The Euphoria Special Episodes: Which One Was Better?
In lieu of Season 2, HBO released two great Euphoria special episodes for the new year. Both had stellar writing, performances, and cinematography...but which one was better?
In 2020, I met up with Euphoria casting assistant, Alan Scott Neal, three times. The first time was in person around mid-March, at a little NYC space called The Acting and Voice Studios. Euphoria was all anyone could talk about. Casting calls were released for several new characters, and the show would start shooting by the end of the month. Alan concluded our class saying, "I'm flying to California for the first time tomorrow!" From pictures released a few days later, it was clear he had attended the Euphoria Season 2 table read. If not that, he had another Euphoria duty to attend to. He was a busy man.
Cut to May. The second time I met Alan was over a Zoom call, in another acting class. Turns out, his California trip didn't last too long. "I had to fly right back," he said, "it was crazy. Even with pandemic news, we were still set to shoot. But it all got cancelled literally the day before our first day on set. It hurt, man."
It wasn't just Alan who was hurt by the cancellation. Many Euphoria fans are bummed out by season 2's delay. While the pandemic is making a season 2 release date uncertain, HBO is hoping shooting can resume by the end of March: exactly a year after the original shoot was cancelled.
Fortunately, Sam Levinson is a genius and was able to curb viewers' appetites by producing two smaller bridge episodes during the pandemic. These standalones take place during the holidays, just after the winter formal where Jules left Rue hanging at the train station. The first special episode, Trouble Don't Last Always, handles Rue's side of the story. The second special episode, F**k Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob, showed us Jules's perspective.
And are these episodes good? Oh yes. Better than a dropped bucket of Cal Jacobs's homemade chili. I can't tell you how many times I cried during both. Not only were there specific emotional beats that got the waterworks going, but it was so heartwarming to see my favorite queer couple on a TV screen again.
I love these special episodes so much, maybe even more than all the episodes in Euphoria's first season. They're both so beautiful, thought-provoking, and instrumental to the series...and that's why I'm making them fight to the death today.
I told myself I wouldn't compare Trouble Don't Last Always to Sea Blob, since they're two totally different stories. But I can't help it. It's like talking about Lady Bird and Little Women, or Hereditary and Midsommar. We can all agree both of Sam Levinson's Euphoria standalones are great, but we'd all be lying if we said we didn't prefer one over the other.
To be clear, I'm not writing this article to pit the two episodes against each other. Rather, I'm writing this to highlight what both episodes do so well. I'll be critiquing the episodes with five criteria: visuals, direction, performances, writing, and sustainability.
Keep in mind, these are all just my opinions and you're absolutely free to have yours. Also, a warning: there may be some spoilers in here. If you haven't seen Trouble Don't Last Always or F**k Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob, go watch them, then come back to this page.
Now without further ado, let's get started.
The most iconic thing about a Euphoria episode is its visual aesthetic. Whether it's a trippy color palette, stunning camera movements or irresistible glittery eye makeup, there's always something pleasing to look at.
Tonally, Trouble Don't Last Always felt completely different from a normal Euphoria episode. It didn't feel like an HBO show, even. Rather, it was like an indie short film that somehow managed to snag an Emmy-winning actress and a mega budget. (I mean that in a good way.) Everything was subtle, grounded, and wonderfully intimate.
This episode was about Rue coming back down to earth after her relapse, and facing some hard truths about her world. The visuals definitely communicated that. Nothing was showy or over-the-top. The sleek look of the diner and blurry neon of distant motel lights gave the episode a noir-ish feel. It was chill, but serious. Very mature. Nothing was exaggerated, and it didn't need to be.
And then there was Sea Blob, which was a complete 180 in terms of visual style. Where Trouble Don't Last was closed, Sea Blob felt open. Where Rue's episode was contained and mostly talked about the future of her drug addiction, Jules's episode was airy, versatile, bold, imaginative, and unafraid to expose her plethora of past traumas. Simply put: Sea Blob took more visual risks, and it paid off.
