The opening shot of HBO’s Euphoria is that of a fetal Rue, later played by Zendaya, being born into a world directly after the events of 9/11. Her parents sit with their newborn in a hospital bed for days, re-watching the events of that day and its aftermath, cradling the daughter they have just brought into this troubled world. Throughout the remainder of the opening sequence, Rue grows into a young woman who by her early elementary years has been tentatively diagnosed with ADD, OCD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. By high school, she has lost her father to a terminal illness and experimented with drugs by taking a small amount of his palliative Oxycontin. After the loss of her father and as a result of myriad mental health issues, Rue continues to fall deeply into a dependent cycle of addiction as the only reprieve from her grief, anxiety, and emptiness that she has found effective.
This opening sequence reaches a climax when her high school goes on lockdown, and Rue sits huddled in a dark classroom as a classmate shows her pornography on his phone while, crudely and threateningly, miming sexual gestures towards her. “I just showed up one day, without a map or a compass, or, to be honest, anyone capable of giving an iota of good f***ing advice,” Rue says, in reference to the world she lives in and the life she’s grown up to have. “And I know it all may seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system, nor did I f*** it up.”
In a review for the show’s second season, Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian gave Euphoria 2 out of 5 stars, stating that the show holds “far too much nudity, sex, and violence,” and went to criticize the show’s emphasis on the lurid lives of these high schoolers, claiming that doing so led the show to “lose its heart.” This is a common complaint with the provocative, deeply disturbing HBO show—a viewing of one or two episodes alone will expose the viewer to more graphic sexual content, psychological torment, violence, drug abuse, and explicit nudity than about anything else on television, at times veering into pornographic territory. The disturbing sexual content alone is liable to make viewers of Game of Thrones or Outlander squeamish, and this, paired with the content that this show covers—including, but not limited to, sexual abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, suicide, self-harm, toxic body positivity, internalized homophobia, the effects of pornography on sexual relationships, harmful codependency, technological alienation, isolation from oneself, revenge porn, toxic masculinity, etc.—make this far and away the most difficult show I’ve watched. A friend of mine once dismissed the show as “Trauma bingo,” finding little value in its intense focus on nearly every issue facing 21st century adolescents and young adults; I am here to argue that this very content can, in fact, potentially bolster the Christian life and develop ethics of Christ-like love incredibly effectively, in a way that can rarely be found in a distinctly evangelical Christian environment.
I had a teacher in high school (a very traditional, classical Christian high school) whose favorite film was 1999’s American Beauty. This would often get him into some hot water, as he would try to justify how he, as a good Christian, could endorse or praise a movie that contains drug use, adultery, harsh profanity, violence, and ultimately centers around a married man’s pedophilic attraction towards his high school daughter’s best friend. His response was something akin to, “I’ve never seen a movie portray the fallenness of the world as truly as this.” Euphoria does much the same thing—in being structured around the lives of 21st century high schoolers, every minute of its runtime powerfully explores issues present to a great deal of adolescent America today. It shows people making horrific decisions, endangering the lives of themselves and their loved ones, and falling into patterns and behaviors that make you squirm with discomfort and wish weren’t the case—but it does so through a lens of empathy that I’ve rarely seen so strongly.
The majority of strictly “Christian” media that I’ve been exposed to—films such as “God’s Not Dead,” and the like—have this strange sterility, this artifice, to them. There’s something inhumanly bright, clean, and optimistic about them, as if any amount of distress and dirtiness has been bleached out of it before release. This reflects a larger trend in various sections of evangelical Christian culture, where the Christian is liable to avoid any amount of unwholesomeness, negativity, or true, deep pain, out of a fear of being corrupted and falling “farther from God” in some way. The artificial cleanliness of this kind of Christian content serves the purpose of comforting the Christian, detaching them from the frightening fallenness of the world at large and giving them, however lightly and dishonestly, a place to act like everything is ok. To quote Dr. Cesar Cruz of Harvard University, a writer and humanitarian worker, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable;” far too often, Christians confuse comfort with closeness to God, peace of mind with holiness, and detachment from worldly pain with detachment from material concerns. A particularly egregious example of this is “purity culture,” or the pressure that Christians feel to behave with superhuman cleanliness, whether this be in the language they use, the feelings they feel permitted to express, and especially in the sexual desires and behaviors they act out. Many Christian environments fashion this sterile, God’s-Not-Dead-esque level of artificial cleanliness for their members which, however well-intentioned, creates a level of anxious self-monitoring to the point where any sexual urge, however natural, healthy, and dare I say beautiful, becomes the subject of anxious penitence as a result of not matching up to the surrounding (false) environment. The divine value of Euphoria is in getting the Christian to wake up to the world around them.
