On Euphoria, Zendaya’s Rue is loving and charismatic, but she also lies and hurts people – including herself. We can clearly see how damaging her behavior is, yet it’s hard not to find her magnetic and often fun to watch. Some have criticized Euphoria for glamorizing drug abuse, and it’s true that the show’s aesthetic beautifies everything it touches. But Euphoria is painting a full picture of what addiction feels like from the inside. So why Rue is so relatable to watch, even if you hope never to be in her shoes?
“Everytime I feel good, I think it’ll last forever. But it doesn’t.” - Rue, Euphoria, 1x06
What is it about Euphoria’s portrait of Rue and her addiction that feels so honest?
Zendaya’s Rue is loving, charismatic, and endearingly funny. But she also lies, steals, and hurts people – including herself. We can clearly see how damaging her behavior is, yet it’s hard not to find her magnetic and often fun to watch.
Some have criticized Euphoria for glamorizing drug abuse, and it’s true that the show’s aesthetic beautifies everything it touches. But Euphoria is painting a full picture of what addiction feels like from the inside.
“And everything you feel, and wish, and want to forget, it all just sinks” - Rue, Euphoria 1x01
This has to start with the seductive allure of drugs for the addict, before the show ultimately reveals that beauty to be unfulfilling and incredibly destructive.
Through Rue’s narration and her raw, both heartbreaking and comedic performance, we’re able to access something universally relatable in the addiction experience, and hopefully bring more empathy to people affected by substance abuse in real life.
“[...] because of its rawness, because of its agony, because of its kind of universal soul cry for meaning.” - Andrew Garfield, Variety
Here’s our take on what Euphoria helps us get about addiction, and why Rue is so relatable to watch, even if you hope never to be in her shoes.
Sympathy for the Junkie
The prejudice against drug addicts is real and not unfounded. We see Rue do atrocious things.
“I picked up a piece of glass. I pointed it at my mom. And I told her I was gonna kill her.” - Rue, Euphoria Special, Episode 1
And the story doesn’t try to excuse any of them – one of the points that both Rue and her sponsor, Ali, make is that it’s valid for people in the addict’s life to be very angry with them. But countering these facts of Rue’s behavior, the story also finds ways to make us like her, feel close to her, and want to keep watching this story she’s narrating.
Here are four ways Euphoria – and other successful addict stories – achieve this:
Number 1 : Making Us Understand - Getting Inside the Addict’s Head
The primary way that Euphoria connects us to Rue is through her voiceover narration – which is charmingly self-aware and insightful about herself and others, and provides a constant window into the thoughts that drive her addiction.
“Over time that’s all I wanted. Those two seconds of nothingness.” - Rue, Euphoria 1x01
Euphoria also uses visuals, music, and other cinematic techniques to help us feel what she’s feeling, including when she’s high. D.A.R.E said in a statement that Euphoria “chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use addiction…and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.”
And it’s a fair point that Euphoria, with its stunning actors and gorgeous cinematography, makes drug use look both beautiful and common among high-schoolers (when in fact, recent statistics suggest fewer teens are using drugs now than in previous eras).
There’s also the issue that Rue’s actions have largely avoided serious consequences - she survives her overdose and emerges mostly unscathed, even from countless extremely dangerous situations.
But while drug use can look quite appealing on the show, addiction wouldn’t be a thing if drugs weren’t highly appealing in reality. Euphoria’s creator, Sam Levinson, based Rue on his own teenage experience with addiction, and he wrote, “I think it’s crucial that film and television portray addiction in an honest way, that we show the allure of drugs, the relief they can bring, because that’s ultimately what makes them so destructive.”
In other words, Euphoria – and other addict narratives – need to do a little bit of glamorizing in order to help us get why, in the addict’s point of view, it makes sense to wreck their life in pursuit of a high. Trainspotting’s early scenes likewise start off by helping us understand why addicts are drawn to the highs of drugs in the first place.
“People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death, and all that shite, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it.” - Mark Renton, Trainspotting
Crucially, Euphoria and other effective addiction stories then go on to poke holes in that glamor and the addict’s logic.
Number 2: Drug Addicts as Comics – The Mad Hatters Leading Us Through the Looking Glass
The thing about Euphoria that’s not talked about enough is that it’s seriously funny – and a lot of that is due to Rue’s commentary, unflappably casual attitude, and elaborate fantasies.
Rue’s disarmingly honest, light-hearted takes help us enter into the show’s heavier subject matter in a personal, more accessible way. So, when the dark parts hit, maybe we feel more connected to the characters and more affected by their downs. While substance abuse and its actual fallout are no joke, the world inside Rue’s head and its mismatch with external reality can add up to some strangely humorous moments.
