Euphoria Season 3: How will the teen drama manage its growing pains?

Zendaya and Labrinth in Euphoria season 2
(Image credit: HBO)

The second season of HBO’s hit drama Euphoria has been a wild ride. The show ended its second run on Sunday (February 27) with an epic finale, after a sophomore season that has seen it become the most-talked-about thing on television and safe in the knowledge that a third season is locked in. 

The numbers for Euphoria’s sophomore season have been very good indeed. Its premiere drew in 14 million viewers across HBO and HBO Max - more than double the show’s average audience of 6.6 million in season one. And, on top of that, the second season’s premiere gave HBO the most social premium cable episode since the finale of Game of Thrones. It’s a big deal now. 

For the uninitiated, Euphoria, which is based on the Israeli series of the same name, tracks the lives and loves of a group of high school students, battling with identity, trauma, drugs, friendships, love, and sex as they go. 

Largely, we follow Zendaya’s Rue Bennett. We first met Rue in season one when she was just days out of rehab after treatment for drug addiction and struggling to readjust to her life and friendships. We were then introduced to her circle of friends and the intertwining of their lives, which is constantly played out in a state of high drama.

Zendaya in Euphoria season 2

Zendaya in Euphoria season 2 (Image credit: HBO)

It’s strange to say this about a show that trades on the recklessness and violence of youth, but it has felt like Euphoria has grown up a lot in its second season. It’s been more playful with episode structure, in particular the second season penultimate episode The Theater and Its Double, where Maude Apatow’s Lexi Howard dramatized her classmates’ lives in front of them in a school play. It has also pushed hard into difficult subjects, especially Rue’s battle with addiction. All the while, showrunner Sam Levinson and his writing team have brewed a mass of bubbling undercurrents for the other characters, making the spread of storylines feel more shared. Always stylish and elegant, it’s been funnier too and feels more like a show for everybody.

That’s not to say Levinson and his team have pulled their punches. The US education organization D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) felt sufficiently compelled to put out a statement, declaring that Euphoria’s makers had chosen “...misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.”

Fans of the show would argue that criticism is unfair. Nothing is being glorified here, but the show has always pushed the limits of acceptability and, you’d suspect, prides itself on doing so.

Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria season 2 episode 4

Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria season 2 (Image credit: HBO)

An appeal beyond its years… 

Be warned, if you’ve not taken in any of Euphoria so far, then there are some spoilers for the show below…

When Euphoria first debuted back in 2019, comparisons were frequently made to Skins, the British teen drama that shocked audiences with its explicit portrayal of teenage life. The correlation between the two isn’t an unreasonable one, both shows held nothing back when it came to depicting excess and the consequences of excess, whether that be drugs or sex or violence, or all of them at the same time.  

They have other things in common too. It’s a handsome cast, you can easily see Euphoria stars Jacob Elordi, Barbie Ferreira, Dominic Fike and Hunter Schafer all enjoying the same illustrious careers that Skins stars Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connor, Daniel Kaluuya, Kaya Scodelario and Dev Patel managed to secure. Both have great soundtracks too - Skins with its punchy mix of trashy indie pop and sleazy dance, and Euphoria with a gorgeous score from British R&B man Labrinth and a soundtrack that flicks from dusty folk to swaggering R&B between frames. 

But there’s a key point of difference, and perhaps it’s why Euphoria has been able to garner such huge audiences and a truly global reach. For a show that has garnered such controversy, it has an inclusive feel. 

Nicholas Hoult in Skins

A young Nicholas Hoult in Skins (Image credit: Company Pictures)

Not only was Skins not designed for older people to watch it, it seemed designed to actively repel older viewers. The characters’ parents were not a visible presence, and when they did show up they were portrayed as figures of fun, as out of touch fools who couldn’t possibly understand what their children were going through. In Euphoria, many of the characters’ parents are just as f***ed up as their children and a couple of them, in particular Eric Dane’s Cal Jacobs, have been just as crucial to the second season’s narrative as their sons and daughters.

Euphoria has ended up attracting a much broader audience. Anecdotally, most of the 30- and 40-somethings I know, at least ones who are interested in prestige drama, watch Euphoria. Lots of them, me included, sometimes watch through our fingers, wondering what on earth our own young children will get up to by the time they’re the same age as the characters in Euphoria.

Now, with a large and engaged audience, the show’s creative team need a plan to keep that vibrancy and shock value that drew so many in the first place, while wrestling with bigger expectations from viewers and from its paymasters. So how will it handle that? Well, that’s one of the big questions it’s got to answer in its third season.

Eric Dane as Cal Jacobs in Euphoria

Eric Dane as Cal Jacobs in Euphoria (Image credit: HBO)

Euphoria season 3 will be a key title for HBO, can it keep its hard edge? 

When Euphoria first launched, the show was regarded as more of a curiosity than a key player for the service. Zendaya had enjoyed supporting roles in Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Greatest Showman, but she wasn’t the borderline A-lister she is now. 

