Features and Columns · TV

It’s the 12 Steps of Christmas in the ‘Euphoria’ Holiday Special

Rue gets real with her NA sponsor in one of the darkest holiday specials we’ve ever seen.
Zendaya Rue Euphoria Christmas
By  · Published on December 7th, 2020

Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the first of two special episodes of Euphoria, the Christmas-set “Trouble Don’t Last Always, Part 1: Rue.”

If you know anything about euphoria — the feeling itself, not the equally heady HBO show — you know that there’s always a comedown. When the first season of Sam Levinson’s stylish and addictive teen series came to a close last year, Rue (Zendaya) was as far from a comedown as she could be. In fact, we were left with the image of her experiencing the high of a lifetime: a chorus line of dancers, inspired cinematography, and a genuinely great original song set Rue’s tragic relapse to poetry. The “All For Us” musical number grandly personifies the hypnotic ecstasy of a hit after a long time spent sober, and the result is glorious.

Now comes the inevitable crash. The first of Euphoria‘s two planned special episodes, “Trouble Don’t Last Always, Part 1: Rue,” finds our protagonist strung out and miserable at a nondescript diner during Christmastime. She’s meeting up with her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo), to whom she was introduced at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting early in Season 1.

The bottle episode, which only features a small handful of on-screen actors, was reportedly filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic with a limited crew. Although it still includes the visual flourishes and knockout performances that made the first season a hit, the show now feels utterly stripped down. The super-charged internal monologues that usually kick off each episode are gone, as is the cast of supporting characters whose boldness counteracts Rue’s more interior journey. With no ties at all to the show’s previous high school setting, “Trouble Don’t Last Always, Part 1: Rue” finally cracks open the surface-level premise of Euphoria and reaches for the vulnerable viscera inside. The result is raw, powerful, and heavy as all get out.

At one point, Domingo’s Ali compares his and Rue’s situation to It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s true that he’s attempting, in that roundabout, storytelling way that addiction sponsors often do, to keep Rue from giving up, but that’s about where the comparison ends. If any holiday special has ever been as bleak as this one, which plays out like a dark chapter of Bojack Horseman done by way of My Dinner With Andre, I haven’t seen it yet.

Over pancakes, the pair speak about the moments that have made them believe they’re unforgivable. Rue alludes to her hopes for suicide. Ali talks about the sick cycle of domestic abuse. The two hash out the mental gymnastics required for an addict to commit to sobriety. If it weren’t for the light snowfall in the background, this would look less like Christmas and more like purgatory.

“The world’s just fucking ugly and everyone seems to be okay with it,” Rue says at one point, having sobered up just enough to fight back tears. Zendaya’s delivery here is heartbreaking, but this is one of several lines that seem to allude less to Rue’s personal woes — Jules (Hunter Schafer) hooked up with someone else — and more to the events unfolding outside the world of Euphoria.

Ali also talks vaguely about a “revolution,” making generalized statements about movements in general and throwing in some commentary about capitalism and big data for good measure. Without any specificity, these few attempts to toss some 2020 in the mix are the weakest points in a mostly stellar script. Since there’s no reason, chronology-wise, that this episode would take place in a post-COVID, post-George-Floyd-protest world, these frustratingly vague allusions to timely social crises mostly just come across as out of place.

That being said, we’d all be lucky just to hear Zendaya and Colman Domingo read the phone book for an hour. The effortlessly talented pair elevates the episode’s shakiest lines and makes the script’s best musings feel like high art. Domingo’s performance, which should easily earn an Emmy nomination, is charming, no-nonsense, and infused with real heart. Zendaya, who just made history as the youngest Emmy winner in her category, pulls off a tricky balancing act as Rue alternates between desolation, curiosity, and mental oblivion. And in the romantic fantasy sequence that opens the episode, Hunter Schafer is dazzling as an idealized version of Jules.

Even the diner’s lone waitress brings a world-weary authenticity to the fable with her few key lines. This woman, who radiates prickly warmth and wisdom, is an anchoring force in the episode, which despite its grounded subject matter still occasionally carries the series’ dreamlike quality. It turns out that the person playing her, Marsha Gambles, is actually a church employee whom Levinson and the crew met while shooting Euphoria’s first season. Apparently, she’s sharing some of her real story in this episode.

Touches like these make this bridge episode seem worlds away from the Euphoria mothership. This is the same show, after all, that made headlines for animating One Direction fanfic, breaking a record for the most male nudity on TV, and inspiring persistent theories that its central character has been dead since the pilot.

Euphoria is designed to be discussed, which makes the bait-and-switch of a quiet, existential episode one of its boldest moves yet. After thoroughly capturing our attention, the series asks us to lean in and contemplate the core of ourselves. It’s through that vulnerability that “Trouble Don’t Last Always Part 1: Rue” proves itself as more than a COVID-era novelty. It’s an essential chapter of Euphoria, and like any addictive substance, it’ll leave you all fucked up and still wanting more.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)