SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review if you haven’t watched “All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned for a Thing I Cannot Name,” the Season 2 finale of “Euphoria.”
When Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie Howard charged the stage during her sister’s self-produced theater work in the season finale of “Euphoria,” the audience at the show’s hypercharged high school was left uncertain as to whether her outburst was part of the play.
In the most clever moment of a tricky, meta, exceptional season of television, the answer, of course, was both that it was and was not. The play, on which the action of the season hinged, was designed to elicit an angry reaction from Cassie, and it achieved its goal; Cassie’s freaking out at playwright Lexi (Maude Apatow) was an inherent plot point, though Lexi couldn’t have predicted the specifics. What’s more, the play’s intent was to so closely mirror life among the students of Euphoria High as to achieve a sort of seamlessness: Life, for this group of teenagers living through the most outsized emotions imaginable, is lived as publicly as can be imagined, and wild dramatics pass through like weather patterns, as predictably cyclical as they are destructive. When an entire social cohort is performing, is it really such a stretch to transpose their lives to the stage?
I’ve written, previously, about this season of “Euphoria,” choosing to focus in the past on the stories of the men in the Jacobs family. I remain convinced that their stories are intriguing — especially after a tense scene between father and son in this finale. But this episode of television’s use of the device of a play made clear what’s most urgently on the show’s mind, and what it does best: The ways in which performance of self punishes and hems in teen girls and women, and the power of writing for oneself a new storyline. This show’s female ensemble — working in different styles and across various plotlines — is as strong as any on TV.
Let’s begin with the season’s MVP, Sweeney — from whom I wanted more in the finale. Sweeney reacted to watching a play about her life at home and at school with a focused intensity reminiscent of Nicole Kidman processing her emotions at the opera in the film “Birth.” In both cases, the character’s care for wanting to maintain social position through composure is evident; Sweeney is an ace at showing what lies underneath the desire to keep it together. But the actor, later, allows herself to crack open, exposing Cassie’s depths of contempt for her peers, and for herself. Storming the stage, she snaps, telling the audience “I can play the fucking villain” — it’s a thrilling moment, one in which Cassie finally steps into the role she’s been ducking all season. Cassie, who has spent the season seething with rage she can only barely suppress, is finally living in her complicated truth; later in the episode, having gotten the worse end of a physical fight with Alexa Demie’s character, she is chastened and facing social opprobrium, but she faces the world as herself, as she learns who that is.
Similarly, the theatrical device grants us real access into Rue and Lexi, the characters whose friendship is notionally a key fact of “Euphoria.” Zendaya’s Rue had, at times, generously receded from the action in recent episodes in order to grant grander spotlights to those around her. And this season had flashed back to Rue’s father’s funeral previously. But doing so within this context — forcing Rue to sit and watch a retelling of this event in her life — evoked a moment of strange and perverse possibility within Rue. The intensity of the moment, and its need to be obliterated by substance, might, for instance, have obscured the tenderness and tenuousness of a deep connection with Lexi, suffering a different kind of parental loss, and of other paths Rue might have chosen. One role of drama in our lives is to show us what we know intuitively but struggle to express even to ourselves. And Zendaya’s playing Rue as an addict who has made the choice not to get better has been a riveting one for two seasons, but her split-open response to this play suggested something new is beginning, and that yet more potent storytelling options lie ahead. (Notably, her outlook seems bright enough to give a fleeting instance of connection with Hunter Schafer’s Jules, if only just a moment.)
“Euphoria” will always want more for itself, and, for fans, that is part of its charm. It is unshy about demanding our belief that a high schooler’s play got a Jeremy O. Harris staging — and why not? With that said, I’ll say that the finale’s pressing forward on a violent and outre storyline for Angus Cloud’s drug dealer Fezco only worked to make the point that what the show does best is its stories for young women. Certainly, Fezco could be said to be exploring his performance of a role — his Pablo Escobar act had consequences for which he was obviously unprepared.
Much effort was expended, clearly, in the Fezco scenes, and it’s certain they worked for some; the scenes between father and son Jacobs were most effective in the sense that they closed a narrative loop. But the finale of “Euphoria’s” second season riveted in its turning a mirror back on its young women and presenting them the opportunity to change their storylines. For Cassie, inhabited by Sweeney in a generationally-defining performance, that means leaning into her ability to step beyond what’s expected of her. For Lexi, it means being more open and more honest, even if she has to use her work to say what she really means. For Rue, it means finally breaking a two-season-long habit, at least for now. And for fans of this series, it means a painfully long wait to see what is next for a show that once again feels as though it can do just about anything.