Merging protagonist and narrator is a technique we can also see in addiction stories like Trainspotting, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – and it lets us see that the addict’s worldview isn’t just dark and obsessive; sometimes it’s delightfully wry. All these stories have the addict humorously explain their drug use to us, in a sort of demented show and tell or educational lecture.
In these and other stories, the intoxicated person’s “uneasy” relationship with their surroundings can make for physical comedy. So can the general disconnect between their perception of the world and reality.
“Ignore this terrible drug. Yeah, pretend it’s not happening. Hi there!” - Raoul Duke, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Or the way that, while the addict seems to have no motivation for anything else, when it comes to procuring more product, they are, all of a sudden, all business. So while plenty of stories about drugs lean solely into the bleakness, Euphoria captures how addicts can feel joyful and come across as fun, charming, vivacious people, at least when they are high. It’s a technique that includes us in the character’s experience more.
Number 3: Drug Addicts as Philosophers – The Quest for Meaning Is Universal
There can be a transcendent, almost religious or spiritual-feeling element to drug use.
“So, I know people call them drugs, but I like to think of them as more spiritual expanding apparatuses.” - Darius, Atlanta, 3x08
Mind-altering substances have long been used in religious rituals, and on the other end of the drug use spectrum, twelve step programs’ are inspired by spiritual ideals. Even the figure of the addict herself on screen is somewhat biblical – she is both a sinner and a martyr: a sinner because she succumbs to urges and does wrong, and a martyr because she punishes herself for indulging in those sins.
Drugs and religion can serve a similar function – both can be used as an instrument to find meaning and (at least for a time) alleviate suffering. So, at times, the onscreen addict seems to embody a certain wisdom– like they’re just being honest about dark truths that the rest of us just don’t want to admit, and perhaps it’s even illogical to be sober. The cult junkie film Trainspotting opens with a kind of addict-philosophy manifesto, arguing exactly this point.
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career…Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, sprit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth.” - Mark, Trainspotting
Life is so horribly boring, sad, and repetitive that rather than just take it, Mark and his buddies opt out.
“I chose not to choose life, and the reasons? Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin.” - Mark, Trainspotting
Rue, too, muses about the existential justifications for doing drugs instead of investing in her future.
“The world is coming to an end and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.” - Rue, Euphoria 1x01
But while Euphoria seduces us with Rue’s best qualities and her philosophizing, it doesn’t ask us to agree with her conclusions. Like other compelling stories of addiction, it lets the addict build her case, only to counter with the many negative consequences of her choices, and the flawed junkie logic influencing her reasoning. Rue may claim that drugs are the only reason she’s still alive, but her ultimate endpoint with drugs is that if she keeps using she’s going to kill herself – as she herself repeatedly acknowledges [Telling Ali
“I just don’t really plan on being here very long” - Rue, Euphoria Special, Episode 1
We see how Rue turns to drugs to escape her pain (especially her grief over losing her father), but this doesn’t work. Rue’s is also not the only perspective on drugs we see in Euphoria. There are other voices too, like that of her sister Gia, who had to find her older sister after her overdose, or Ali, who’s been down this whole road before.
The full picture we see is that substance abuse adds to the addict’s suffering, becomes a death wish, and creates misery for those who love them.
Number 4: Drug Addicts Are Just Looking for Connection
Addictive substances can seem, for a while, to fulfill a universal human need – the need for connection. Rue speaks of her girlfriend and opiates in the same breath:
“There is not a thing on planet Earth that compares to fentanyl, except Jules” - Rue, Euphoria, 1x05
In 2000’s Requiem for a Dream and 2006’s Candy, the central couples fall in love with each other as they fall in love with drugs. The feelings of euphoria and wholeness you get from infatuation can be a lot like the initial highs of drugs, almost as though drugs are the lover. But that relationship with drugs inevitably turns abusive, and always has to come first over any human connection in the addict’s life. As much as Rue tells us she loves Jules, she eventually sabotages that romance and savagely breaks it off when Jules tries to help her get clean.
“You’re dead to me, Jules.” - Rue, Euphoria, 2x05
So while it mimics the highs of human connection, drug addiction destroys existing relationships, leaving the addict isolated and disconnected.
Euphoria shows us this process while retaining empathy for Rue by letting us see her through the eyes of people who love her. Like the addiction memoirs Beautiful Boy and Four Good Days, Euphoria shows the pain the addict causes her family.
Leslie Bennett: “You will not attack me in my own home.”
Rue: “I’ll do whatever I want in your own home.”
Leslie: “I raised you. I did, okay? And you do not fucking scare me.”