Unlike Trouble Don't Last, I think of Sea Blob in pictures. The close-up of Jules's eye as we see the events of Season 1 play through it, complete with a melancholy Lorde song. The ocean waves washing over her. Rue pricking Jules's butt with a needle full of hormones. The door scene, man that door scene. What a perfect parallel to Zendaya's door scene in season 1! Hunter Schafer's heartbreaking screams made a waterfall of tears pour into my carton of ice cream.
Cinema is told in images, not words, and the visual language of Sea Blob is truly something to behold. I needed subtitles to know what was going on in Trouble Don't Last, but with Sea Blob, I could just look at the screen and the pictures told me all I needed to know. It probably helped Hunter Schafer aided with the storyboarding process.
Sea Blob was visually stunning in its own way while also keeping to the theme of Euphoria's rich aesthetic and daring cinematography. Therefore, the superior special episode of this category is a no-brainer.
Point To: Sea Blob
To be honest, this category is also easy, but I'll still go over it.
Good direction is defined as all the elements on-screen coming together to move you the way it wants you to be moved. For example: if you're watching a horror movie and it genuinely terrifies you, that's good direction. Wes Anderson is considered a great director because you can watch any of his movies without knowing the title and be like, "Oh, this is a Wes Anderson movie." He has an iconic style.
So does Sam Levinson. Levinson's Euphoria episodes are moody, dark, modern, and ask viewers to "feel something." They're dramatic, angsty, and unafraid to talk about taboo subjects like addiction, sex, and abuse.
Trouble Don't Last Always is absolutely a well-directed Euphoria episode. It's more practical and "adult" than previous episodes, but still feels like the show we know and love. It goes deep into Rue's fractured psyche while showing off her dreams (the NYC apartment) and making the audience cry. It does what needs to be done.
But c'mon. Sea Blob had this one in the bag.
The thing Sea Blob has direction-wise Trouble Don't Last lacks is personality. While Rue's episode felt like a well-produced short film, Jules's episode was like a piece of high art set to premiere at Cannes. It was the cinematic equivalent of a marble statue from The Met.
Maybe this is because Sea Blob had a clearer voice. Because the spotlight is only on Jules, the episode is able to explore her thoughts and experiences with more depth. The editing, visuals, and sequence of events all communicated what we needed to know: this creative girl is frazzled. She's been through a lot of shit. For every tear-jerking moment Trouble Don't Last had, Sea Blob had three of them. And ultimately, Sea Blob felt like a Sam Levinson film while still being its own thing.
Point To: Sea Blob
Let me start this category by saying Hunter Schafer gave her career best performance in Sea Blob. Seriously. She proved that just because her fellow leading lady won the Emmy last year, that doesn't mean she isn't a force to be reckoned with.
You could tell Jules's special episode was such a personal experience for Hunter. She put her heart and soul into it. I've always believed that while Zendaya is the actress everyone's got their eyes on, Hunter Schafer is Euphoria's secret weapon. Her discovery was a miraculous one. The girl's going places.
That being said...while Hunter Schafer gave one great performance in Sea Blob, there were three great performances in Trouble Don't Last Always.
Zendaya was as good as she always is, but with this special episode, I think we're able to see Rue at her absolute lowest point. Zendaya was able to make herself an open wound while avoiding the traps of an over-emotional performance. It was also refreshing to see more of Rue's teenage naivete in Trouble Don't Last. To me, Rue has always been the most precocious character on the show. That's why she's the narrator. But alas, in Trouble Don't Last, her Christmas Eve counseling session with Ali proves she's still got more learning to do.
And speaking of Ali...holy hell, did Colman Domingo steal the show. Of all the actors in the special episodes, his performance in Trouble Don't Last is the one I will remember most. Every time he delivered a line, I was glued to the screen. When Jules yelled at the locked door in Sea Blob I cried, but when Ali talked to his grandson on the phone - a grandson he's never been able to meet due to a falling out with his family - I sobbed.
