“Euphoria” starts inside the head of teenage addict Rue (Zendaya) and never fully leaves. Even as episodes start to focus on other characters, Rue’s sardonic voiceover never leaves, making it clear that no matter whose story she’s telling, her perspective is the one holding them all together. As she stalks around her bleached hometown, dragging her feet through every punishing day, Rue acts as a reluctant tour guide for her audience. She guides us through her tangled thoughts, feelings, furious fears and desperate hopes. She’s not happy to be there on our screen, where we can see every beautiful, rotting piece of her. Sometimes she even takes the opportunity of the spotlight to glare right back at us, daring us to blink. By the final episode, in which Rue relapses and collapses into a fugue state, I felt I knew her so well I could practically feel the burning of her pain in my own chest.
Though written with vicious precision by Sam Levinson, Rue’s only as effective as she is because Zendaya is so incredibly good at portraying her. When Rue’s a jerk, Zendaya lets her be one without softening her edges. When Rue’s afraid, Zendaya lets her practiced smirk fall just enough to let you know it. The character could have been — and sometimes is — a mess of clichéd teenaged angst. Instead, Zendaya digs into every corner of her gnarled psyche to find the terrified kid hiding in the shadows. The show wouldn’t work a fraction as well without an actor who could bring that kind of nuance to its emotional center, a task Zendaya takes on with palpable care and incredible verve.
If there’s one scene that shows just how much her range Zendaya brought to “Euphoria,” it’s the one in the third episode when Rue, strung out and exhausted of trying to fight her addiction, goes to her dealer (Angus Cloud) and begs for a fix. He refuses to even let her in the door. The range of reactions Rue then experiences — as portrayed by Zendaya’s expertly calibrated performance — shows you everything you need to know about Rue. At first she laughs, amused at what has to be a joke. When he still doesn’t budge, though, she becomes furious, unable to think beyond her sheer rage that he could be so hypocritical and leave her out in the dust like this. She beats the door with her fists, kicks it with her worn sneakers, practically howls through the keyhole. It doesn’t work — and that’s when the panic starts to set in. Her limbs get heavier; her breath catches in her throat; her shouts turn into sobs. She’s hitting rock bottom, with nothing to hang onto but her own slippery mind.
This breakdown, like so many other “Euphoria” scenes, could have curdled if a less able actor had tackled it. But Zendaya throws herself so wholly into it that Rue feels real enough that she might as well be banging down the fourth wall. Pair this kind of splashy performance with the quiet moments in between — most especially when Rue realizes she’s falling in love with her best friend Jules (Hunter Schaefer) — and Zendaya’s Rue becomes one of the most finely-tuned portrayal on television. It’s only right that the Academy recognized it as such.