‘Euphoria’ is haunted by the spectre of Sam Levinson

I’m a fan of the series, but I’m also a hater

As the sole writer, Sam Levinson isn’t enough.
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This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424.

Euphoria is, at its core, a tremendous piece of art. Its cinematography, soundtrack, and performances are chillingly beautiful, and it’s brought to life a cast of diverse and intricate characters unlike any seen on television before.

But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Every time I watch a character be victimized by gender-based violence, grapple with their sexuality, or discuss their relationship with race, I can’t forget there’s just one white, cis, straight man behind the show. Sam Levinson, the show’s creator, is the sole credited writer on Euphoria with the exception of one episode, and he has directed all but three. As a result, Euphoria is one of few shows that doesn’t even have a writer’s room—it’s all Levinson.

Knowing it’s all Levinson—a 37-year-old man—causes every scene dealing with teenage girls’ sexualities to make my skin crawl.

In season two, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) has evolved into an upsetting and unlikeable caricature of the male gaze. Levinson fails to meaningfully connect Cassie’s toxicity with the pressures of existing as a young woman in a deeply misogynistic and rape-influenced culture, and the result is a shallow and hate-able girl who’s so desperate to be loved it makes her cruel.

Meanwhile, Levinson doesn’t shy away from any opportunity to shoot the high school-aged character naked, even when it feels particularly gratuitous.

Kat’s (Barbie Ferreira) storyline this season is another tragedy. When she cruelly dumps her loving boyfriend because of doubts sown by a rape-y fantasy involving a Viking, Levinson undoes all the work towards interesting and meaningful representation of a fat Latina girl and turns Kat into an unlikeable, impulsive mess.

When it comes to queerness, Levinson isn’t much better.

Nate (Jacob Elordi) and his father Cal (Eric Dane) are burdened by their sexualities in a way that I’m, frankly, tired of seeing on television.

Cal’s hidden queerness drives his family apart, traumatizes his son, and causes him to be cruel and abusive. Oh, and he commits statutory rape. Nate’s anger towards his father stemming from Cal’s sexuality festers and grows, leading him to struggle with his attraction towards Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender girl, and abuse the women around him.

Jules’s character presents an interesting conundrum: on one hand, she’s made tremendous strides for trans representation in mainstream television; on the other, though, her traumatic storyline and fetishization can be triggering to trans viewers. Jules’s best episode is far and away one which Schafer herself had a hand in writing—and it shows.

All of the trauma Euphoria centres itself around is incredibly difficult to navigate both honestly and sensitively, and a one-man team of just Levinson isn’t pulling it off. As a creative, Levinson is undeniably talented. But as a writer, he’s not enough.

However, credit must be given where credit is due. When Levinson draws on his own experiences with addiction to write Rue’s character, the result is a uniquely raw and impactful depiction of teenage addiction. That story and Levinson’s creative eye are unlike anything else I’ve had the pleasure of watching on screen.

Lexi’s (Maude Apatow) play, spanning the final two episodes of the season, is a strong example of where Levinson’s artistic vision shines.

The play is a take on the “show within a show” trope taken to the extreme: it’s mainly a retelling of stories we have already seen play out on screen.

We’ve seen this trope played out similarly before, but rarely with the same impact. Bolstered by ridiculously elaborate sets and a cast that looks eerily similar to the “real-life” characters they play, Our Life is anything but a dull retelling. Levinson blurs Lexi’s articulation of events with familiar scenes and swaps characters for their theatre doubles seamlessly, culminating in thoughtful mediation on the characters’ journeys thus far that escapes Rue’s (Zendaya) narration.

Truthfully, though, the “show within a show” is outstanding not for its innovation of the trope, but for the ways in which it allows the characters to reflect on themselves and their lives as a viewer.

Rue is able to see her grief and spiral into addiction played out before her, and we can see that, for the first time, she sees herself as a loved and sympathetic character rather than a burden.

In the play’s final scene, Lexi and Rue’s double talk about this very impact of the play—an impossible conversation to have included in the script, since it took place after the play’s conclusion. It’s moments like these in which I’m forced to begrudgingly love from Levinson, because they’re what make the show so special—not the heaps of trauma.

Season two’s concluding episodes also gifted us with Ethan’s (Austin Abrams) iconic portrayal of “Jake”—Nate—and show-stopping homoerotic lipsync dance routine to “I Need a Hero,” which could very well be reason enough to overlook any and all of the show’s flaws.

In all seriousness, Euphoria is an excellent show, but I’m not sure I would ever recommend it to anyone. Levinson has created a paradoxical piece of art that tells stories that need to be heard while simultaneously highlighting tired, harmful narratives no one should have to see.

As a creative, I can’t help but love the art that is Euphoria. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the ways in which the show’s story hurts me or unable to see the ways it harms other viewers.

Levinson has created something very special with Euphoria, but he alone isn’t capable of telling all of the stories he aims to tell.

 

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