Students discuss suspense, queer representation, and shortcomings of HBO’s Euphoria

Kathryn Cloonan


(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Sex, drugs, glitter, and self-discovery characterize HBO’s popular show Euphoria. Created by Sam Levinson, the show tells the story of high school students struggling with relationships and drug addiction. Euphoria’s colorful cinematography and Kodak Ektachrome film took over social media and the College. The tight outfits and bejeweled makeup have become a common fashion statement and party theme. 

Though the plot lines are not always relatable for high school students, the show has received positive reviews for its portrayal of the characters’ realistic and painful struggles with mental health, different addictions, sexuality, and relationships. “I’m not interested in realism,” creator Sam Levinson told Vulture. “I’m interested in an emotional realism.” Drawing on certain mature themes that parents may not necessarily approve of, Levinson strives to create characters who have addictions and self-medicate in unhealthy ways. He tries to make audiences care about questionable people who do questionable things in order to reveal their humanity. 

Junior Advisor Reed Putnam ’23 said he enjoys the show because its cinematic and technological aspects are relatable for current teenagers. “The cinematography was so great,” Putnam said. “It felt a little bit more savvy than similar shows on Netflix.” Putnam added that he connects with his frosh watching the show every week. “My frosh love drama. We talk about the characters and we kind of argue a little bit. I feel like [Euphoria is] unique because there’s a lot of different takes on it, which I think is good because the characters are complex.” 

Similar to Putnam’s weekly viewing sessions, House Coordinator Melodie Nerestant ’24 hosted a finale watch party for her housemates. She said was drawn to the show by its actors like Zendaya, who she and her friends grew up watching on Disney Channel. “It has really good storytelling, really good acting,” she said. “I really like the actor Zendaya — it was nice to see her in more of an adult program. I also enjoyed [discovering] new actors like Hunter Schafer, Alexa Demie and Sydney Sweeney.” 

Nerestant continued that Euphoria’s sustained appeal comes from its multi-genre soundtrack created by and featuring original songs by British singer-songwriter Labrinth, combined with additional music by Sinead O’Connor, Lana Del Rey, Selena, and Tupac Shakur. “I think the music really played a big part in the viewership of the show and having their own unique soundtrack added to the uniqueness of the show,” Nerestant said. TikTok trends and Spotify playlists with Labrinths’ original songs like “All for Us” or “Mount Everest” have contributed to the show’s specific cultural aesthetic and hold. 

Besides the famous cast, Erinn McKenzie ’23 said students at the College are drawn to Euphoria because of how it pushes the boundaries of a typical teen drama. “It plays along with the teen trauma tropes of television, but subverts them because it’s on HBO — a more adult channel,” McKenzie said. The show offers a more ‘mature’ high school story that employs adult language and themes, with storylines like pedophilia, cyber dominatrixes, and rehab. 

Putnam, despite being a fan of the show on the whole, reflected on how some of the show’s deviation from the limits of a typical teen drama contributed to his discomfort when watching. “I feel uncomfortable because they’re supposed to be high schoolers,” Putnam said. “It oversexualizes high school to the point where it’s weird. It feels a little fetishy.”

Taryn McLaughlin ’23 also noted that the show attempts to excuse presenting breasts and hyper-sexualizing female bodies by showing male genitalia. “There are claims that there’s equality in the amount of male genitalia and female genitalia that is shown, but that’s not the case,” McLaughlin said. “Almost anytime there’s a penis on screen, you cannot see the face. It’s always the lower half that’s in the shot.” (McLaughlin, a photo editor of the Record, was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.)

In addition to the physical portrayal of male bodies, some students critiqued Euphoria’s depiction of male characters, specifically gay male characters. There has long been speculation that Nate Jacobs, the aggressive football star played by Jacob Elordi, is gay, because he was exposed to videos of his verbally abusive father, Cal, having sex with men at a young age and his ex-girlfriend found pictures of men on Nate’s phone in Season 1. 

McKenzie spoke to how some fan theories about Nate’s sexuality are based on problematic perspectives about transgender people. “A lot of people say that Nate is gay because he likes Jules [a transgender woman],” McKenzie said. “But that doesn’t make him gay. She’s a woman.”

Putnam further discussed the negative effects of linking Cal and Nate’s sexualities and queerness with their toxic masculinity. “It’s like Cal is the freest when he’s the most toxically masculine, even though that’s also when he’s the gayest,” Putnam said. “Exercising queerness does not have to go hand in hand with exercising masculinity. I think it’s related to the ways in which gay men gender themselves through the roles of top or bottom or how they assign masculine and feminine values to create power structures.” 

Season 2 presents Cal’s backstory of being in love with his male best friend while in high school. Some students did not approve of his redemption arc. “They did his backstory too late,” McKenzie said. “We have been perceiving him as this disgusting pedophile and then they bring in this pseudo-Call Me by Your Name thing. It just encourages the idea that because you’re [sexually] repressed, you can do horrible things and be fine.”

The confusion surrounding Cal and Nate’s sexualities, and how their queerness is used to excuse their negative behavior, has been a source of controversy for the show. “It’s this really warped perception of what gay men are,” Putnam said. “Gay people are more complex than just hating themselves because of sexuality. It’s weird that all the men on the show are extremely broken and horrible.” 

The illustrations of nudity and queerness are not the only Euphoria controversies that have recently become public. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program claimed that Euphoria glorified the use of drugs and addiction in high school, thereby putting younger viewers at risk of substance abuse. Actresses on the show have also come forward about how the creator, Sam Levinson, insisted on many more nude scenes than necessary. Additionally, several storylines, including a body positivity story for Barbie Ferrera’s character who had not previously been defined by her weight, were cut due to the actor’s insistence. 

Season 3 has a release date for sometime in early 2024, and students are split on their excitement for a new season. McLaughlin said that, although she will be continuing to watch Season 3, she would not necessarily advise College community members to do the same. “I think it’s definitely something to watch with a critical eye,” she said. “I honestly think that you have to be in a pretty solid mental state to watch it at all, to be able to recognize that everything that’s happening is really [messed] up and toxic and not at all something that should be glorified.” 

Although Nerestant too was questioning her commitment to Euphoria, she described how she is dedicated to watching characters grow in terms of sobriety and their relationships with themselves and others. “I thought I wasn’t going to [watch Season 3] but there are still so many [questions] I need to be answered,” Nerestant said. “I thought some characters in this season showed a lot of growth and I want to see more of that.”