- Euphoria, 2x05
All three stories have extended scenes in which the addict rages at the parent, rapidly cycling through moods. They try to intimidate, then wheedle, then break down in displays of genuine-feeling regret, only to rage again when they don’t get what they want. But while these scenes show us the worst of addiction truthfully and let us feel the parents’ horror at who their child has become, we’re looking at the addict through the eyes of someone who loves them and wants to be able to connect with them again.
The Problem of Blame: Overcoming the “Addict Villain” Mentality
Historically, the blame for addiction has fallen on the addict. War on Drugs-like legislation aims to punish and ostracize addicts, even though data shows this does little to combat overdoses and drug-related crime. But current research suggests that there are two main factors that influence who becomes an addict.
One is neurochemistry.
In 1987, the American Medical Association first defined addiction as a disease. The disease model reframed addiction as not a moral failing but an illness to be treated like any other.
“It isn’t a question of willpower. It’s not about how strong you are. It is incurable. It is deadly. And it’s no different than cancer.” - Ali, Euphoria Special, Episode 1
We know now that some people are more likely, genetically, to become addicts, and some mental health disorders – like bipolar, which Rue struggles with – also add risk. Hard drugs stop the brain from producing the feel-good chemicals we all need to function, like dopamine and serotonin, creating a physical dependency.
“Here we see the loss of dopamine receptors in a meth user’s brain.” - Doctor, Beautiful Boy
In Euphoria, Laurie explains how, over time, the opiate-addicted brain becomes physically unable to find the same pleasure in things outside of drugs.
“All the chemicals in your brain that make you happy start to decrease because your body’s getting it artificially. But the longer you use, it just starts to weaken and wither.” - Laurie, Euphoria, 2x05
So the disease model helps the public understand that it’s not that bad, selfish people become addicts. It’s the other way around – addiction can make people act selfishly and destructively.
“You’re not a drug addict because you’re a piece of shit. You’re a piece of shit because you’re a drug addict.” - Ali, Euphoria Special, Episode 1
Context plays a part too.
People who have fewer opportunities, lower incomes and higher stress levels, are more likely to get addicted to drugs. Psychological trauma, too, is an important factor. Addiction expert, Dr. Gabor Maté, writes that drugs are often a coping strategy for trauma, and many of the life-long addicts he treats have histories of severe childhood abuse.
With Rue, the death of her father is the catalyst to her addiction – but this combines with pre-existing mental health conditions (and what could be a neorochemical predispostion).
Through all of this research, we can see that it’s inaccurate (and counterproductive) to frame addiction as the user’s fault. But it’s clear in Euphoria just how prevalent this blaming of the addict still is and how it’s internalized by the addict.
“No one in the world sees it as a disease. They see you as selfish. They see you as weak. They see you as cruel.” - Ali, Euphoria Special, Episode 1
As addicts raised in this culture learn to blame themselves, that blame becomes part of their cycle of self-abuse. And as she engages in more bad behaviors to score more drugs, this creates additional shame that compounds her existing feelings of self-loathing. So the more harshly she condemns herself, the more she’s driven to use.
Interestingly, Season 2 brings out a parallel between Rue’s substance abuse addiction and Cassie’s love addiction. Both Cassie and Rue use similar language about not being a good person.
“‘Cause I’m not a good person.” - Rue, Euphoria, 2x04
“I’m not a good person.” - Cassie, Euphoria 2x04
Both hate themselves for hurting friends and family they care about, but feeling so bad about themselves just makes them want to escape even more into their addictive behavior.
In fact, Rue’s turning point in Season 2 is seeing her former best friend Lexi’s play deal honestly with the events of Rue’s father’s death. The play lets Rue see herself without excessively harsh judgment and to instead feel compassion for herself and the pain she’s experienced.
“I think your play was the first time I was able to look at my life and not hate myself… for everything I’ve done. I think I’ve been through a lot.” - Rue, Euphoria, 2x08
Rue needs to arrive at a place where she can just see herself not as a villain, but as a person like any other.And ultimately the key to her potential recovery in Season 2 is finding a glimmer of hope for herself.
All this isn’t to say that Rue should minimize all of the ways she’s hurt people or keep acting that way – but Ali teaches her that feeling guilty about something is different from taking responsibility for it. While it’s not Rue’s fault that she became an addict, she can take control of her recovery. The story (like Dopesick) doesn’t under-emphasize the uphill physical challenges of recovery, the wider support needed, or the long odds facing opiate addicts, but Ali’s message is ultimately hopeful: addicts are not completely powerless in the face of their addiction. Rue has a long road ahead of her, but she has a chance.
“I don’t know if this feeling will last forever, but I am trying.” - Rue, Euphoria, 2x08
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