So far, season two of Euphoria has been polarising to say the least. The show’s director and sole screenwriter Sam Levinson has been rightfully criticised for its lack of narrative structure, scarcity of diverse voices behind the scenes and reliance on gratuitous nudity, particularly on Sydney Sweeney’s part. But episode five, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, eschewed all these shortcomings in favour of showcasing Euphoria at its most poignant and emotional best, albeit in one of the most stressful episodes of the series so far.
In a shattering departure from Euphoria’s previous bouts of self-indulgence and egotistical tendencies, the episode finally made space for its core character and theme: Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a struggling 17-year-old whose violent drug addiction is largely fuelled by grief. Without spoiling too much, Rue is finally exposed to her family as a liar and a thief, before the threat of withdrawal sends her down a spiral of manipulation and downright abuse. She comes undone in front of those closest to her, before getting wrapped up in a high-octane, 24-hour escape from the one place that’ll force her to confront her demons, rehab.
However brutal this episode is, particularly in the first 10 minutes, it instilled a deep sense of sympathy for what Rue’s going through. A far cry from the drug-addled hedonism we sometimes see on TV, it instead depicted Rue’s addiction as a way to insulate the walls of her own brain from the outside world, toeing the line between what makes drugs so enticing and so devastating – even when those qualities are one in the same.
But most importantly, this episode of Euphoria leaves the door open for Rue’s redemption, a part of addiction that’s so often left out of narratives like this one. It subverts the trope of addicts as good for nothing criminals, revealing how average people can fall victim to the disease that causes 11.2 per cent of overdose deaths in 15 to 24-year-olds in the US, which is still being ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Here, Euphoria illustrated the personhood underneath all of that, the need for compassion, love and patience in the face of addiction, by throwing a character we love right in the middle of it.
It’s what the show does best, perhaps because it deals with a subject matter Levinson is so intimately acquainted with. In a video from the show’s season one premiere, which Zendaya posted on Instagram, Levinson tells the audience that, much like Rue, he’d “take anything and everything until [he] couldn’t hear or breathe or feel” as a teen, having spent many of those years in hospitals, rehabs and halfway houses. Given Levinson’s backstory, Euphoria’s vivid depiction of these themes feels like a lurid cautionary tale, one with far more weight to it than other plot lines in the show.
But that isn’t how D.A.R.E. (the Drug Abuse Resistance Education) sees it. In January, they published a statement that accused Euphoria of “misguidedly [glorifying] and erroneously [depicting] high school student drug use”, condemning HBO and media outlets for not recognising its “potential negative consequences on school-age children who today face unparalleled risks and mental health challenges”. It’s a take that feels frustratingly similar to suggesting video games are a pipeline to kids behaving violently, or that watching porn is a gateway for men to treat women badly, all the while dismissing how outside factors encourage these behaviours to develop in the first place.
Either way, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird makes D.A.R.E.’s argument moot. This episode was all about what the trenches of drug addiction really look like and how it affects everyone caught in the eye of the storm. There’s the addict, sure, but there’s also their loved ones to consider – how it hits them all at once, then slowly ripples like an earthquake aftershock. And how, in spite of that, the person at the centre of it all is worth saving.
Before episode five aired, Zendaya posted a fitting statement on Instagram. “It’s my hope for people watching that they still see [Rue] as a person worthy of their love,” she wrote. “If you can love her, then you can love someone that is struggling with the same thing, and maybe have greater understanding of the pain they’re facing, that is often out of their control.”
Here’s hoping the final three episodes give Rue what she needs to make it to the other side, and up from rock bottom.