Comment: “Euphoria” illustrates the complexity of addiction, abuse and toxic positivity

Courtesy of HBO
Zendaya’s character struggles with strained relationships, withdrawal, and relapse as she struggles with sobriety.

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I’ve been patiently waiting since August 4, 2019 for “Euphoria” to come back to my TV. The critically acclaimed HBO series has become a dominant force in today’s pop culture, inspiring makeup looks, fashion trends and widespread conversations about addiction and mental illness.

On January 9, 2022, the first episode of the second season aired on HBO Max with 2.4 million viewers, compared to 577,000 viewers who watched the Season 1 premiere.

I myself have attended a number of parties wearing sparkly eye makeup and outfits influenced by Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie). However, to truly appreciate the show, it’s crucial to look beyond the fashion facade. After all, there are content warnings at the start of every episode for a reason.

The main character and self-proclaimed “unreliable narrator”, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), is a drug addict. Throughout the series, we see Zendaya’s character struggle with strained relationships, withdrawal, and relapse as she struggles with sobriety.

We see Rue’s relationship with her family deteriorate as she continually pursues her next high. Her mother, played by Nika King, tests Rue several times and sends her to rehab at the start of the first season. Her sister, played by Storm Reid, is rarely seen without tears streaming down her face as she watches Rue fight with her mother. In this way, “Euphoria” shows its audience the ways addiction can affect others, not just the user.

Even so, “Euphoria” never fails to humanize Rue, something our society often forgets to do with those struggling with addiction. Audiences become connected to Rue as a person and to the roots of her success, and learn to recognize that addiction is a disease and should be treated as such.

Each of the characters has their own demons that show up along the way. These characters are self-sabotaging, toxic and hyperbolic versions of real teenagers. They struggle to navigate friendships, relationships, and the gray area in between. We see nearly every character work through the complexities and nuances of their relationships with their parents and how those strained relationships affected their development.

Another big theme in season two is toxic positivity, most notably via Barbie Ferreira’s character, Kat Hernandez. In one incredibly raw scene, Kat hallucinates a group of influencers chanting to her to “love each other,” resulting in an epic meltdown.

In recent years, social media has developed a trend of accounts and creators promoting positivity while ignoring almost all negative aspects of life. This can be incredibly harmful because it perpetuates a stereotype that no one struggles. This can lead many impressionable young people to believe that they are alone.

The toxic positivity movement can also invalidate people’s emotions and shame them into feeling anything other than optimistic and heartbreaking feelings.

It is very common to struggle with self-esteem, especially among teenage girls. However, it is often not discussed on such a big stage. This scene in “Euphoria” brought to light an incredibly personal and emotional battle that many process but very few open up to.

“Euphoria” does an amazing job of addressing the topics that we often struggle to talk about in society. While the show can no doubt be difficult to watch, it does its due diligence in humanizing all those characters who make bad decisions but aren’t inherently bad people. It reflects the complexity of real people and how no situation in life is just black and white.

The message of each episode, whether underlying or foreground, is always very sensitive and real, which makes “Euphoria” unlike any other show streaming today.

Sharon D. Cole