After two absolute pressure cooker episodes, “Euphoria” has found a bit of calm this week — or at least a bit of fun. The latest episode is one of the series’ funniest to date, whether Rue (Zendaya) is smacking face-first into doors, Cassie (Sydney Sweenie) is accidentally dressing just like Maddy (Alexa Demie), or no one is able to grasp the concept of the play “Oklahoma.” The teenagers are also mostly doing actual teenager stuff for once, like playing truth or dare and experimenting with creative non-fiction.
Still, “Ruminations: Big and Little Bullys” has some acutely painful moments, too, like when Rue gaslights Gia (Storm Reid) about her own addiction. And let’s not even get started on the psychological Gordian knot that is Cal (Eric Dane). No, actually, let’s start there after all, because that’s where the episode starts.
Backstory Of The Week: Cal
To unpack this fourteen-minute cold open with any success, let’s pretend we’ve never met Cal as a character before now. If this series were chronological, and this backstory our first introduction to the character who would grow up to be Nate’s (Jacob Elordi) dad, it would be devastating. As is, it’s already a fully-fledged teen tragedy, replete with era-specific yearning and quiet heartbreak.
The episode opens with young Cal (Elias Kacavas) wrestling for the school team with his best friend Derek (Henry Eikenberry). Rue’s narration tells us they spent every day together, and if the intimacy of their tough guy banter doesn’t betray their deeper connection, Cal’s stolen glances at Derek’s thighs during after-school car rides sure does. The two clearly put up a heterosexual front, even with one another, and the homophobic machismo lingering around the edge of these scenes explains why.
When Cal finally gets a girlfriend, he seems more gratified by the chance to describe his first blow job to Derek than by the act itself. When Cal’s dad barges in and sends Derek home, it’s clear the two are hiding their arousal; it’s a moment that makes their desires both more real and more impossible than ever. They find outlets, though, like skinny dipping together with their girlfriends.
After graduation, the two peel away from the group for a boys’ night, only to find themselves in what they pretend not to notice is a gay bar. They take a lot of shots, then share a dance that starts off goofy and quickly turns serious. Finally, in this little oasis they’ve carved for themselves, they kiss. Cal cries. The next day, he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant.
I’m a sucker for this exact brand of gay angst, so I’m probably a perfect mark for the humanization of Cal Jacobs. But also: OUCH! This hurts! Although reactions to this storyline will surely be mixed, I feel perfectly at home hating present-day angry creep Cal Jacobs while also wanting to give the younger version of the man a ten-minute-long hug.
Biggest Gut Punch: Rue Burning Bridges
We saw a glimpse of rock bottom Rue during her diner-set episode with Ali (Colman Domingo), and it seems we’re on our way to getting a fuller picture of her at her worst. Rue’s still carrying around that tin of heroin, which she exchanges later in the episode for a suitcase full of pills that Laurie (Martha Kelly) agrees to let her sell. This episode weaponizes Rue’s narration, making us feel complicit in her manipulative behavior when she explains her plan to trick her younger sister Gia into thinking she’s not using. She purposely tells Gia that she might start smoking weed for anxiety. Gia has clearly been profoundly traumatized by finding Rue after her previous overdose, and she understandably doesn’t take the idea well. The sisters end up in a screaming match, with Rue finally telling Gia that it’s better for her to smoke weed than to kill herself.
The specific, experience-informed hatred I feel for Rue in this moment is so deep that it almost leaves me speechless. Sam Levinson’s greatest strength has always been in writing Rue’s addiction, and this episode is certainly no exception. She thinks about these interactions only in terms of what will help her be able to keep using free of oversight, and is convinced she’s making things easier for Gia despite evidence to the contrary.
Rue’s bridge-burning doesn’t stop there. She wanders into an NA meeting clearly tweaking, with a bag full of illegal substances, and has the audacity to be surprised when Ali confronts her about it. Rue gets hostile with him, and when he tells her he’s just looking out for her, she steers into the skid with some mumbled comments about Ali’s estranged family. He tells her that if she disrespects him again, they’re done. She responds with a comment that cuts deep, referencing his own rock bottom: “Or what, Ali? You’re gonna hit me?”
Rue is spiraling, and it’s painful to see. At the episode’s end, she takes a new drug and fades into inky blackness.
Most Egregious Headline Bait: All The Meta
Rue warned us about her tailspin early in the episode, in a scene that serves as a thematic sequel to one from the first season of “Euphoria.” The red-suit-wearing, teacher version of Rue interrupts when Gia first notices her sister blazed out of her mind in the kitchen. She stands at the front of a classroom, blinded by harsh projector lighting. “Now as a beloved character that a lot of people are rooting for, I feel a certain responsibility to make good decisions,” she says. “But I relapsed.” She goes on to directly address the dissonance between the dark heart of “Euphoria” and the potentially emotionally unprepared young fanbase it’s accrued. She sips cough syrup as she says she knows people want to find hope, but “unfortunately, I’m not it.”
This is the most meta sequence in the series to date, showing Rue’s image repeating on a TV set while she talks about how we escape reality through television. The show adds to this matryoshka doll of meta later on, when Lexi (Maude Apatow) reveals that she’s been conceptualizing her life as a story for a long time. We see her walk off the set of reality to watch the dailies of an argument between her parents. Suddenly, we’re in a behind-the-scenes featurette, with talking head interviews among “castmates.” It’s a strange bit, but one that makes sense for a mature character like Lexi, who seems preoccupied on imagining a future in which she can look back on her teen years and make sense of them. Lexi takes steps to make her dreams a reality, though, convincing the school’s drama teacher to let her put on her own play in place of “Oklahoma” this year.
