Euphoria’s Soundtrack Fleshes Out the Unnameable

Illustrated by Jack Li

Shaking off the glitter and psychedelic palette of blue and purple synonymous with its preceding season, season two of Euphoria slips into a grittier fantasy. Where brutal depictions of physical violence and drug abuse occur, shots seemingly emergent from a fever dream—see Rue and Jules’s recreation of a scene in Brokeback Mountain—follow a step behind. Euphoria’s soundtrack, comprised of songs scored by British singer-producer Labrinth and selected by music supervisor Jen Malone, seems complicit in the show’s attempt to conceal weak narratives with hallucinatory maximalism. 

However, Euphoria’s music is anything but vapid. 

Shot entirely on film, the show’s scenes are washed in a grainy yellow and pervaded with nostalgia. Euphoria’s soundtrack mirrors this distortion between past and present, pivoting deftly from hip-hop classics to modern R&B; “Hypnotize” by ‘90s rapper Notorious B.I.G. blares as Jules strides into a house party, while a rendition of “Call Me Irresponsible” by ‘60s singer Bobby Darin soundtracks Rue dancing high in her room. While not entirely far-fetched, the notion of teenagers partying to classic music seems incongruous. The decade-spanning song selection is part of Euphoria’s deliberate attempt to stretch the limits of reality. In the words of Euphoria writer Sam Levinson, the show strives for “emotional realism”: rather than depicting the world truthfully, episodes are filtered through the extremes of teenage emotion. Suspending scenes in a temporal limbo, the soundtrack shakes the constraint of plausibility from the way viewers interpret the show. 

In line with this philosophy of fantasy, Season 2 perpetually lurches between the comically theatrical and the brutally real. Our Lives, the play Lexi writes about the lives of her and her (unknowing) friends, treads this boundary. Scenes warp reality, cutting between the play, the real memories it depicts, and the reactions of audience members to their acted counterparts. Amidst this excess, music ultimately takes center stage. Culminating in a raucously queer musical number, the play flaunts a throng of shirtless men gyrating on each other in a locker room to “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. The number overtly satirizes Nate’s toxic masculinity and internalized homophobia. Employing lyrics about yearning for a man “larger than life” and a “streetwise Hercules,” it serves a subtler jab at the ideal version of manhood Nate strives to embody. In another moment of spectacle, Maddy and Cassie battle onstage, fanfare music highlighting the absurdity of the situation. The soundtrack elevates the theatrics of these scenes; however, it also grounds them in self-aware wit when they verge on spiraling out of control in the name of grandiosity.

Levinson takes his vision of emotional realism further, crafting plotlines designed to coax the worst from Euphoria’s characters. Cassie is his primary target—her gradual meltdown as she vies for the romantic attention of Nate, the ex of her best friend Maddy, is depicted in excruciating detail. From mimicking Maddy’s style to frantically primping herself up for school at 4 a.m., Cassie’s efforts to win Nate’s affection devolve into monomania. Extravagant images and music highlight this obsession; in one of the season’s most gorgeous shots, Cassie sits enveloped by the flowers Nate gifted to her in tormented silence. A single tear runs down her face. Suddenly, the score bursts into a medley of organ chords, synths, and Labrinth’s vocals, evoking Cassie’s fanaticism in its spiritual discordance. The scene exhibits the soundtrack’s kinetic force: setting the season’s dreams into motion, it orchestrates the devolvement of characters into caricatures of themselves. 

Like Cassie, Euphoria’s characters construct facades to conceal their inner turmoil. From Nate repressing his sexuality beneath hypermasculinity to Rue masking the intensity of her drug addiction and grief over her father’s loss, each character has mastered the art of performance. When undercutting their pretenses, the soundtrack is most compelling. As the camera follows Lexi biking, the hyperpop track “Haunted” by Laura Les (of 100 gecs) blasts through her earbuds. ”I’m tired of being useless,” a line bursts out in frustration, reflecting Lexi’s buried resentment at growing up in her older sister Cassie’s shadow. Subverting her external show of passivity, the song gives Lexi dimension and showcases the capacity of Euphoria’s tracks to strike at the heart of each character. 

Such is where the power of Euphoria’s soundtrack lies—it unveils truths that otherwise go unsaid. Often, songs offer windows into each character’s past. Episode 3 features glimpses into a teenage Cal Jacob’s homoerotic friendship with football teammate Derek, punctuated by the adolescently blissful soundscape of ‘80s New Wave. Music does much of the heavy emotional lifting to compensate for the sparse dialogue between Cal and Derek. When Cal’s father orders Derek to leave Cal’s bed, “Chains of Love” by Erasure, a band popular in the ‘80s LGBTQ community, begins to play. “Break the chains of love,” they sing as Derek walks out of the room. Cal and Derek’s story ends with their feelings unverbalized, suppressed by internal and external homophobia. Altogether, the storyline is a weak attempt by Levinson at rationalizing Cal’s pedophilia and violent behavior. However, its music successfully makes queer desire visceral, marking a high in the soundtrack. 

The finale episode, aptly named “All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned for a Thing I Cannot Name,” centers on the failure of words at capturing emotion. After turning his father Cal in for statutory rape, Nate observes the police handcuffing him in silence; when Jules tells Rue she loves her, Rue simply kisses Jules and walks away; as Ashtray is shot down by the police, Fez can only watch. In the absence of words, longing dominates—fittingly, classical music composes the majority of the episode’s songs, expanding and falling silent again like a heart swelling with yearning. 

These moments of quiet, intimate pain hearken back to the season’s most powerful scene, which depicts Rue’s staggering through a church in a high stupor to Labrinth, who stands beneath a cross singing the original track “I’m So Tired.” As organ chords crescendo in the background, the camera pivots from a shot of Rue embracing Labrinth to a close-up of Rue’s fingers clutching her father’s back, the scene’s spiritual tones reflecting the gateway that drug usage creates for Rue to see her father. Gently, the music fades, and with it, Rue’s drug-induced fantasy—she is left dancing alone in her room, hands around an invisible body.

Euphoria circles back to the song “I’m So Tired” in the end credits of the final episode: “Hey Lord, you know I’m trying,” Zendaya croons in weary determination, acknowledging Rue’s commitment to sobriety. By the season’s end, Euphoria’s soundtrack has hounded Rue and other characters to seemingly insurmountable lows then placed them back on their feet. It has fleshed out the specters of loss and longing that haunt each character, breathing a name into that which seems unnameable. 

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