I’ve seen worse plays than Lexi Howard’s. Hell, I’ve written worse plays than Lexi Howard’s, especially in high school. Thankfully, very few of my teenage plays were ever performed, and none of them were seen by an auditorium packed with my friends and peers. If they had, it would have gone down a lot differently than it did in the most recent episodes of Euphoria.
Tired of living on the periphery of the loud, explosive characters around her, Lexi has put on a play from her personal vantage point called “Our Life.” When the title is displayed onstage, spelled out in giant letters, it’s greeted with silence. Then there’s delayed clapping. Somebody drops a letter. Savour these moments, because it is the only instance where things feel like an actual high school play, with a bored audience and shoddy execution.
“Our Life” is obnoxious, obvious, and utterly devoid of substantial metaphor or meaning. This is excusable—to an extent. Lexi is a child and this is the first time her writing has been shared with an audience, even though this argument would be a lot more convincing if the play didn’t have the budget and backstage powers of an off-Broadway premiere. The play, and this moment, is the culmination of her ascendance from a paper-thin side character to a fully-fledged supporting role, one who is skeptical of her past (her troubles with watching addicts worsen their lives) and hopeful for the future (a sweet if ultimately doomed connection with Fez). But the weaknesses of the play aren’t acknowledged by the show; her anxieties about publicly expressing herself extend to, “Will it be too scandalous?” The problem is Euphoria treats “Our Life” like a powerful piece of art, so its attempts to reach emotional epiphanies for our characters fall drastically short.
The only reason Cassie, Maddie, Rue et al. are so affected by Lexi’s play is that it is literally their lives onstage. Scenes are directly lifted from their past and lit up with blaring spotlights, with the barest artistic interpretation or reflection gone into their staging. It’s an act of replication; the people in her life are given altered monikers and ushered out in front of an audience so Lexi can give us her opinions on them. When Cassie storms onstage, she sarcastically applauds her sister for just laying out all her trauma and expecting sympathy. As people boo Cassie, it’s clear where we’re meant to stand on this comment. But Euphoria’s writer intends for us to see something rich and powerful in “Our Life” in order to disagree with her.
Creator Sam Levinson (who has written all but one of Euphoria’s episodes by himself) is fixated with the idea that replaying previous beats from his own show will be hugely illuminating for his characters, but there’s very little to be gleaned from Lexi’s creative voice except for showing that she’s perceptive of her friends’ insecurities. One of the emotional cruxes for the play is just word-for-word Rue reading a speech she made at their dad’s funeral. Apart from the ethics of this (Lexi is lucky Rue was deeply affected by it), it is not good writing to directly transplant someone else’s emotional crisis for your own creative expression.
The finale sees a scene where Rue talks with Lexi about how “Our Life” finally let her look at herself in a way that was viciously self-critical, and how impressive she found the play.Before it’s confused by the reveal that it might have been the closing moments of “Our Life” (you could write a thesis on how Euphoria undercuts genuine emotion with stylised artifice), we feel that Rue, more than any other character, has been given a genuine insight into how she’s seen by others, untainted by her addiction. And yet, one gets the sense that the purpose of the scene was not to give emotional closure to two former friends, but that Levinson needed to spell out in dialogue a transcendent quality to Lexi’s play that wasn’t conveyed while it was onstage. (Unless this moment is also onstage! I’m exhausted.)
Apart from Rue, do the other characters featured in the play get access to another perspective on their lives? Are their values probed, challenged, is something about themselves revealed by how they react to what’s on stage? Cassie certainly feels slighted by her portrayal as the bratty, attention-seeking older sister, but there’s no reflection on this beyond her stagecrashing outburst (which was largely motivated by Nate), which just leads to her and Maddy catfighting. No resolution is offered to the sisters by the end of the episode, just as nothing substantial is also offered to Maddy and Cassie through the play.
I’m not asking for Pulitzer Prize-winning work from a 17-year-old, but it’s not too much to ask the sole writer of the series to understand the ways in which art can aid characters becoming whole again, as young people healing is the entire narrative thrust of the show. The personal is crucial to art, but good art transforms the personal rather than just recites it. It’s understandable Lexi may not understand this nuance, but does Levinson?
The main, crushing problem with “Our Life” is, again, not Lexi’s fault. Because when given the opportunity to craft a unique, independent artistic voice within his series, Levinson has written one which is indistinguishable from his own. Onstage, Lexi is an omniscient narrator, deciding exactly what is shown to the audience, contextualising and extrapolating on the words and behaviours of the ensemble. Occasionally she’ll fall into a fantasy sequence of her own design, conveying a pithy commentary from her snarky perspective. Remind you of anyone?
There is no discernible difference between the narrator of “Our Life” and the narrator of Euphoria. And there’s nothing in Lexi staging her perspective that wouldn’t be achieved if we spent an episode with Rue narrating her perspective, something that already happens during these two episodes. When offered the opportunity to be novel and innovative, Levinson decided to again turn to something crushingly familiar. Do we want to see Lexi doing a show, or Lexi doing Euphoria?
Euphoria isn’t a show anymore. It’s one man talking to himself dozens of times over, insisting to himself that he’s doing a good job. It’s there in the vibrant characters becoming voiceless in an undefined background, it’s there in the long scenes of dialogue washed clean of all power, it’s there in a writer writing her version of Euphoria for the characters of Euphoria, who all reflect that wow, Euphoria sure is wild, and all the audience members laugh and cheer for the play because they too, of course, love Euphoria. And somewhere along the way in this hall of self-aggrandising mirrors, I find myself lost.
“It could be worse,” Lexi’s stage manager tells her post-Cassie outburst. “It could be boring.” But it is boring. Very boring. Watching “Our Life,” I felt myself transported back to the drafty makeshift theatre spaces where I had to sit through intolerable student theatre suppressing my criticisms and aching for it to be over. (And there are countless people who have sat through my work thinking the same.) What makes all those shows forgivable, however, is that there wasn’t a screenwriter in my ear trying to convince me how amazing the art was.
While on some level it’s nice Lexi was given a brazen, melodramatic, and fittingly Euphoria way of finding her voice, I can’t help feeling she’s just been homogenised into the voices that already dominate the show. I am too tired of being told Euphoria is very good by the person who has written it. Cut the school’s drama budget, and use the money to pay another writer.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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