When I think of “Euphoria,” I think of neon lights, glitter smeared across bleary eyes, dizzying camera angles betraying the disoriented teenage mania that fuels it. I think of Rue (Zendaya) staring across a crowded room at Jules (Hunter Schafer) with such palpable longing that it hurts. I think of the stunning last moments of the season finale, when Rue mourns Jules leaving her at a train station by relapsing and collapsing into a musical fever dream. I think of the last time we see her, when she’s dragged herself up a pile of writhing bodies only to throw herself off the cliff of them. By design, “Euphoria” is completely overwhelming, throwing too much all at once at its audience and daring it to blink.
“Trouble Don’t Last Always” does none of this. The new special episode — which dropped Dec. 4 at midnight on HBO Max before it will air Sunday night on HBO proper — sees the show pared down to the absolute basics. In the aftermath of Rue’s relapse, she joins her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) at a diner after a Christmas Eve Narcotics Anonymous meeting, but quickly finds herself on the ropes once Ali realizes she’s high. Aside from an opening fantasy of Rue’s potential life with Jules, the entire episode is just Rue and Ali talking over cold pancakes about drugs, sobriety and the exhausting struggle of feeling suspended between the two extremes. (Even the idyllic Jules fantasy can’t escape the shadow of Rue’s addiction; she barely makes it to the end of her own dream before snorting a stashed pill from underneath the bed she imagines them sharing.) In real time, this quieter episode gives Rue more room to cycle through all the stages of self-loathing after her relapse while Ali patiently works like hell to keep her tethered to reality.
It’s a remarkable change of pace for “Euphoria,” and a meaty challenge for Domingo and Zendaya, the latter fresh off her historic (and richly deserved) Emmy win for Best Actress in a Drama. From a practical standpoint, the extreme austerity of the set and script was necessary given that “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson wrote, shot and produced the episode during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After a season showing off the breadth of what an HBO budget and innovative camera setups could do, the flashiest shot in this episode follows Ali out of the diner sideways through a window. (A lovely shot, but a far cry from the high octane theatrics of something like the first season’s carnival.) Even if Levinson added this interlude after mapping out season 2, though, from a narrative viewpoint, “Trouble Don’t Last Always” is such a fitting bridge from the first season to the second that it’s hard to imagine what the next stage of “Euphoria” would look like without it.
Given plenty of time and space in this episode to grapple with her shattered life without distractions, Rue goes from shrugging at the idea of getting clean — or even staying alive at all — to letting tears fall down her face as Ali helps her realize how much she still cares. And Ali, an enigmatic but elusive figure in the first season, gets to share more of his story and philosophy in a way that feels entirely natural despite more than a couple monologues spanning several minutes. Zendaya does a remarkable job letting Rue slowly unclench over the course of the hour, but it’s Domingo’s performance that leaves a mark. Levinson’s script can err towards the pedantic — especially when Ali tries to connect what’s happening in their diner booth to the real world raging outside it — but Domingo remains perfectly controlled throughout. The moments when Ali allows himself a small smile, or even a real laugh, are remarkable.
There’s another special “Euphoria” episode yet to come before the second season, which will inevitably revert to the show’s wilder instincts and more frenzied pace. “Trouble Don’t Last Always” isn’t its norm, nor does it need to be. But honestly, it’s maybe even more satisfying to watch these two bruised people sit across from each other and talk as frankly as they want about addiction, stigma, the alluring “beauty” of the drugs that brought them together and the hope that might still unite them. Maybe a simple two-hander wouldn’t have been in the cards if the show hadn’t been forced to slow itself down — but it just might be the deep, resetting breath that both Rue and “Euphoria” need to move forward.
“Trouble Don’t Last Always” is now available to stream on HBO Max.