Least Likely To Succeed: Cassie, Again
If we allowed ties here on the “Euphoria” yearbook superlatives committee, this category would be a three-way tie between Cassie, Rue, and Cal. Cal ends the episode worst off, having been bashed in the head by Ashtray (Javon Walton) after continuing to snoop around. His mind is also further boggled by the reveal that Nate is in love with Jules (Hunter Schafer).
Cassie, though, is struggling big-time. In a montage that perfectly captures the fine line between beautification and self-destruction, she plucks, peels, buffs, and scrubs her way to perfection during her new three-hour morning routine. She has access to Nate every Friday night, but she wants him to notice her in the daytime, dammit! Rue explains that Cassie enjoys the ritual of her routine, and the attention to detail, not to mention the butterflies in her stomach while she does it. Nate walks right past her, though, and she wilts into a pose of insecurity each time. It’s like slow-burn psychological torture.
Cassie’s attention-seeking transformation culminates in a hilarious scene where her classmates think she’s auditioning to “Oklahoma,” thanks to her yeehaw-chic getup. As with most Cassie scenes this season, the humor gives way to genuine, if borderline absurd, emotion. Cassie imagines herself confessing to her friends about Nate, but it’s just that: her imagination. When she meets him later, he holds his hand around her throat, a bit tighter than he probably should, and he says he loves how sick she is. At the end of the episode, he leaves her at their usual pickup spot, and goes to see Maddy instead.
Biggest Surprise: There’s A Little Somethin’ Somethin’ Between Jules And Elliot
The newly formed triad of Elliot, Jules, and Rue is definitely an episode highlight. Early on in the hour, Jules is still turned off to Elliot, thinking he just wants to get into Rue’s pants. The two decide to address the issue directly, questioning him under the blinding light of an interrogation-room-like lamp. Elliot is honest, but also turns the questions around, convincing Jules to tell him how many people she’s slept with. It’s clear he passed the test, because soon the group are prowling the halls of their high school, playing a wild game of truth or dare that includes Elliot offering to engage in “scat play” with a school jock.
Despite Elliot’s assertions that Rue doesn’t seem like a sexual person, she and Jules seem to be getting more action than ever before, fooling around outside at sunset. Elliot’s comments are clearly getting to Jules, though, who doesn’t realize Rue’s perceived disinterest is a result of her drug use. Early in the episode, Elliot is openly curious about Jules, and by the end, he’s showering her in compliments while the two hang out. He calls her fascinating, creative, smart, cute, and a half-dozen other adjectives that show how closely he’s been paying attention to her. “On a superficial level, you have great t*ts and you and Kurt Cobain have the same haircut, which is hot,” he concludes. This sounds skeevy, but on screen it comes across as flattering and kind of sexy. Jules clearly thinks so too, as she can’t hide her smile in response.
Even More Superlatives
Best Dressed: Jules has several great outfits this week, from the velvet minidress she wears while peeing in the street to the black boot-centric look she wears at episode’s end. Neither are clearly visible for long, though, and I wanted to see more of both. So instead, this week’s Best Dressed goes to Kat, who wears a black dress with ribbon-tied straps to an extremely awkward dinner with Ethan’s (Austin Abrams) parents. The striking outfit has red flowers on it, along with sprigs of green. Her red eyeshadow and loopy hair accessories complement the look, which splits the difference between Kat’s fully realized dominatrix aesthetic and her more understated default style.
Best Musical Moment: Rue’s drugged-up dance to Bobby Darin’s “Call Me Irresponsible” is one of the episode’s best moments. She twirls her pillow, perfectly lobs a Poptart into a toaster, and pours a glass of milk while dancing around to the classic tune. Zendaya’s clear sense of rhythm makes this a total delight to watch, even if Rue’s too faded to make it entirely unworrying. The song starts to warp before abruptly cutting off when the camera pans to Gia, revealing how utterly ridiculous Rue actually looks in reality.
Best Filmmaking Flourish: If it hadn’t won the award above, Rue’s kinetic kitchen dance may have nabbed this spot, but I have a tendency of falling for more understated directorial choices, and this week is no exception. The moment that tore me up the most in this hour was the slow pan away from young Cal as he finishes up the call with his pregnant girlfriend. It’s an anticipatory setup that seems framed to reveal Derek just off screen, but as the camera grows more distant, we realize Cal is in bed alone. His best friend didn’t come home with him, and now, he never will. We realize what’s missing just as the man dissolves into tears.
Surprisingly Practical Teen of the Week: Fezco, who is also our Most Underutilized Character of the week. The fan favorite character only pops up briefly, to shut down Rue’s drug dealing plan before she even finishes her sentence. She tries to give her pitch repeatedly, but he won’t let her. Why? “I did not like the way that the plan started,” he says simply, and as always, he’s right.
Extra Credit Assignment: “Euphoria” makeup designer Doniella Davy’s Instagram is an embarrassment of riches for fans of the show. Each week, she breaks down the looks behind the episode, from Nate’s bloodied face to Maddy’s dagger-sharp eyeliner. Davy provides ample insight into the ways each characters’ looks change to reflect their sense of self, and it’s a delight to see the intricate and edgy designs close up and from every angle.
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