Euphoria: Portrayal of Addiction

Zendaya as Rue Bennett in HBO's 'Euphoria' (Photo via HBO).

By Emily Morales

HBO’s hit, original series Euphoria embraces more than just the pain a drug addict goes through when trying to overcome addiction: one person’s addiction is capable of consuming multiple lives. Forms of media often brush through their portrayal of addiction, focusing solely on the person suffering most.

The latest season of Euphoria reflects the hardships that can come with caring about someone who is struggling with sobriety. As someone who has enjoyed the first season of Euphoria when it premiered in 2019, I was shocked by how much the second season earlier this year hit home when it came to depicting the effects of addiction. Being an addict changes the way a person thinks, acts and treats their loved ones.

Euphoria manages to show the darkness of withdrawals without alienating its audience from the addict. Even in season one of the show, which begins with protagonist Rue (played by Zendaya) checking out of rehab with no intention or desire to remain sober, Euphoria fans can’t help but root for her to an extent.

As someone who cared deeply for someone who suffered with addiction, the details of the second season of Euphoria reflect much of what I felt in a way that allowed me to gain a new perspective on what happened. When I learned my best friend was struggling with substance abuse, I didn’t think that much between our dynamic would change. Much of the representation of addiction in media tends to focus only on the addict’s choice to continue to abuse substances. To be close to an addict there’s so much more to them than their addiction.

In Euphoria, viewers recognize Rue’s sister, Gia (Storm Reid), as a background character. She’s mainly seen during dramatic scenes, peaking around the corner at the worst possible moment. This season, however, Gia takes an active role in highlighting the trauma her sister’s addiction has had on her.

Though it’s brief and the show has yet to dive into her character, the mention of what she’s been through adds an element of realisticness to the pain of the show. Addiction eats away at those that care about an addict. The show has made a point of showing the love that exists between Rue and her sister, but it’s also made it clear that Rue will choose her need for drugs over the love she has for her sister. When Rue decides that she wants to work towards sobriety, however, Gia isn’t overjoyed. She doesn’t believe her sister, and though she’s still patient, Gia makes the choice to keep herself and her hopes distant.

Gia is not the only character in Euphoria that experiences the drawbacks of a loved one’s addiction. In season one, Lexi Howard (Maude Apatow) discovers her father abandoned her family after becoming addicted to pain killers, but it’s not until the second season that Lexi begins to face such trauma.

In the final episode of the new season, Lexi has a conversation with Rue about what they’ve both experienced under addiction. During this, Rue says that from an addict’s perspective, she believes that Lexi’s dad thinks about her more than Lexi knows and that he probably wakes up every day thinking that he’ll do better for her. Rue then finishes this by saying, “That’s also the problem, he only wants to be better for you. Because I know he loves you more than he loves him.”

Because of the glamorized version of high school Euphoria presents, the heartbreaking elements and focus of the series aren’t something that people typically notice at first. The first season of the show is rooted in its aesthetics. The second season, which premiered its eighth and final episode on February 27, still uses dramatic makeup and beautiful imagery for symbolism, but it focuses much more heavily on damage.

The show’s structure draws in its audience in a way that parallels the way that substance abuse lures in its victims. Everything revolves around chasing a high — a glamorized lifestyle — until an inevitable, dramatic crash.

Euphoria’s latest season is about the fall to rock bottom. This applies to main and secondary characters alike. Though the main plot line is meant to focus on Rue reaching a point of no return, the trauma that she creates for her family dynamic force both her mother and sister to points they never thought they’d reach.

Throughout the show, Rue’s mother, Leslie (Nika King), shifts between aggressive and understanding approaches to her daughter’s addiction, but after multiple interventions and desperate fights, Leslie is left exhausted. She tells Rue to do what she wants because she can’t afford to lose both of her daughters to Rue’s addiction, making clear that she will choose Gia over Rue if she must.

Because the show is narrated by Rue, the audience is given a clear insight into her thought process. Rue makes and follows through on a plan to gaslight her sister into accepting her substance abuse to “treat her anxiety.” Rue resorts to this form of manipulation after getting into a screaming match with Gia over her drug use. Rue still cares about Gia’s perception of her, but her priorities can’t change.

By allowing the narrative to show the damage addiction causes not only on the person, but those around them, Euphoria stands out in its portrayal of who addiction hurts. Addiction goes beyond the addict — it proliferates beyond the abuser’s control and causes just as much mental harm as it does to them.

Rue’s story isn’t over as the third season of Euphoria is expected to be released in 2024.

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