Returning to a considerably more anxious world than the one it left, HBO's Euphoria released the first of two Christmas specials this weekend. Meant to tide fans over while they were waiting – with HBO stressing the episodes were not part of the second season – the two specials have been made under Covid-19 production restrictions.
Perhaps then it was unlikely we would see the whole ensemble cast at a raging house party, but what becomes clear in watching the first special, "Trouble Don't Last Always", is how strange it would have been to submerge back into that world as if nothing had changed. As Ali (Colman Domingo) says during the episode, almost with a wink to the camera, "We're living in dark times"
The special begins with a snapshot of Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) living out their coupledom fantasy of bad breath morning kisses and goofy smiles during teeth-brushing. Then, in the snorting of a line, the screen freezes and when Rue exits the bathroom she is in a diner on Christmas Eve, speaking to her sponsor Ali over pancakes while high.
A little like the year that never was, the dream of playing house with Jules never happened, instead Rue is still in the hole she sunk into when Jules left her on the train platform at the end of season one. It feels like a TV version of the 'how it started, how it's going' meme, executed with brutal swiftness.
The episode is a stark contrast to the pulsating, neon frenzy which characterised the first season, instead the entirety of the special is a low-key heart-to-heart which plays out like an extended therapy session for Rue. Domingo is brilliantly measured as Ali, even as he desperately tries to shake sense into Rue, launches into diatribes about corporate revolution and Instagram activism, and passionately tells her she needs to create a new God. Zendaya, too, affirms how richly deserved her Emmy win was, finding new depths still in the slow blinks and hollowed-out eyes of Rue, with a final shot which is difficult to watch but stops you from looking away.
Sam Levinson's series has always teetered between the wild excitement of drugs and the crushing after effects they bring, but it is only in in this special, and in Rue's inability to get clean despite everything, that the true bottomlessness of rock-bottom is laid bare. It makes for a strong dismissal of the accusation that the show glamorises or trivialises drugs.
The title of the special, which comes up in conversation during the episode, tells us that Rue's trouble can't last forever and that better days are coming if she is able to change. Whether that means the next special will offer a sunnier outlook, and perhaps a return to its more acrobatic tone, remains to be seen. Whatever season two brings, the first special is a powerful bridge which makes a statement by treating addiction as the centre of the story, not a fleeting plot-line.
Arriving in the lead up to a Christmas that will be quieter and more reflective than usual, and one where many will be thinking of the people they cannot be with, Euphoria gives one of its loudest moments while at its quietest.
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