In addition, when the show debuted on HBO in the early summer of 2019, the cable giant’s slate was in quite a different place. The final season of Game Of Thrones had come and gone. The second season of Big Little Lies was in full swing, with talk already turning to a third season. A lot of the company’s regular big-hitters - shows like VEEP, Ballers, The Deuce and Silicon Valley - were coming to an end that year. But the network’s executives were excitedly talking up plans for the rest of that year and their big ambitions for 2020.

The network did enjoy some success, both with critics and viewers in the rest of 2019 with Watchmen, His Dark Materials and Catherine The Great. But, of those, only His Dark Materials has ended up continuing. 

2020 then proved to be a lot trickier for HBO. It had bet big on a starry adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider and spooky drama Lovecraft Country, neither of which got a second season. Comedy-drama Run also got the chop, despite having Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s name above the lights. And, though HBO did have some success that year with I May Destroy You and The Undoing, neither of those shows was designed to run beyond one season. 

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies did not make it to season 3 (Image credit: Showmax)

All of which heaped more pressure on the return of Euphoria, which, with rave reviews and Zendaya’s ascent, suddenly went from a nice-to-have to the kind of show which demanded a big splashy marketing campaign and a place in the network’s A-list.

There’s a lot to look forward to for HBO in the rest of 2022 with a new take on The Time Traveler's Wife and Game Of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. But, while both are based on established properties, they are still new shows and there’s no guarantee they’ll fly. At some point there will be a new season of Westworld and a second run of The White Lotus, but, in terms of starry big hitters, HBO’s jewels in the crown now are Succession and Euphoria.

With more eyes on it than ever, both from HBO and from the viewing public, will Levinson and his team be leaned on to deliver something broader and more mainstream?

The drug use, sex and violence in the show have never felt gratuitous, but it is not for the faint-hearted and nothing has ever seemed off-limits. It’s rare to see HBO’s executives being criticized for interfering with showrunners, but it does need to keep getting new subscribers. Will everybody be able to hold their nerve and let Levinson be Levinson? Time will tell…

Maude Apatow and Angus Cloud as Lexi and Fez in Euphoria season 2

Maude Apatow and Angus Cloud as Lexi and Fez in Euphoria season 2 (Image credit: HBO)

Euphoria’s cast is growing up, how will the show handle that? 

So much of what Euphoria does trades on the youth of its characters: their reckless attitudes to life, what and who they put in their bodies, their capacity to be so casually cruel to their parents and to each other, and their endless ability to make the wrong decision. It also trades on the goldfish bowl feel of high school, that feeling that there is no world other than the one they’re in right now. So what happens when the world gets bigger? 

Will we follow the characters to college? Part of Euphoria’s magic is its claustrophobia and it’ll be difficult for Levinson to plot a route around that. HBO’s Chief Content Officer admitted as much when the streamer committed to a second season, telling TVLine about the show’s future: “There is a time limit. There is no set plan. But I don’t think you want 30-year-olds playing [high school students]." You have to wonder if he’d say the same now…

Skins, for its part, never bothered to solve the conundrum of an aging cast. After two seasons, it rebooted itself with a whole new cast. Nicholas Hoult’s Tony and his skeezy gang of friends were replaced by his younger sister, Kaya Scodelario’s Effy, and her new band of misfits. They tried the same trick two seasons later with another new cast, and though it worked less well with ratings, it did solve a key narrative problem. Will Euphoria try the same trick? Well, Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel might be huge stars now, but they weren’t when they left the show. Zendaya is. Is there life without her? Speaking of which…

Zendaya in Euphoria

(Image credit: HBO)

Rue has repeatedly recovered and relapsed, can she avoid repetition? 

There’s no doubt that Euphoria will have done wonders with the careers of its cast, both young and old, but the main drawer, and still the only part of the show with a real mainstream platform is Zendaya. 

When we met her character Rue for the first time, she was fresh out of rehab and largely managed to stay sober during the show’s first season, despite a mountain of temptation, before relapsing at the end of the season. The show’s second run showed that relapse in all its wince-inducing detail before she tried to put it behind her once again. 

Now, coming into a third season, it’ll be interesting to see how Levinson handles her journey forward. Addiction isn’t just a character arc for Rue, it has framed every decision she’s made. Her relationship with Jules has blossomed and suffered through her relapses, as has her life with her mother and sister. Her battle to stay clean will always be a key part of the character, but Levinson will need to find a setting that isn’t just constant relapse or recovery. 

Will he and his team succeed? It’ll be fascinating to see. 

Euphoria is out now on HBO Max and on NOW TV in the UK. 

Tom Goodwyn
Freelance Entertainment Writer

Tom Goodwyn was formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor. He's now a freelancer writing about TV shows, documentaries and movies across streaming services, theaters and beyond. Based in East London, he loves nothing more than spending all day in a movie theater, well, he did before he had two small children…