His performance was equal parts spiritual, blunt, rebellious, calm, optimistic, and heartbreaking. He is undoubtedly a father figure for Rue, which is important, since part of the trauma that fuels her addiction stems from the loss of her own father. Domingo could have easily turned his part into the personification of a “don’t do drugs” PSA. Instead, Ali feels like the most human character on the show. I know a few Ali’s in real life.
From telling Rue she needs to believe in a higher power to his “f**k you, Nike” speech, there was never a moment I wasn’t invested in what Ali had to say. I hope the character plays a bigger role in season 2.
So there was Zendaya, Colman Domingo...who had the third awesome performance? That would be Marsha Gambles, or "Miss Marsha" the waitress. She has a brilliant aside while she's counting her tips, after Ali's come back from his phone call. She's only on-screen for two minutes, but her account of addiction feels like part of a documentary. She even drops the episode's title, Trouble Don't Last Always. It was a saying that came from her grandmother.
Zendaya talked about the real Miss Marsha on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in December, 2020.
"We're so lucky that we have her in the Euphoria family, but we actually met her at one of the churches that we shot Euphoria Season 1 at. We met her while shooting the pilot and she worked there. We were just taken by her charm and personality and her story. She has her own story of addiction and her own battle with addiction, and she was so open and honest and Sam [Levinson] was like, 'Miss Marsha, we're coming back for you.'"
Marsha Gambles and her story adds even more authenticity to a genuine ensemble. If Trouble Don't Last Always didn't have three strong performances, the episode would not have worked the way it did.
Point To: Trouble Don't Last Always
It's extremely difficult to pick a favorite here. Part of the reason why Euphoria's gained a cult following is because of the care Sam Levinson puts into his screenplays. By infusing bits of his own personal experiences - particularly with addiction - the writing in Euphoria has always felt realistic, yet dramatic. I could easily type a whole novel on why the writing in both of these special episodes is fantastic, but for the sake of this article, I'll keep it brief.
The dialogue and structure in Trouble Don't Last Always had to be good because, well...it's just two characters sitting in a diner. If it faltered in any way, the cinematography alone would not be able to hold viewers' attention. And I think Trouble Don't Last succeeded in its writing dependability. Where I think of Jules's episode in pictures, I think of Rue's episode in words.
Trouble Don't Last is remarkable because it made viewers think, wow, a Euphoria episode can be done this way. It's noteworthy Levinson was able to turn a short scene in his head into an hour episode. Of course, precautions had to be taken while filming due to the pandemic, but this episode proved Euphoria doesn't need flashy cinematography or costumes to be entertaining and meaningful. The words were enough. And when the words were too much, Levinson included breaks within the dense dialogue to allow for actions. (The "Me In 20 Years" sequence, Miss Marsha monologue, or Labyrinth's "Ave Maria" ending.)
The writing in F**k Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob was totally unique, to say the very least. I loved how Jules talked about her trans experience from a philosophical lens rather than a political one. She had some quotable one-liners too. I'm particularly fond of, "Sometimes I'd pray to the ocean." It was refreshing to hear Jules's side of the story, and get more insight into her thoughts on conquering femininity. I hope we get to hear an account from her, or from another Euphoria character who isn't Rue, again.
However, while the writing in Jules's episode was great, I still think Trouble Don't Last was stronger. Dialogue-wise and plot-wise, it was more structured and formal. It was a secret therapy session we didn't know we needed as opposed to a literal therapy session in Sea Blob. It felt like a stage play as opposed to a TV episode. It was simple, yet poetic. And as Ali would say, "You've got to believe in the poetry."
Point To: Trouble Don't Last Always
And now, the big questions...while both of these special episodes are exemplary, which one will withstand the test of time? Which one is more instrumental to the series as a whole? Which one will people come back to? Which one will be remembered?