I’ve encountered (and, to a degree, probably am one of) many Christians who view their calling to help people and improve the world with this strong sense of cheeriness. This can be powerful, when this optimism and lightness comes from a place of sober reflection of the pain in the world and the difficulties in it, and stems from a potent desire to heal and reform it. More often than not, however, this bounciness and optimism masks something much more sinister. This comes out every once in a while, in comments through pursed lips on “Someone’s frustrating lifestyle,” through passive aggressive calls to “Love the sin and hate the sinner,” which really serve the purpose of the Christian attempting to distance themselves from their own judgement and negative feeling and fulfill their own internal narrative as an all-giving, entirely kind savior. What seems to distinguish (at least to me) the genuinely altruistic, healing humanitarian from the Christian who only wishes to fulfill their own narrative as a saint, a mini-Christ, a “good person,” is true engagement with the pain they wish to heal.
Wishing for things to be better and lending a helping hand to someone without truly acknowledging the pain they carry simply reduces the helped to an object of charity, to someone a little less human than the one giving care to them. This is where the value of something like Euphoria comes in—as a show written and created by a man who spent his teenage years in halfway houses and rehab facilities, and performed by actors familiar with much of the show’s lurid, disturbing content, the pain on display feels as close to real as fiction can hope to achieve. And in subjecting oneself to engaging with this pain in its full, haunting darkness, someone can open themselves up to empathy for the hurting in a way that one never could while standing at arm’s length from it. It cures the condescending, bright-eyed, subtly narcissistic evangelism where the Christian believes, by virtue of their closeness to God or holiness or special insight, that they have a full and proper handling of the pain they wish to heal. Euphoria is a burst of cold water, a shock to the system—controlled exposure to deep, at times seemingly unbearable pain that affects a great deal of people today.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” The point of this encouragement is not to say that Christians should stoop down and choose to offer their pure, ever-loving hands to the dirty and fallen of the world—nor, I should emphasize, to say that sexually immoral people are of a categorically worse kind than the types mentioned later; his encouragement to not associate with the “sexually immoral” comes from a desire to keep them from a temptation that they have shown themselves easily susceptible to, much like telling someone struggling with alcoholism to not keep a bottle of liquor in the house—but to emphasize the importance of true connection and relationship with those who are struggling. The point here is that he is encouraging Christians not to avoid any amount of “dirtiness” that “those of the world” can leave on you, but to acknowledge that yes, Christians are no better than those so frequently looked down upon, and if they wish to make an active change in the world and truly help people, they must relate personally, rather than stand aloof from the hurting. Most episodes of this series begin with a ten-minute sequence of one of the central characters’ backstories, explaining all of the pivotal moments of their lives leading them to the desires and fears they have at that moment. Because of this, you are exposed to characters making choices and pursuing lives that you yourself would never imagine doing, but you are also forced deeply into the minds of these characters and compelled to understand and empathize with them. A man who breaks into someone’s house just to beat him to a pulp, someone who makes a living by getting teenagers addicted to drugs, and a pedophile become people whose minds you have to inhabit for a period of time, and it creates a painful level of empathy.
Lest anyone think I’m urging all students of Gordon to go watch a TV show filled to the brim with lurid, nauseatingly disturbing content, let me say that this is not the case. I will say that, for those willing to venture into this kind of difficult, gut-wrenching territory, the results may be an increased level of humility and potential empathy for others’ pain that you would be hard-pressed to find without it. It very well could have the potential to develop Christ-like love and painful compassion in a way that I’ve rarely found a show or movie able to do. There’s a character in this show, Ali, who serves as a mentor of sorts to the troubled Rue. Having gone through many of the same trials that Rue has, struggling with a dependency on crack-cocaine that ruined many of his relationships and reduced him to a shadow of his former self, he sees himself in Rue when she speaks at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and takes it on himself to be in relationship with her. He grabs pancakes with her when she feels desperate, communicates with her not as a condescending teacher or smiling, unnaturally cheerful friend who vapidly says “I’ll pray for you,” but as a man who has experienced the very same trials and trauma she has and simply knows how to be there for her, offering advice and company through the pain. In much the same way, Christians watching this disturbing, heartbreaking, deeply troubling show can learn to see themselves not as divinely appointed saviors, but as the same fallen people they see represented onscreen. As a result, they can offer grace, companionship, true friendship and love, having been transformed ever so slightly from the humbling experience of relating to these hurting, flawed characters.