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The Dartmouth
April 13, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: Season Two of ‘Euphoria’ Excels with Phenomenal Acting, Cinematography and Music

However, the show falls short by chronicling countless train wrecks that lack resolution and leave viewers craving more.

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“Euphoria” seduces its viewers with an absurd portrayal of high school. There is something intoxicating about watching these characters ruin their lives, a total inability to look away as their world burns around them while you snack on the couch. Episodes fluctuate between campy teen drama and somber character explorations, each desperately trying to raise the stakes by increasing shock with explicit content. 

With phenomenal acting from nearly all the cast, “Euphoria” once again stuns viewers with beautiful cinematography and artful emotionality. The show is intensely provocative — often overtly so, with excessive nudity and exploitative sex scenes — with a perfect soundtrack that expertly sets the mood for each scene. However, faults arise from the unresolved plotlines and over-ambitious writing. 

The show’s star-studded cast excels in their acting this season. Actresses Sydney Sweeney, who plays Cassie Howard, and Zendaya, who plays Rue Bennett, elicit fierce reactions from viewers with their raw acting, as the audience comes to simultaneously hate these characters and pity them. 

Episode 5, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird,” is undeniably the most powerful episode of the season, a rare moment where time seems to slow as Rue’s drug use is revealed to her family. The episode is uncomfortable and hard to watch as the terrifying downsides of addiction are portrayed on screen. Rue breaks down doors, screams at her mother and sobs on the floor as she rapidly switches from rage to helplessness. As her character attacks those around her both physically and emotionally, Zendaya’s subtle facial expressions and slight mannerisms demonstrate how little Rue cares about those who care for her. Following this episode, Rue gets sober. Having seen her at her lowest, her sobriety is all the more meaningful. Rue is, objectively, a horrible person; her disregard for those around her is consistent and malicious, but Zendaya gives such depth to her struggles it is impossible not to empathize. 

Sweeney’s character, Cassie, undergoes a complete transformation from sweet and docile to absolutely insane and unhinged. Throughout the entire season, fans watch as Cassie tires of being sidelined as she attempts to claim her individuality at the cost of losing her friends. Her actions are shocking and irredeemable, consistently worsening as the season progresses. Audience members love to hate her, all thanks to Sweeney’s dedication to Cassie’s insanity. Degrading herself with actions, words and attitude, Sweeney’s skillful acting perfectly portrays Cassie's disconnect from reality.  

Maude Apatow, a nepotism baby who is earning her fame, similarly comes into her own this season. As her character Lexi Howard fashions a play that chronicles the events of her tumultuous life — including the lives of almost every other main character — Apatow presents one of the few realistic and relatable characters. While her character does not quite achieve the same depth as others, her innocent romance with Fezco (Angus Cloud) makes clear her potential in the show.

Unlike season one, season two of “Euphoria” was shot completely on 35mm film to further set the mood and tone of the show. Adding a certain texture and grittiness, I was surprised that my untrained eye could tell the difference. The switch to analog created an evolution in the show, feeling like a distant memory that incites nostalgia for an unknown time. The high contrast of the film emphasizes the intense highs and lows the characters experience, reflecting the scale of emotions in a physical form. Elevating the shots and lighting, the switch to film is one of the few things that season two did better than its beloved predecessor. 

Complementing the superb acting is a great soundtrack. Singer-songwriter Labrinth added a harmonious cadence to his electronic style. Season two featured some of the iconic sounds from season one — samples of “Nate Growing Up” and “All for Us” — but built on its operatic nature with a new religious instrumentation featuring organs and choirs that expertly build tension. “I’m Tired,” a new song created for this season, was shot in a church as Rue reached the harrowing lows of her addiction in front of an imagined congregation.  

The score features a variety of musical artists, each of whom meshed flawlessly with the tone of the show, despite their vast differences. “Watercolor Eyes” by Lana Del Ray played over the credits as viewers ruminated on the feeling of heartbreak, “Dead of Night” by Orville Peck witnessed Cassie’s first betrayal of her best friend, Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie), and “Dirty Work” by Steely Dan provides the fitting soundtrack for Rue’s integration into a life of drugs and crime. The careful curation of the soundtracks drives the story in unexpected, yet successful ways. 

While season three of “Euphoria” is in the works and may further explore the characters’ inconclusive stories, the range of the show feels limited after this second season as writer and creator Sam Levinson turned to increasingly implausible scenarios. This isn’t always a bad thing, as it grants viewers some of the best scenes from the show. A stylized, homoerotic dance number performed in gold spandex to “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler isn’t probable for a high school play, but was the highlight of the season. 

Levinson’s attempt at maximalism has mixed results: When it succeeds, “Euphoria” earns its critical acclaim with thoughtful depth masked by exuberant displays — but when it fails, viewers are left confused and uncertain, forced to turn to TikTok for the explanation of seemingly crucial plot points. Further, there are multiple plotlines that are left completely hanging. For example, Rue’s indebted situation to Laurie (Martha Kelly), a drug dealer, is never resolved. Kat Hernandez’s (Barbie Ferreira) entire character basically disappears from the show. In attempting to outdo its acclaimed season one, season two leans too heavily on outlandish demonstrations of plot when its true power is in the intimate examination of loss, heartbreak and desperation. 

Season two of “Euphoria” is an experiment in opulence, a maximalist retelling of addiction, loss, heartbreak and desperation. The actors carry the show with the beautiful acting and raw emotion that characterizes the series. However, lacking resolution for a variety of plotlines, it is unclear if sloppy storytelling or just delayed explanations have hindered “Euphoria.” With slight moderation and a refocus on what made the show so special last season, the future of “Euphoria” promises a continuation of the excellence that led to its rise. 

Rating: ★★★★☆