by Paul Deeter
A24's Euphoria hit the ground running in 2019 with a strong cast, an excess of neon "bisexual-lighting" (as its jokingly called) and a soundtrack more loaded than any of our intoxicated leads in the entire first season. What happens after you set the table so strongly after 8 episodes (and two end of year specials) for a freshmen series with such a big reputation. How does our a24 and Drake produced show fare on round 2, and avoid its sophomore slump? Well, it was a long time coming to say the least. Euphoria followed its second special episode by... well nothing. Not for over two years. It's 2022 now, and our actors may have jumped up a few years but our characters are still stuck in the motions. They're dealing with the mountains of stress that comes from high school, and then drugs, sex and violence on top of all that. In the first season we saw all sorts off blackmail, bullying and psychotic behavior, some of which directed its way towards our young innocent lead Zendaya. Zendaya plays Rue, a troubled teenager who started the show by falling out of rehab but into trouble, refusing to stay clean despite her sister and mother's desperate pleas. She goes to school with a number of other semi fuck-ups, introduced in a series of episodes that each focused on their characters individually with deep focus on their history and childhoods that led them to this confusing intersection of life, love and ahem, ecstasy. These characters are similarly revisited in Season 2's 2022 premiere, set on NYE and only the wildest party of debauchery possible through Euphoria. We reunite with Rue, and then our psychopath Nate (covered deeper in my review of SE1E2), and Jules who left Rue at the bus station notoriously in the climax of the initial season. But this episode isn't a precursor to any of those character's current statuses, instead focusing on an outside but essential figure: Fez, or Fezco the drug dealer. He has a complicated relationship as a sort of big brother/drug provider for Rue, but we soon learn the complications of his character start as early as the age of ten.
With just the right blend of violence, shock and excess, Season 2 starts things off with a jolt to the nerves. Rue, our narrator introduces not just Fez, but his grandmother who sets the stage by walking into a strip club and kneecapping Fez's father who's exposed and just seconds before received fellatio from one of his clients. The imagery here is absolutely lewd and shock-inducing proving that from the first five minutes of this season we are in for a whirlwind of emotional stress and sometimes orgasmic surprises. The first five minutes additionally are a clearly Scorcese inspired montage of the life of crime Fez was born into by his Queenpin Grandma, backed by a soundtrack featuring the gamut from Steely Dan, to Notorious B.I.G. and even Poison. The variety of underground new hip-hop and indie crooners that appear throughout the rest of the episode keeps up the energy as our characters all clash in their intersecting ways throughout the party, but nothing matches the cocaine-fueled fervor of the energized opening scene. It's one of Euphoria's greatest sequences, and the rest of the episode is solid but not quite as fun. We see Fez and his younger brother Ash, named after being adopted from the hooker who used him as hostage, and everything that got them to who they are in our modern setting. So how does the rest of the episode fare up?
Well the sequence ends after Ash murders two threatening dealers and this puts Fez in a troubling spot of having to step up as more of a conduit to the supplier directly (and all the big baddies that work with her). This takes the episode down another wild route, with the energy and humor of Fez's weird past juxtaposed to the gritty reality of that product of the childhood that ruined him. He's stepped into the shoes of a darker and more direct role of being a dealer, and as one of his first day job mistakes, he meets the new connects with young Ash (probably 12) and Rue as ride alongs. In a scene that's almost as dark as the moment Rue is drugged and nearly preyed on in the first season's second episode, Rue and Fez and Ash are kidnapped and held by gunpoint to strip naked and prove they aren't wearing wires. Ash, the youngest is carted off to the closet, but Rue is literally under the barrell and as much as the camera keeps things appropriately contracted for Zendaya, we still see our young character being forced into stripping violently by a stranger. It's a testament to the shocking realness of this show, and its proof that nobody is sacred in Euphoria, anyone including our dearest protagonists are in trouble. And that sacredness doesn't limit itself to our dearest too, as the episode pulls its biggest twist for the last five minutes.
But there's not much to say about the forty plus minutes post the two opening scenes unfortunately. While we see the ring-lighted exposure shots of Jules and Rue reuniting after years apart, we also dredge through the weeds with some forgettable updates on Cassidy, (although the ongoing joke of her hiding spot is chucklesome) and McKay, to name a few. But Nate is under the spotlight at the party, after he seduces Cassidy with reckless driving and the song "Dead of Night" by Orville Peck! He's somewhat contemplative and brooding for the rest of the party, hiding behind the bar while onlooking the guests but still arguably TV's greatest antagonist as he grills McKay in the sleaziest way over Cass. But this is Fezco's episode, remember? And what better reminder to the fact that Fez is and always was a motherfucking G, by him following through on his promise to kill Nate in the end of season one. Well, he doesn't actually kill him. But he beats him pretty pulpy nonetheless. And after Rue's internal "damn!" we're hit with Cutting Crew's "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight", the credits and most of all the satisfying feeling of returning to something we've craved since 2019. Bring it on.
Episode Grade: B+