When I heard that DARE, a group responsible for educating children and teenagers about drug use, called Euphoriathe representation addiction a “glorification”, at first I thought it was a joke. Obviously the powers that be over there are watching a different show than mine, because here’s my take: Euphoriaunlike almost every other depiction of drug use I’ve seen in pop culture, is do the work necessary to change the view of addiction. It makes addicts and the people who love them feel less alone, and it illuminates the grim reality of addiction for people who might struggle to understand. The show is not just entertainment – I would say it has the power to change people’s lives.
I abused party drugs in my teens, heroin in my twenties, and had six stints in rehab. I relate to EuphoriaThe protagonist of Rue – dead father of a desperate junkie – because that was my script for years. It’s only Euphoria, however, that I saw what I had personally experienced represented authentically on screen.
As a child of the 90s, Jessie Spano’s Pill Problem on saved by the bell comes to mind as the first depiction of drug use I remember seeing on television. Overwhelmed by midterm geometry studies and preparing for a performance at the Max, Jessie turns to caffeine pills. Although Jessie’s angst is palpable in a scene where she rushes to take her pills, then breaks into singing and sobbing later, the scene is overworked and cheesy. The message was DARE-levels clear: Say no to caffeine pills!
As saved by the bellJessie’s switch to the pill, other beloved teen dramas like Degrassi makes addiction a subplot point. the Degrassi franchise has been compared to Euphoria and was undoubtedly ahead of its time in its depiction of subjects such as drug use, rape, and abortion, but its execution on addiction still fell short. When Eli uses MDMA in a relatively light-hearted scene, there is no gnashing of teeth. There are no dilated pupils, sweating, exaggerated sense of touch or blurred vision – the telltale physical aspects that come with MDMA. There is also no internal processing of Eli in his altered state. Experiencing the inner ups and downs of drug use with a character is fundamental to understanding the full spectrum of the addict’s plight, and Degrassi was at best at surface level.
Even in recent years, on-screen drug use and addiction hasn’t captured the sense of realism of how Euphoria Is. In The Queen’s Bet (a miniseries I love despite this review), chess specialist Beth Harmon struggles with drug addiction, but apparently does propel his genius. She’s a relatively successful drug addict whose full-throttle streak involves drunkenly dancing in her panties with a Pabst blue ribbon and a lit cigarette – many drug addicts high indicate. With a show so heavily focused on the addiction of the protagonist, there was a missed opportunity to give more depth to his struggle.
Euphoria brought addiction to the forefront of a teen drama, and it does so in a three-dimensional way that rings true unlike its predecessors. Rue’s character is a struggling drug addict. She’s not a basketball player who turns to speed to win the big game (A tree hill) or a Stanford prospect desperate for an edge to get her through mid-term (the above saved by the bell)– She is a traumatized teenager who uses drugs to heal herself. Her character doesn’t have big aspirations, she’s not a prep student who’s partied too hard (Gossip Girl). She is a grieving and lost young woman, torn between surrendering to self-destruction and struggling to find meaning in her life after the death of a parent. While this seemingly simple basis for a character embarrassing for some, it resonates well with the doldrums young drug addicts often find themselves in and the ambivalence they feel about their realities.
Rue confides in Ali during a scene in a restaurant: “You can say that sobriety is my greatest weapon, but to tell you the truth, drugs are probably the only reason I didn’t kill myself. ” I would be lying if I said I hadn’t exactly thought about this in the darkest days of my addiction. And I’m not alone. In rehab group after rehab group, I heard teenagers and young adults confess the same through tears, surrounded by counselors and family members begging them to love themselves.
I didn’t have any huge aspirations or goals to work towards, because when I tried to envision my future, I felt like I was in a black hole. It’s hard to aspire to something when your current goal is to “feel better”. Rue embodies the desperation I recognized in myself and in the many young drug addicts I knew. She also embodies all the despair and cunning that addiction inspires in the souls who suffer from it. “You don’t fucking recognize me, well neither do I!” Rue yells at her mother in her breakdown scene. Addiction is like a virus that feeds on its host – it wants to thrive at your expense. Euphoria demonstrates this internal struggle better than any depiction of addiction I’ve seen on television.
We see Rue switch between caring that she’s hurting her family, friends, and love Jules, and not caring who she’s hurting because her obligation to feed her addiction is paramount. We see her deeply remorseful as she sobs to her family, apologizes to Ali for going on a rampage, and endures excruciating withdrawal symptoms in an effort to cleanse herself; and we see her running from the police, attacking loved ones, throwing Cassie to the wolves to save herself, concocting wild drug-dealing schemes, and reaching for a shot of morphine. It is this ambivalence that characterizes addiction so well, and this nuance is so often missing from on-screen depictions. Euphoria doesn’t force us to harbor hope because that’s not the point – it accurately depicts the despair that addicts and their families endure every day.
In the third episode of Season 2, Rue breaks the fourth wall and says it herself best: “Now, as a beloved character that a lot of people root for, I feel a certain responsibility to take on good decisions, but I relapsed. In all honesty, I said at the beginning that I had no intention of staying sober. But I get it, our country is dark and fucked up. And people, they just want to find hope, somewhere, anywhere, and if not in reality, then on TV. Unfortunately, I’m not.
With accurate depictions like this, viewers may be able to heighten their own compassion and understanding of the raw humanity at the root of people like Rue. Rue isn’t your hero, and his character has the self-awareness to recognize that. But she’s not your bad guy either. She is human. She’s just Rue. And if we can reconcile that in our heads as viewers, then maybe we can reconcile it with the people around us as well.
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