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TV/Film The new episode of “Euphoria”: ‘90s nostalgia and teenage drug mules

Jan. 27, 2022

Spoilers ahead.

Euphoria is back for another week, and what’s a better cold open than a close-up butt shot? The ass in question belongs to a seventeen or eighteen year-old Cal, played by Elias Kacavas. Young Cal pulls up his boxers in the morning light, warmer and more sepia-toned than the present-day scenes. It’s like admiring a film photograph that’s yellowed at the edges. Cal’s high school flashback is straight out of the ‘90s with its deliberately grainy finish and air of lighthearted nostalgia, free of the darkness that characterizes Nate’s life.

Euphoria creator Sam Levinson says his goal in this sequence was to "allow the memories of the past to live alongside the present." Specifically, this episode reveals how Cal’s earlier years inform his actions as an adult and a father, and how his insecurities have manifested in Nate. 

In his senior year of high school, Cal spends every moment with his best friend, Derek. It’s clear their love for each other runs deep. But Cal is a macho man, suave with his Matt Damon-inspired haircut—he’s the quintessential all-American golden boy. He can’t express his love for Derek beyond a bit of homoerotic wrestling and some lingering glances.

Cal’s high school memories draw some parallels to Nate’s, like the infamous locker room scene of Nate’s episode in Season 1, appropriately named “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy.” Cal’s locker room scene is almost an exact replica with some ‘90s flair: the fit, confident athletes walk around the locker room with their dicks swinging around like it’s nothing. The gratuitous nudity is intriguing for not-yet-damaged Cal, while Nate is disgusted by his classmates’ openness. 

Later, Cal and Derek begin to explore their sexuality with women. Cal, ascendent after receiving his first blowjob, eagerly tells Derek the details. Derek asks some pretty intimate questions, running parallel to the ones Nate asked McKay in that weird scene from S2E1. Nate and Cal’s intent curiosity might point to a desire for their male best friends, but it also suggests a preoccupation with sex with women, keeping up appearances of straightness.

The culmination of Cal’s backstory is stunning, with the freedom and childlike joy of Cal and Derek’s ride in an open-top Jeep in the pouring summer rain. When they arrive at a bar to celebrate their graduation, it’s populated only by men; it seems their confidence that the bartenders would serve them isn’t the only reason they chose it. As the two party and dance under the striking orange and green lights, they emanate pure, unadulterated joy. Finally they have their first sweet, loving kiss and hold each other on the dance floor, and they appear perfectly at ease with each other—a moment sexually-repressed Nate has never allowed himself. 

It all comes crashing down when the next morning, Cal receives a phone call from his new fling, Marsha, that she’s pregnant. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of this season thus far, Cal’s smile fades as he sets down the phone and he begins to sob in his childhood bed. This is the moment his future is decided for him. He knows everything he had the night before is gone, and he’ll never feel it again. Eric Dane, who plays Cal, explained in an interview with Vanity Fair that he finds this flashback a particularly heart-wrenching glimpse into Cal’s motivations. He describes Cal’s conflict as living a “double life,” which Dane sympathizes with due to his experiences with trying to hide drug and alcohol addiction.

Rue is living Dane’s very experience in this episode. When we return to the present, Rue delivers a lecture in a dim classroom on an old-school projector (a call-back to her dick-pic presentation last season) on how to hide your drug addiction. Notably, Elliot operates the projector, which was Jules’ role last time. Rue’s lecture is a candid fourth-wall break in which she acknowledges her role as a “beloved character” and exhibits some self-awareness of how destructive her behavior has been. But as she must remind us, she had no intention of staying clean, and likewise she has no intention to be honest, whether it be to Jules, Gia, or Ali, who all want nothing but the best for her. As Gia says when she suspects Rue has relapsed, “go fuck yourself, bitch” is probably what a lot of us think of Rue right now. And Gia has no idea Rue has just asked Laurie, teacher-turned-drug-dealer, for a suitcase full of drugs she can recruit her friends to help her sell. Her “business plan” may well be her downfall.

Rue still has her light-hearted moments, with Jules too concerned about Elliot to suspect that Rue is using again. Jules takes her concerns up with Elliot directly and interrogates him with a lamp shining directly in his face. She begins to peel back the layers of Elliot’s mysterious cool-guy facade. Yes, he does have a crush on Rue. Is he gay? Sort of. Straight? A bit. Elliot is the epitome of Gen-Z nonchalant queerness. He tells Rue and Jules that he’s slept with 43 men as if it’s an average number for a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old. He shrugs at Jules’ suggestion that not thinking about his sexuality is weird. He just is who he is, which is almost painful to see after Cal’s backstory. 

The interplay between Rue, Jules, and Elliot further intensifies after the interrogation. Elliot questions their sexual relationship, and Rue and Jules begin to have some more sexual moments. With more trust in Elliot, Jules begins to develop her own relationship with him. While Rue is gone, Elliot showers Jules in compliments, one being that she’s “fuckable.” Yet their relationship still feels somewhat ambiguous, creating anticipation. It’s not exactly clear where this triangle stands. A threesome might be on the table.

Now, let’s check in with our other triangle. Cassie is increasingly consumed by her desire for Nate, and Maddy continues to contemplate whether she wants him back. Maddy doesn’t seem to have an inkling that Cassie is hooking up with Nate. Cassie still wants more from Nate. She starts waking up at 4 A.M. before school every morning to painstakingly groom and style herself, with not even a glance from Nate in return. Cassie wants so desperately to be appreciated, and she’s repeatedly shot down—which has been a theme since the dawn of Euphoria. At the episode’s conclusion, Nate comes crawling back to Maddy, which can’t be good for anyone. Maddy and Cassie are bound to reach their breaking point soon, but Nate always seems to get off scot-free.

Like Cassie with her 4 A.M. routine and Rue with her $10,000 worth of drugs to sell, this episode may have bitten off more than it could chew. The beauty, humor, and emotionality of Cal’s flashback and the Rue, Jules, and Elliot plot take precedence and leave little time for the other characters to make an impression. Kat in particular only gets a brief and uncomfortable moment to say what she established in the previous episode: she doesn’t know who she is. Lexi enters a playwright arc to remedy her tendency to stay on the sidelines. But against the backdrop of classic Euphoria chaos, she does exactly that. Maddy does little more than debate whether she wants Nate back and lounge in a bathing suit at her babysitting job.

This episode is inherently Cal’s above all else, partly just for the purpose of indulging in ‘90s nostalgia. That’s perfectly fine by me, but I’m still waiting for Lexi to get the spotlight she deserves. And Cal’s backstory provides context for more Cal and Nate conflict, which risks overshadowing Rue’s arc—after all, HBO says themselves that she leads this ensemble cast. S2E3 falls upon a less gripping moment in the plot of Season 2. Now, we’re forced to wait for the other shoe to drop.