WarningMight contain spoilers.

The first season was shocking and bleak but felt real. The second one remains compelling, visually stunning, and filled with great performances. However, it’s even bleaker and harder to watch, not to mention grimy and nauseating. I found it too stressful and relentlessly grim to finish; once I decided to stop, I was at a loss to understand how I’d stuck with it for so long in the first place.

It’s satisfying to open with Fez thrashing Nate, though Lexi didn’t deserve the trauma of meeting a nice guy only to watch him violently beat someone to a pulp. Fez himself is a somewhat tragic figure trapped in a cycle of violence. The amount of tension in the first episode is astounding: Fez and Rue fearing for their lives is gripping, but Cassie worrying that Maddy might see her is somehow even more suspenseful. I wonder how they filmed all the parties and crowded scenes during the pandemic.

I like Elliot, though he’s unambiguously a bad influence. I found it hard to maintain my sympathy for him after he steals from the convenience store and wrecks a display on the way out… which is puzzling, considering the cost of the (presumable) consequent repairs to his car window.

Sydney Sweeney’s face continues to be a constant fascination for the camera, and while she’s a solid performer, I don’t know whether she fully merits it. Cassie’s infatuation with Nate is sickening; their hysterical argument in ‘You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can’, though, manages to amuse as well, complete with Nate looking the most flustered he’s ever been. Euphoria’s incessant camera movements are crucial to its intensity, but it knows exactly when to insert pause for a brief aside to underline a comic moment. At any rate, it beggars belief that Maddie wants to be with Nate again, too.

‘Ruminations: Big and Little Bullys’ manages the feat of engendering sympathy for the somewhat monstrous Cal. Young Cal and Derek are quite charming and sweet; watching Ash repeatedly hit the older version in the head is unpleasant. Cal’s meltdown in the following episode isn’t lacking in pathos, but the truth is, his family didn’t do anything to him; they did it with him. He’s an entitled white man who created the life they’re living. Eric Dane describes the scene well:

You’re not going to walk away from this thinking, ‘Oh, Cal, what a great guy. I get why he does the things he does, and it’s excusable.’ But there is some insight to give the viewer a better understanding. I don’t condone his behavior. I don’t advocate his behavior. But then again, it’s not for me to judge.

Kat spends these episodes not wanting to be with Ethan but not bothering to do anything about it. Austin Abrams is wasted; every time I saw him, I found myself wishing I were watching Dash & Lily instead.

Although I like Lexi, her story gets quite confusing. It’s a little too hard to understand what’s meant to be real and what isn’t once the play gets underway. I laughed at her hatred for Oklahoma, though, and even more at how everyone else seems to agree that she’s doing Oklahoma.

Zendaya is excellent. She doesn’t shrink from any part of Rue, whether it’s telling Jules she can’t stand her, deciding to sell drugs and using up everything she gets, burning her bridges with Ali, threatening her mother with violence, or running away en route to rehab. All of it feels authentic. Unfortunately, it’s all far more than I can take. It’s endlessly bleak. There are too many bad decisions that will have terrible, far-reaching consequences. I also agree with Pajiba’s description:

Some of the storylines this season are like something straight out of a CW teen soap, only given the illusion of being more layered by the number of drugs and sex scenes involved. It’s not to say that it doesn’t work — I’m invested in the love triangle between Rue, Jules, and Elliot, even if we’ve seen it a hundred times, only with less oral sex. Likewise, the only thing interesting about the triangle between Maddy, Nate, and Cassie is why anyone would be interested in an abusive POS like Nate — those cheekbones will only get you so far, chief — and also, how far is Cassie willing to push it before she comes completely undone? (I really want to find out. Burn it down, Cassie. Burn. It. Down.)

And on top of that, it seems like a bad set to be on, with Sam Levinson in particular coming across as someone constantly testing the limits of how much he can exploit vulnerable actresses. This is only becoming clearer with time, too.