‘Euphoria’s’ Rue humanises addiction, but you should be rooting for more than just her
The boundary-pushing show just confirmed it will return for a third season too.
Euphoria is important for many reasons, not least because it deals with topics that other teen-centric shows often avoid. Sex, addiction, anxiety, depression – the show offers a no-holds-barred look into adolescence. It’s gritty and raw, but aesthetically pleasing and glittery all at once. Some scenes must be watched through half-closed eyes and gently parted fingers, but viewers still come back for more.
Why? The makeup and fashion are at least partly responsible for the show’s appeal, but ultimately, it’s the characters that draw people in. Each one is rough and flawed and imperfect, but they represent different parts of the human experience and the struggles they go through actually mean something to fans. As they do the actors who play them.
Just ask Zendaya, whose latest Instagram post kind of solidifies the fact that anyone involved in the show takes their role very seriously. Reflecting on what her hopes for her own character, Rue, are this season, the actress said that it all comes down to one idea: redemption is possible.
“I think in this show, and this season more specifically, [Rue] hits rock bottom. It’s my hope for people watching that they still see her as a person worthy of their love. And worthy of their time, and that she has a redemptive quality still, and that we still see the good in her even if she can’t see it in herself.
“I think that if people can go with her through that, and get to the end, and still have hope for her future, and watch her make the changes and steps to heal and humanise her through her sobriety journey and her addiction, then maybe they can extend that to people in real life,” she continued. “If you can love her, then you can love someone that is struggling with the same thing, and maybe have a greater understanding of the pain they’re facing, that is often out of their control. So for me, that is the most important thing.”
Zendaya makes a valid point. Rue is deeply flawed. She’s consumed by addiction and is very much on the road to self-destruction. Her behaviour is worryingly erratic and as Z already pointed out, she pretty much hits rock bottom this season. But, she’s still worthy of love and the continued support for the character proves that the public knows this – even when Rue herself doesn’t.
For anyone who hasn’t watched the show (*spoiler alert*), Rue is terrible and never more so than in the latest episode. She’s emotionally manipulative towards her sister and mom, she verbally obliterates Jules, who can only express their love for her, she steals from her friends and outs their secrets for her own gain. Yet, we are so deeply embedded in her character, in Zendaya’s portrayal and the time we’ve spent with Rue, that despite her showing almost a complete lack of empathy in the episode, we continue to empathise. We understand, even if Rue doesn’t, that she is sick, but her sickness is not who she is.
So, why then is it that the empathy we have for fictional beings on TV doesn’t extend to the real-life people around us? Perhaps it comes down to the fact that so much of what we know about addicts is from Hollywood… and more often than not, they’re othered or portrayed as the villain. Addiction often isn’t seen as the disease it is. It’s painted as a choice rather than an illness, and addicts are “selfish”, “weak”, “cruel”, “destructive”…
The following extract from the Euphoria script essentially proves that exact point: “The hardest part of having the disease of addiction, aside from having the disease, is that no one sees it as a disease… They think, why should I give a f*ck about her if she doesn’t give a f*ck about herself or anybody else? Why does this girl deserve my time, my patience, my sympathy? Right? If she wants to kill herself, let her. All reasonable questions and responses. But luckily, you aren’t the only person on planet earth who has this disease. There happens to be people like me, who understand that – you aren’t all that bad”.
Rue helps to humanise addiction and show that there is a person behind the pain. The character is based on showrunner Sam Levinson’s own tale of addiction, and so even though it’s hard to watch (and play), it’s actually a story of hope as both we and Zendaya know that he was able to make it through.
The same can be said of Mila Kunis’ movie Four Good Days, in which she plays a young heroin addict. Based on the true story of a 2016 article about a woman named Amanda Wendler, the film tells of how she moves in with her mother and stepfather to maintain her sobriety. And again, it humanises addiction.
Opioids have a 97% relapse rate – abstaining is a mammoth task and one that, unfortunately, the large majority of people aren’t successful at. Molly (Kunis) wants to get clean and tries to do so desperately. Her mother, Deb (Glen Close) wants to help her but has been burned so many times before that she is cautious of trusting her daughter. Molly has been in and out of detox 14 times. She’s stolen from her mother on more occasions than one. She’s homeless and unreliable and has been addicted to opioids essentially since she was a teenager.
Deb still helps her though, in spite of it all. “If there’s anything more f*king relentless than heroin, it’s you. That’s my one glimmer of hope in all of this,” Deb tells Molly before bringing her to a detox centre to get clean again. Close gave one of the best performances of her career in this movie, portraying an emotionally conflicted, distraught, and codependent mother who wants nothing more than for her child to come back to her.
While the film itself doesn’t have great reviews, it still makes us root for Molly. We see how untrustworthy she is, we see how she manipulates those around her, but we also see the good in her and we want her to be triumphant. That compassion must be applied to those struggling with the same demons in real life. The only thing that separates the characters we love from the people we know is a TV screen and that’s not enough to justify such a disparity in how both are treated – neither one is “better” than the other, neither one deserves any less empathy or concern.
Responding to criticism that the series “glamorises” drug use, Zendaya summed it up pretty succinctly when she said, “Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing.
“If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain. And maybe feel like they’re not the only one going through or dealing with what they’re dealing with.”
Just as it’s important to have characters that are flawed, it’s important to realise that being flawed is part of being human. We invest time and energy into characters because ultimately, we want to see them win, but that same mindset must be transferable to real-life scenarios too.
If you or someone you know needs treatment for addiction, there are different treatment options available depending on your needs. You can find services in your local area on Drugs.ie, Askaboutalcohol.ie or on the HSE website.