Let's start with Trouble Don't Last Always. This episode was important for several reasons. It shows that Rue is still alive despite her relapse during the season 1 finale, thus debunking theories that she overdosed or died. Ali's "no bullshit" lessons were metaphorical pills Rue needed to swallow, especially since she seems to blame Jules for her relapse. Perhaps Rue won't become so dependent on Jules going forward.
Additionally, it puts into question Rue's reliability as a narrator. You may not have caught it, but during Trouble Don't Last, Rue tells Ali the matching "Rules" lip tattoos from season 1 were "just an idea" and the couple didn't actually get them done. Odd, considering there was a whole scene dedicated to them.
Rue has told us before she's "not the most reliable narrator," and through scenes like the dick pic lecture, spinning party hallway, and school detective bit with Lexi, we get the sense Euphoria is about how Rue perceives events, not what actually happens.
If Sam Levinson chooses to do a huge plot twist regarding Rue's narration in future episodes, Trouble Don't Last Always will be the thing viewers rewatch in an attempt to understand it. To be honest, Rue's lip tattoo confession has me questioning all of season 1. How much of it was real?
While Trouble Don't Last Always is a question of Rue's reliability, Sea Blob is a testament to Jules's honesty. I follow a Euphoria confession page on Instagram. After the season 1 finale, I can't tell you how many posts I saw saying Jules was selfish for leaving Rue, or that she's horrible for cheating on her, or that their relationship was toxic for Rue. To be honest, my empathy for Jules dipped after she left Rue at the train station. I thought, how could she ditch her best friend like that?
Welp. After Sea Blob, I totally get it. By showing all the things in Jules's life we didn't get to see in season 1 - particularly Jules's mom also suffering from addiction - the complicated relationship between her and Rue makes a lot more sense. I can't help but feel like I misjudged Jules. She was arguably dealing with a lot more problems in season 1 than Rue.
While Trouble Don't Last Always was a cool moment to see, I feel like F**k Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob was an episode that needed to happen. It redeemed Jules's reputation while adding more depth to the Rue and Jules relationship. It's not just toxic for Rue...it's toxic for Jules, too. Additionally, the ending bedroom scene where the girls tearfully wish each other a Merry Christmas offers the possibility that they can repair their romance. It will take hard work, but the two teens really do love each other.
And outside of the story, Sea Blob was Hunter Schafer's first time on the writing and production side of film. It will be interesting to see what she does with her career after working on this special episode. I hope she's planning to write her own content in the future, because Hunter has one of the most unique voices in the entertainment industry today. I hope we can look back ten years from now and say Sea Blob was her jumping off point for bigger work.
Point To: Sea Blob
And with that, F**k Anyone Who's Not a Sea Blob is the winner. You can't deny it felt like a breath of fresh air. Jules isn't Rue, but with her impressive imagination, her narration is still able to add the dreaminess and adrenaline rush Euphoria is known so well for. When it comes to the pity I feel for Rue and Jules, Sea Blob evened out the playing field. Both Jules and Rue are troubled souls stuck at rock bottom, but Sea Blob makes me hopeful for the future to come.
While Sea Blob is my personal favorite of the two standalone episodes, I've got to say both Rue's and Jules's parts were a delight to watch. They changed the series for the better, and I hope that even past the pandemic, Sam Levinson will consider making more standalones from other characters' perspectives.
Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this essay, make sure to leave a like! Tips are greatly appreciated. I'd like to say this article was inspired by Karsten Runquist and his comparative film essays, so please check out his channel if you'd like more of those.
Did I overlook any details about the new special episodes? You can tell me your thoughts by DM'ing and following me @katyisaladybug. Also...who would you like to see a special episode for? Personally, I vote Lexi. Besides the fact that she's awesome, would love to know what made her come up with that iconic Bob Ross Halloween costume.
Until next time,