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‘Euphoria’ Masters Empathy

Updated: Mar 29

As described by Emmy award-winning actress Zendaya, and the star of the hit TV show “Euphoria” herself, “the spirit of ‘Euphoria’ is always empathy.” This value holds true to every character on-screen whether it be an audience favorite or a unanimously agreeably despised character, and no one is exempt from receiving their own unique narrative.

However, since the HBO show’s popularity has continued to escalate from 2019 into 2022, some viewers are concerned about the harsh and disturbing content broadcasted to an array of age demographics. The show is tailored toward a mature audience and this is emphasized through the use of repeated disclaimers in interviews and social media posts as well. What concerns many observers is the teen demographic that the fictional characters supposedly depict that skeptics fear may encourage the young-adult audience to mirror those actions. One of the most extreme manifestations of this fear takes form in the lead character Rue Bennett, however, upon further analysis of her story, it is much easier to draw a line between what appears as glorification versus what is deemed as realism.

Glorification Vs. Realism

By definition, as Merriam Webster defines it, realism is a concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary. In simpler terms, this definition in itself rejects any form of glorification that is expressed through the exaggeration of exhilarating moments. In Rue Bennet’s case, moments perceived to be falsely exhilarating can range from her abuse of drugs to make memorable and fond moments “last forever” or to numb the side effects of her poor mental health. The impressive cinematography during these scenes also helps to take Rue’s thoughts to a whole new level. However, this dramatization is not done to make light of her experiences and glamorize them but to instead give the audience a glance into her perspective of what her addiction feels like to her.

From the start of season 1, Rue levels with us as the audience by not only listing off her diagnosed disorders such as general anxiety and depression but also mentioning the passing of her father. Some may have viewed this as a brief justification for her introduction to addiction but within these introductory scenes lies an often-overlooked conversation. When Rue was a lot younger, not even 10, she was prescribed an array of anti-depressants and other medicated pills to manage her disorders because the therapist declared the official diagnosis as unsure because she was “too young to know fully.” Rue fell victim to an all too common practice of serious medication being prescribed way too freely at a very young age. From this point on she lived out her childhood in a somewhat numb state always surrounded by what she thought was the only answer to keeping her mental health at bay.

This callback to the show’s pilot is a much-needed reminder when combating the idea that Rue’s drug addiction is ultimately glorified. Following the events of season 2, we receive a more in-depth look at the very real negative effects that follow Rue seemingly getting everything she wanted, which was to balance a loving relationship with her girlfriend, Jules, without having to give up drugs. Every episode only further proves just how unrealistic and damaging this desire was. In episode 3 of this season, Rue took us on a journey as she maliciously gaslighted everyone she loved including her younger sister Gia into believing that her addiction was not the problem but instead how they treated her because of it. If that sentence in itself sounds ridiculous, that is because it is.

The point of this scene was for us to get a glance into how Rue’s mindset works as an addict desperate to keep her lifestyle going at any cost. Another extreme portrayal of Rue’s concerning reality is seen in episode 5 as she quite literally tries to outrun the dark reality that follows close behind her in the form of facing withdrawals and her abundance of mistakes. There was certainly nothing glorifying about watching as she ran all across town to escape her mother and sister trying to get her the help she needed while undergoing painful withdrawal symptoms all at the same time. This final crescendo officially comes to an end only when Rue deals with the embarrassment and shame all while preparing to seek out the hope she needs to become clean of her addiction for good this time.

The Purpose and Impact

As I perceive it, “Euphoria” is meant to convey an array of narratives while never shying away from the uglier realities. While the show’s execution is not entirely perfect and faults can be seen with the blatant uncertainty of what audience it was meant to serve, one aspect done brilliantly well is the empathy evoked from the audience for one character who arguably may need it the most: Rue Bennett. As the viewer, we are the only people given full justification for her actions and mistakes but just because this happens does not mean we are expected to excuse and downplay what she does. If anything, as the audience we are invited to be Rue’s harshest critic as we work harder to understand her character more with each season.

To quote Zendaya one last time, she opens the last season 2 segment of “Enter Euphoria” with this to say about the ideology of the show: “We are not our worse moments, so what are the limits of storytelling and how can we tell these stories with these characters?” I believe that the goal of “Euphoria” is to constantly try to push these limits with each and every character. Rue Bennett is of course the most prominent and impactful of them all and she is one major example of the empathy writers wish to evoke from us as an audience. If we are able to feel this connected to a television character then we can certainly carry these same emotions into our everyday life for those around us as well.


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