Euphoria’s Deepest Desire
On the surface, HBO’s Euphoria seems to inhabit a world full of sin, with no hope for redemption.
The series’ teen protagonist, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), abuses drugs without any thought for her own well-being or how her addiction affects her loved ones. Her addiction, exacerbated by the death of her father, is debilitating, but it is the only thing in her life that brings her any joy. Seen through an Augustinian lens, however, Rue’s choices reveal the shallowness of false desire, while Euphoria itself ultimately suggests that the pleasures Rue experiences are fleeting in relation to the object of greatest desire.
In his Confessions, Augustine writes about “that false and shadowy beauty which belongeth to deceiving vices.” Rue has been seduced by this beauty. Her soul clings to the euphoria she feels when she is high, but it is a deceptive beauty. This beautiful temptation, coupled with her grief, leads to a cycle that Rue cannot—and doesn’t want to—escape.
Euphoria has been accused of glorifying Rue’s drug abuse by creating beautiful, artistic sequences depicting her experiences while high. (Similar concerns have been expressed about the show’s explicit sexuality involving underage characters.) The cinematography and lighting are indeed deliberately crafted to reflect the characters’ moods. Whenever Rue takes drugs, the colors are more pronounced and upbeat music plays. For a time, everything is beautiful, including the hallucinatory dance number that occurs when Rue relapses. Rue describes this euphoric state in the pilot episode, saying, “This is the feeling I have been searching for my whole life.” But when the euphoria fades, Rue is left with her grief and the harsh realities of life.
In the recently concluded Season 2, the episodes do not shy away from the ugliness and pain that Rue’s addiction causes, reflecting Augustine’s observation in his Enchiridion that “[e]vil, then, is an accident . . . a privation of that good which is called health.” As Rue descends into the darkness of evil, she chooses the superficial relief from the pain of her losses, building a wall of hostility toward her friends and family when they question her decisions. She lashes out at her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), who has lost his daughter because of his own addiction, telling him he is a bad parent. She even gaslights her younger sister, Gia (Storm Reid)—who is already scarred from finding Rue after she had overdosed in Season 1—into believing she is clean. Meanwhile, she gives a PowerPoint tutorial to the audience called “How to Get Away with Being a Drug Addict.”
In choosing superficial relief from her pain, Rue becomes attached to the drugs—the things that tie her down. Rue descends into the ugly, abysmal emptiness of evil, approaching the point of no return. Even while she is surrounded by people who love and support her, she pushes them away when they interfere with her heart’s desire. Drugs have made her blind to the love they give her. Yet no matter how hard she tries, the drugs won’t fill the hole created by her father’s passing and the unresolved pain that resides in her.
When the euphoria fades, Rue is left with her grief and the harsh realities of life.
Rue starts on the path to healing in Episode 6, titled “A Thousand Little Trees of Blood.” The title is a reference to Federico García Lorca’s poem “The Martyrdom,” about the martyrdom of St. Eulalia. The “little trees of blood” refer to the lashings on Eulalia’s back as she was tortured. In Euphoria, the cruelty of evil is double: Rue is tortured by the pains of withdrawal, but she also tortures herself for her past sins, even saying, “I’m sure most people would say the world would be a better place without me. I don’t disagree.” The abyss of evil makes her think her own life cannot be good—that she cannot be forgiven.
However, the turning point for the whole of Season 2 is a scene of forgiveness. (Spoilers ahead.) When Rue calls Ali to apologize, she is surprised that he immediately forgives her. Tearfully, she asks, “How do you know that I mean it?” Ali responds, “Because the hour is certain to come. So we must forgive graciously.” St. Eulalia suffered greatly, but after her death she found her salvation. Rue suffers greatly, but also finds salvation—or at least, a path out of her cycle of pain—through forgiveness.
In the finale, Rue is given the opportunity to see her life reflected back to her through the school play written by her former best friend, Lexi (Maude Apatow). The play chronicles the events we have seen on Euphoria, an echo of the way Augustine’s Confessions works as a reflection on his own life. Watching the play, Rue gains perspective. She is now able to view her life as a spectator, opening up the possibility of forgiving herself for her past sins, which is what inspires her to stay clean.
The title of the finale is “All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned For a Thing I Cannot Name.” Rue has been yearning for some unknown thing that will complete her. In the final scene of the episode, we learn that Rue has stayed clean for the rest of the year. She says, “I remember Ali said, ‘The thought of maybe being a good person is what keeps me trying to be a good person.’ Maybe there’s something to that.” The song “I’m Tired” begins to play and we hear the words, “Hey, Lord, you know I’m trying.”
The euphoria felt by Rue is superficial in relation to her heart’s greatest desire. Naming her heart’s deepest desire is indeed difficult, without the person of Christ. As Augustine wrote, “our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” Rue yearns for such peace. She is not perfect, but she is trying, and in recognizing her own failings, she gains freedom from her sins, the warmth of forgiveness, and some contentment for her restless heart.