Euphoria and the Pain of Addiction: Why We Owe Rue CompassionPhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Features Euphoria
Over the course of Euphoria’s second season, audiences were shown a more gruesome side of Rue’s addiction. In the heart-stopping opening of this season’s fifth episode, “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird,” Rue’s addiction comes to a head after being mostly high for the season thus far. She snarls in the face of her mother and terrified younger sister, breaking doors and picking at her family’s deepest wounds as she searches for the suitcase that contained thousands of dollars in drugs. It’s a tense ten minutes, and Zendaya’s chilling performance may be a work of fiction, but her addiction is a reality for millions such as myself.
Both of my parents were addicts, and I have attempted to piece together the lingering trauma that they left on my family. Whether it’s phone calls to the sheriff, stolen jewelry to pay for drugs or the baby suffering from heroin withdrawal in the incubator, my family is just one of many impacted by addiction. It’s often dealt with in silence, and oppressive drug policies, aggressive policing and lack of healthcare have prevented people such as my parents from getting the help they need. Most shows and movies that attempt to capture the complicated bridge between addiction and recovery center around a character’s spiral to rock bottom, eventually overcome with the guilt from the suffering placed upon their family that they eventually seek help. But what about their own pain?
Drug addiction has always been difficult to portray in the media. Danny Boyle’s 1996 hit Trainspotting is one of the few movies to do it right, balancing graphic depictions of depravity with a nuanced understanding of why those acts are done. While the common denominator is drugs, it also acknowledges the other factors such as class, social pressure and even just the sheer pleasure that comes from escaping the real world for even a second—with a biting wit to boot. It was one of the few movies praised by my mother, a recovering heroin addict herself. Aside from Trainspotting, mainstream audiences primarily got their portrayals of addiction from Intervention and Shameless, two highly entertaining but flawed attempts at showing the impact of the disease. Then Euphoria showed up.
Since Euphoria’s inception in 2019, the HBO show has dealt with a fair share of criticism for its gritty portrayal of adolescence. While some parts may be dramatized for entertainment and shock value, such as the characters’ revealing outfits and excessive sex, it is still based in reality. Every high school had the drug dealers and the super seniors, the promiscuous and the virgins, the eccentric and the quiet. I don’t know if my high school had a Rue, but I think that’s the point. Usually no one knows or notices.
As I scrolled through my timeline to get caught up on the wild theories of Rue’s fate following the ambiguous ending of the last episode, words such as “junkie” and “selfish” were scattered across my screen. Euphoria has taken steps to hammer home the severity of Rue’s addiction and the consequences of her actions, but reducing her into a villain fails to acknowledge how much of that stems from her disease.
In a small but pivotal scene in the sixth episode of Euphoria Season 2, Cassie Howard attempts to shift the focus from having sex with Nate by bringing up Rue’s addiction. Almost instantly, Cassie’s mother Suze interjects with “Rue’s a good girl.” It wasn’t that she was good in spite of being an addict, nor was it ignoring Rue’s issues. They were just four simple words that held so much power and validation. She followed it up by saying Rue has had a hard life, making her one of the only people in the series thus far to understand Rue’s pain, in part because of their families’ long-standing relationship. In the episode prior to this interaction, Rue attempted to escape going to rehab by visiting the Howards and stealing their jewelry as she starts to feel withdrawal setting in, until her mother shows up to stage an impromptu intervention. It was one of Rue’s lowest moments, and Suze watched with pity and respect.
Rue is not always a good person, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve respect. Euphoria paints a complicated portrait of addiction spurred on by the death of her father, weaving together the suffering of those around her without dismissing her own. Rue is the narrator of her own story, no matter how unreliable she may be at times, and she is able to recognize the pain she has caused while also asking for compassion as she navigates trauma.
It may seem small, but compared to the self-centered, exploitative model of A&E’s Intervention that focuses more on heartbroken parents and partners than the traumatized, sick addicts themselves, or the comedic, but sometimes over-exaggerated egocentrism of Shameless’ main character Frank Gallagher on Showtime, Euphoria gives Rue an unprecedented depth. She’s intelligent, a caring daughter and sister, a hopeless romantic and a loyal friend. When at her lowest, she can also be manipulative, dangerous and distant. We get to see both sides, finding glimpses of her true character underneath the layers of trauma and addiction.
Addicts exist among us all. They can be loving parents and brilliant teachers, or they may be homeless or incarcerated. They exist across all races, classes and professions. In a hostile world that seeks to punish them for a vicious disease, it is unfair to reduce them with the label “selfish junkie.” These persisting attitudes of addiction are what create barriers that prevent people such as my own parents from accessing treatment and reintegrating into society in order to reduce relapse, instead trapping them in a never-ending cycle.
Throughout Euphoria, Rue is met with a mixture of disdain, indifference and understanding from each character that serves to weave a complex web about the daily lives and interactions of addicts. Being that she’s only a teenager, the show doesn’t get into the more political side of addiction, including healthcare access and job access. What it does get into is the nuanced portrayal of a painful disease that can unfortunately leave irreparable damage to others in its path. Nonetheless, the simple words “Rue is a good person” speak volumes about the importance of compassion that extends beyond face-to-face contact.
In the chilling final scene of “A Thousand Little Trees of Blood,” Rue’s mother gets a call that the rehabilitation center will not accept her, and her mother pleads for them to change their mind. “You don’t understand my daughter. She is a drug addict and she is going to kill herself,” says her mother as the camera pans to Rue sleeping in the next room.
Euphoria is a fictional depiction of a real issue with real consequences. Compassion towards those suffering should be our bare minimum.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.
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