'Euphoria' has a flashback problem

A closeup of Zendaya as Rue in

Season 2 of Euphoria is, in a word, frustrating.

Excellent performances and a standout episode or two clash with absolutely baffling storytelling choices. Jules (Hunter Schafer) and Kat (Barbie Ferreira), both so integral to Season 1, are pushed to the side. Cassie's (Sydney Sweeney) elevated importance is tainted by an uncomfortable (and unnecessary) amount of humiliation. In the season finale, Rue (Zendaya) summarizes her recovery — supposedly the show's focal point — in a too-neat voiceover: "I stayed clean for the rest of the school year."

Then, there are the flashbacks.

Euphoria has always had a strong relationship with flashbacks. Most episodes of Season 1, and a few of Season 2, open with deep dives into characters' backstories. These give us much-needed context about our leads. Plus, their positions at the beginnings of episodes don't interfere with the present-day goings-on. When there are other flashbacks or narrative asides — such as Rue's memory of the first time she tried oxycontin, or her and Jules's fourth-wall-breaking dick pic seminar — they enhance the story. Crucially, they're short enough that they don't overstay their welcome.

Still of Zendaya as Rue. Rue sits on the edge of her bed. She is framed by her doorway.
Zendaya in the Season 2 finale. Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

In Season 2, creator/writer/director Sam Levinson veers slowly away from the character backstory formula. That doesn't stop him from peppering flashbacks throughout almost every episode, to the point that they stop being informative and start being nuisances.

The problem first surfaces in Season 2, episode 2, "Out of Touch." During the first 20 minutes, Rue and Jules reunite at school, Rue introduces Jules to Elliot (Dominic Fike), and Jules becomes suspicious. She runs to the bathroom, where Maddy (Alexa Demie), Cassie, and Kat discuss Kat's relationship with Ethan (Austin Abrams). In theory, it's a simple sequence that nicely refreshes these characters' connections.

Still, this being Euphoria, nothing can ever be simple. During this time we get flashbacks to everything from Rue and Elliot doing drugs to Maddy's newest babysitting gig to Kat and Ethan's unsatisfying relationship. We also revisit Cassie hooking up with Nate (Jacob Elordi), as well as the fallout from the first episode's New Year's party.

Each flashback takes up such a long time and hits so many character beats that when Euphoria returns to the school, it's easy to forget what we were flashing back from in the first place. This would maybe be excusable after one trip to the past, but so many in a row results in a narrative whiplash that the episode — and the season — never quite recovers from. From that point on, every time Rue's voiceover kicked in to take us back in time I found myself taking a page from Maddy's book and thinking, "Bitch, you better be joking."

Every time Rue's voiceover kicked in to take us back in time I found myself taking a page from Maddy's book and thinking, "Bitch, you better be joking."

While the character-centric openings focus on events that take place before Season 1, most of Season 2's flashbacks take place between episodes. There is no reason we shouldn't be seeing most of these moments chronologically.

The main argument against linear chronology is that Rue is an unreliable narrator, so it's natural that she forgets things and circles back. However, Euphoria is also meant to be a watchable television show, and the flashbacks end up being a distraction instead of an effective storytelling tool.

Close up of Dominic Fike as Elliot. He sits in front of a well-lit window and holds a guitar.
Dominic Fike in the Season 2 finale. Credit: Eddy Chen / HBO

Flashbacks continue to plague Euphoria throughout the season, coming to a head in its final two episodes. These episodes follow along with a play Lexi (Maude Apatow) wrote about her life. They blend staged re-enactments of iconic Euphoria scenes with Lexi's memories, some of which we have already seen before (many times), like Rue's father's funeral.

Meanwhile, audience members have their own flashbacks, the most egregious of which is Rue's reconciliation with Elliot. The finale grinds to a halt for a nearly seven-minute-long scene, around three minutes of which is taken up by a song Elliot wrote for Rue. It's a nice song, and Fike, a singer himself, delivers it beautifully. But like the flashbacks in the second episode, it goes on for far too long, to the point that we wonder, "Hey, when are we going back to Lexi's play?"

If the scene had played out organically as opposed to Levinson shoehorning it in directly following Cassie and Maddy's explosive fight, it may have had a bigger impact. The finale episode could have still included that glance and nod between Rue and Elliot, and viewers would have remembered their last interaction and gleaned meaning from it. Instead, it seems like Levinson doesn't trust his audience enough to give them a character moment without prefacing it with a flashback for context.

Despite the movement back and forth through time, these constant memories cause Euphoria to stagnate. The pattern of flashback, present-day, flashback becomes monotonous, robbing the show of its momentum.

If Season 2 of "Euphoria" has taught us anything, it's that "Euphoria" is its own worst enemy.

Season 2's lack of momentum becomes even more frustrating when you remember just how great Euphoria is when it finds its focus. Season 2, episode 5, "Stand Still Like the Hummingbird" is Euphoria's best episode to date: a tight hour of television that follows Rue's nightmarish odyssey through withdrawal. It's suspenseful, it's poignant, and it has the momentum that so many of Season 2's episodes desperately lack. There are no gimmicks and no flashbacks — apart from one at the end after Rue takes morphine — and the difference in quality when compared to the rest of the season is staggering.

If Season 2 of Euphoria has taught us anything, it's that the show is its own worst enemy, so insistent on deconstructing storytelling, chronology, and television in general that it forgets what kind of writing engages an audience. Unnecessary flashbacks and dream sequences (don't even get me started on Kat's Game of Thrones fantasy) undermine the story and its characters instead of serving them.

It feels antithetical to tell a show this bombastic to rein it in, but at the same time, Euphoria has proven that it can (and should) do more with less. Here's hoping it learns how to do so consistently by Season 3.

Euphoria is now streaming on HBO Max.

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