Evocative erotica of ‘Euphoria’

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A sequined, starry-eyed gaze is longingly cast across a high school gymnasium whose walls weep tacky decorations, framing a scene of grinding teenagers. Weak punch grows layers of condensation clinging to plastic solo cups, which sit on a depressing table of singles, yearning for the attention of an ex-flame.

The aforementioned scene to the first season of HBO’s hit series “Euphoria” nurtured nostalgia, the image reminiscent of high school dances marked with tears and tulle. Considering the severe context of the plotline, grounded in main character Rue Bennett’s (Zendaya) drug addiction and its effects, this scene reminded its audience of the fragile youth of its characters. “Euphoria” never intended to accurately depict the events of a typical, cookie-cutter high school in 2019 when the first season was released, but rather to draw attention to harsh realities.

“Euphoria” utilizes sex and drug scenes as crucial plot points, with each character negotiating their psychic and philosophical stances towards abuse and addiction of all natures. The characters carve out their identities from much of their sex lives, but play with pleasure like a child with a shiny new toy, carelessly and recklessly. Relationships crash and burn within a matter of penetrative pumps and violent sexual encounters that dictate desire.

On screen, there isn’t much in the way of awkward fumbling for tiny plastic packages in a nightstand. Rather, gripping strobe-filled sequences display characters negotiating positions of power in a warehouse club. Innocent sexual exploration is not granted upon most of the show’s characters, telling of the increasing adolescent exposure to graphic sex and nudity (for the better or worse).

It’s easy to forget that “Euphoria” is set in high school, especially as most of the characters are played by 20-something-year-olds. The age of the veteran actors makes the sex scenes seem almost permissible, until remembering that the audience is meant to be witnessing the sexual exploration of pubescent, confused under 18-year-olds.

The newest season of “Euphoria,” which follows two exceptional special episodes separately focused on Rue and Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), has witnessed its fair share of outward criticism, especially for idealizing intensity. Specifically, the glorification of addiction, the borderline Grand-Theft-Auto-ness of some distracting plotlines, and of course, the almost aestheticization of violent sex.

In the four episodes released from the second season, directorial choices landed Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney) at the crux of the show’s sex scenes. The amount of nudity that Sweeney, dare I say, endures goes beyond artistic choices — in fact, the actress requested and succeeded in reducing her nudity in the second season.

While there was an intimacy coach on set, the amount of screentime devoted to picturing Sweeney in the male gaze through nudity and extractive sex doesn’t add to the rendering of Cassie as a vehicle for external pleasure. Instead, Levinson uses Sweeney as a vessel for the projection of male fantasy.

The sex scenes in the second season err on the side of righteous and raunchy, with an air of pretentiousness that begs the question: “What kind of sex was I having in high school?” Certainly not this fervent, neck-grabbing steaming up the shower type of sex that enunciates each episode. Where is the car sex in the back of a suburban family’s Toyota Sequoia? Or the sneaky sex in your childhood twin bed, with the potential odd stuffed animal staring at your partner’s bare backside?

Proximity and passion come through occasionally in “Euphoria,” and when it does, it’s absolute magic. Episode seven in season one bore witness to Jules, a glorious image in neon pink eye makeup contrasting her sleek platinum hair, slipping in and out of a conscious fantasy, imagining different partners. Schaffer’s ability to capture the fluidity of desire, informed by her entangled and complex relationships with multiple characters, is a love letter to queerness and youthful yearning.

Another poignant moment is cloaked in a deep purple haze, where Rue and Jules indulge in a drug-induced state of ecstasy in a makeshift fort. Their skin turns shimmery in the eyes of the other; their voices melt together in a giggle groan that leads to an almost kiss. It’s in this moment that tenderness is given to the characters, albeit imagining innocent intimacy through Rue’s addiction.

“Euphoria” creates a closeness like no other. But the beautification of power-dynamic-driven sex in many episodes toes the line of glorifying the grotesque — without enough catches in it to serve as a warning for impressionable viewers (which even executive producer and star Zendaya warned of before the airing of season two). The responsibility of relaying warnings to an audience on the strong effects of constructed desire production shouldn’t fall upon the shoulders of the artists participating, but rather the network or creator of the series themselves.

As the second season approaches its ending, hopefully, the episodes will hone back in on what made so many moments in the first season and special episodes tender and true: intimacy informed by exploration, rather than exploitation of sexual encounters.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]