). While still in love with Rue, she speaks about how her friend’s sobriety always felt like her burden. She also confesses to still being in love with “Tyler”, the persona their brutish jock schoolmate Nate adopted while sexting her. It’s a lot of pain for 50 minutes—Euphoria episodes always are—yet Schafer is so open and wrenching that it almost feels like catharsis.

Though Rue’s episode also takes the form of a counselling session, it’s entirely unlike Jules’ in other respects. It opens with Rue and Jules living together, waking up happy. It’s a vision of domesticity so blissful even the most fervent shipper might be suspicious—and it isn’t a shock when it's revealed to be false. In reality, they're still separated and Rue’s spiral continues; she snorts a pill in a diner restroom before emerging to talk to her sponsor, Ali (Domingo). He figures she’s high almost immediately, and the rest of the episode is a wide-ranging conversation between them.

For a show as visually restless as Euphoria, to stick to a single location and two characters for the length of an episode is a challenge. Trouble Don’t Always Last is in the tradition of the Very Special Episode, where wisdom is imparted about some social ill. It’s a TV trope susceptible to sermonising, and though the conversation here is typically soul-baring (and wonderfully performed), the back-and-forth between the two does at times resemble a well-worked-out teleplay. But Levinson shoots the hell out of it: the loving closeups of Domingo and Zendaya, the muted nighttime colours, the glides and pans of the camera, the shots through and off reflecting surfaces.

Asked by Ali to name a power greater than her, Rue lists a truck, the ocean and any song by Otis Redding. The mention of the soul singer is a curiously dated one for this show, joining other old-timey references in this episode like Minnesota Fats and It’s a Wonderful Life. But there’s another reason Rue might be drawn to Redding: he died at 26, and, as she later admits, she doesn’t see herself around on earth for much longer. Any other show would have used this as an excuse to play some Otis. But Levinson opts for Moses Sumney instead. Me in 20 Years plays as Rue gets a text message from Jules and is devastated, while Ali, outside, talks on the phone to his estranged daughter and grandson as Sumney’s cries build to a crescendo. It’s a pure Euphoria moment, pain and hope and sadness and a great song all mixed up.

'Trouble Don't Last Always' and 'F*ck Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob' are streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

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