‘Euphoria’ Is the Wokest Show to Fail the Bechdel Test
There isn’t a single dialogue in season 2, episode 4 that doesn’t have something to do with some toxic man or the other leaving a trail of emotional ruin.
This article contains spoilers for season 2, episode 4.
It’s been four episodes into season two. Can we have a fleshed-out storyline involving anything other than the excruciating Nate-Cassie-Maddy love triangle? Is their plot even reaching any kind of dramatic conflict situation? How much longer must we endure Cassie sobbing uncontrollably over sentient cinder block Nate?
It makes me wonder why I stick around to keep watching Euphoria. It’s like bubblegum you can’t stop chewing. It was tasty at first, but soon turned into a sickly sweet, purple, and sparkly mush. Yet, we keep chewing and chewing long after its taste has melted away — but we soon realize it was never anything else, to begin with.
Euphoria makes for an addictive watch. “Watch” being the operative word. What, for instance, do we make of the beautiful love montage of Rue and Jules full of iconic pop culture scenes recreated? It’s gorgeous to look at but it’s perhaps the only scene in this episode that doesn’t involve any “boy talk.” That’s because nobody is talking. The more everyone keeps quiet, the better Euphoria can hold on to its claim of being a real, subversive, dark take on the high school experience. Because the more the characters talk, the more it becomes evident that this season has just employed the same tired old tropes and stunted dialogue that plagued female characters in high school movies and drama and tosses them all into a cauldron full of sexiness and taboo — things that the show had positioned itself to mock and subvert.
Cassie and Maddy now bear a shockingly close resemblance — both in vibe and character — to an edgier version of the PowerPuff girls. Except their PowerPuff analogs — Bubbles and Buttercup respectively — have more interesting storylines where the only consistent boy in their lives is an evil douchebag that they try to fight and mostly win against. But in Euphoria, the evil douchebag is Nate and our PowerPuff girls are in constant tension with one another over desiring this horrible, horrible boy.
None of the other characters fare any better. Rue and Jules are currently embroiled in deep sexual tension with Elliot, a boy who acts as a wrench in their “lesbian power game.” This situation involves Elliot enabling Rue’s substance abuse and Jules’ proclivity towards being unfaithful to Rue. In a sense, they’re both cheating on each other with Elliot. Why, oh why does there have to be yet another relationship between girls threatened by a boy? Especially one who was introduced this season for ostensibly no other reason?
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Perhaps the most tragic downgrade of all, however, is Kat’s character, who has simply been reduced to mouthing a line or two every episode about how she isn’t happy with Ethan. We get it. We got it three episodes ago. Can we move on to her actual storyline now, the thing that actually made her interesting? Nope, apparently, we can’t. In episode four, her only other line is to defend herself as someone who can “think for herself” to Nate of all people. You would think that her character arc is sacrificed for the time being in service of a more urgent plot, but you would be thinking wrong. Behold, 10 minutes of Cassie strutting in a hot pink swimsuit and drunk-dancing while Nate looks on.
Who told Sam Levinson, show-runner and director, that this is what high school girls’ lives are? That this is all they are? We were treated to promising snatches of tenderness between the girls on this show as they share mutual adoration and respect. But snatches are all they are, before cutting back to Cassie crying and throwing up while hearing Maddy talk about Nate. Do these two have nothing else to say this season? If season two is Cassie’s season, it is tragic to waste it on scenes that center her apparent craziness over a boy than those which get to the root of what’s driving her concerning and increasingly unstable behavior — her immense loneliness, abandonment issues, insecurity, and the trauma from being a victim of revenge porn. With half the season done, however, all she has had to do is look sexy and deranged.
This isn’t to say that absolutely nothing else happens in season two. It is to say, however, that nothing else happens involving characters we root for or care about. It is telling that Cal, Nate’s abusive father and actual pedophile who had sex with his son’s classmate, gets more of an emotional backstory and context for his behavior than Cassie, who is stuck like a pretty hamster on a flowery wheel. It is also telling that not a single minute in four episodes has been spent this season on an empathetic glance in the direction of Cassie’s mental health rather than her sex appeal.
Cal walks out on his family after tiresomely long scenes of rediscovering himself as a gay man. But there is something unwholesome about this self-awareness as he lays waste to what’s left of the fiction of normalcy that his family desperately held on to. Sorry, but exposing your son’s porn habits and your wife’s “wild” side to make a point about hypocrisy and hiding secrets doesn’t quite land when compared with the secret of non-consensually recording sex with minors.
The fact that Euphoria spends an age on Cal’s (redemption? freedom?) arc and has him justify himself this way is especially grating when considering that it doesn’t do a fraction of this for the girls whose only fault was to catch feelings for the wrong person, perhaps. But this is Euphoria, and teen girls are treated on the same plane of “craziness” as violent, abusive middle-aged men. In short, the show has become everything it promised not to be.
At the halfway mark of season two, all we’ve seen is toxic men come in the way of girls’ relationships trying to remain whole. Euphoria then asks us to see things from these men’s points of view, and empathize with the fact that they have had emotionally stunted upbringings and lots of repressed feelings. Then, Euphoria remembers that this is a show about the dark side of high school and it goes back to the girls, at which point the girls are locked in tension that can cut you if you touch it, one boy problem away from a full-blown “cat-fight.”
This season of Euphoria has made it clear that the writer’s room has no idea what they’re doing. It is full of great art directors, set designers, lighting technicians and cinematographers, and hair and make-up department. They’re all so good that the budget forgot to account for the actual writing. The three rules of the Bechdel test are these: there must be at least two characters who are women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. On this third point, Euphoria fails spectacularly, despite its diverse cast and its promise of tackling sticky subject matters like mental health, sexuality, and substance abuse in teens.
Now that promise seems far away, and all we’re left with is this piece of tasteless gum that we’re somehow still chewing.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.