Unlike other Gen Z-focused shows, the high schoolers on Euphoria don’t talk about Instagram so much as they just use it—less a signifier for older audiences and more like it really is: The inevitable wallpaper of modern life. Kat (played by Barbie Ferreira) absentmindedly scrolling through Insta after losing her virginity; McKay (Algee Smith) watching who he thinks is Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), the girl he likes, having sex with his friend on an iPhone video; Jules (Hunter Schafer) arranging a meet-up with an older man on a Grindr-style app. The deadly combo of technology and hormonally inflamed teens, of course, can lead to some of the worst kinds of trouble—in particular, the spreading of nudes without the consent of the person in them, which has notoriously contributed to an increase in cyberbullying and sexting-related suicide. Zendaya, excellently portraying lead character Rue Bennett, a suburban teen who self-medicates her mental health issues to the point of addiction, gives a voiceover about nudes that’s prematurely jaded and generationally cutting:
“Here’s the thing that fucking pisses me off about the world. Like every time someone’s shit gets leaked, whether it’s J. Law or Leslie Jones, everyone’s like, Well if you don’t want it out there, don’t take the nudes in the first place. I’m sorry, I know your generation relied on flowers and father’s permission, but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us. Shame the assholes who create password-protected online directories of naked underage girls.”
This monologue is delivered while a group of horny, weeded bros look through Cassie’s nudes, and leads up to a moment at a party when Cassie and McKay start having sex; he jumps on her and puts his hand around her throat, mimicking both the video he saw and, as Rue points out, the unrealistic standards of mainstream porn through which teens are learning about sex, now that no one teaches sex ed in schools anymore. The scene cuts out, though, and Rue’s voiceover breaks the tension that permeates the sex threading the entire episode: “Now, I know this looks disturbing, but for real, I promise you, this does not end in a rape.”
McKay stops, apologizes, and says he’d never do anything to hurt Cassie. “Just don’t do it again,” she says, “Unless you ask me first. Or I ask you.”
Euphoria does a lot with the fear and uncertainty of exploring sexuality in high school, which can be especially dangerous for girls, but is also a primer for the danger we get into as adults: The boys who don’t learn about consent or respect a girl’s boundaries grow up to be men, and if we’re lucky they’ll grow and evolve, but the only things that have really changed in the 20 years since I was in high school are the internet and easy access to pharmaceutical opioids (as opposed to plain old street drugs, a constant). The raging white boy jock archetype who gets his way is still the same; watching Nate Jacobs, portrayed by Jacob Elordi, I was reminded both of my high school sexual assaulter in the ’90s and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about her experience in the ‘80s with Brett Kavanaugh. While Euphoria is surreal and, in its first episode, darker than any teen TV show I’ve ever seen, it’s also just handing back to society what it’s given us, no plain brown wrapper necessary.
The scariest scene in Euphoria’s debut—if you can get past a young Gia (Storm Reid) finding her sister Rue lying on the ground after an overdose—involves Hunter Schafer’s Jules, the teen girl picking up “DominantDaddy” (Eric Dane) on a hookup app. Viewers learn she’s trans during a closeup of her jamming a needle of hormones into her bruised upper thigh, and as she rides her bike to the hotel where she’s meeting him, she seems impossibly vulnerable—so small, so anxious in a pink miniskirt and pink-tipped hair.
DominantDaddy begins with his thumb in her mouth and a lecture that feels like it could go either way—is he a closeted man in a small town lamenting his lack of freedom, a sadistic anti-queer moralizer, or both?—but no matter the outcome, he’s something like a predator, having rough sex with Jules, who says she’s 22, despite looking about 15 or 17, tops. She doesn’t enjoy it, and doesn’t explicitly tell him she wants it, and we’re not sure if it’s her first time; the scene’s undercurrent is the real-life statistics about the murders of trans women (at least 10 so far in 2019, all of them black). Later, at the party, Nate is aggressive towards Jules and threatens to beat her, at which point she grabs a knife and defends herself from him. The tension is unbearable, but the part that finally made me cry was this: Jules and Rue leaving the party together on a bike, Rue’s arms around Jules’s waist, the wind in their hair and the prospect of true friendship on the horizon, before they sneak back into Jules’s house for a slumber party. They looked like they found a second of freedom, the thing they’re all seeking as they navigate the end of the world. We take what we can get.