The implosion of Euphoria, the scandalous drama Zendaya would rather forget

A third season is reportedly in the works, but can Zendaya really return to her character Rue?
A third season is reportedly in the works, but can Zendaya really return to her character Rue? - HBO

Appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in January, movie star of the hour Jacob Elordi could only shrug, “I don’t know,” he said. “Do you know?”

He was in New York to promote Emerald Fennell’s bonfire-of-the-toffs horror-comedy Saltburn. And the squirming actor was responding to an inevitable question about the show that had launched his career – the controversial teen drama Euphoria, which, since concluding its second season in 2022, has been the subject of exhausting levels of rumour and conjecture.

Shooting on series three was scheduled to begin this year. Then, in March, the show’s maker, HBO, announced filming was delayed and that, though the cast “remained committed” to Euphoria, they were free to “pursue other opportunities”. HBO explained that showrunner Sam Levinson – son of Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam director Barry Levinson – was working on a script that would move the story of 17-year-old drug addict Rue (played by 27-year-old Zendaya) past high school and into the real world.

The network was vague about when cameras would roll – as was Zendaya, a co-producer on the project. “I don’t know, I’m not in charge,” she told reporters when promoting Dune Part 2. Other Euphoria actors have been more forthcoming – including stand-up comedian Nika King, who plays Zendaya’s on-screen mother.

“Season three is coming out. I don’t f–king know. Don’t ask me. I don’t know. It’s one of those things,” King said during a comedy routine. “People are like, ‘We need season three.’ I’m like, ‘B–tch, I need season three. I haven’t paid my rent in six months.’ And Zendaya’s over in Paris at Fashion Week, I’m like, ‘Bitch, come home! I need you! Mama need you!’”

King isn’t the only one who needs Euphoria. Though never a ratings blockbuster – though the series two finale did draw 6.6 million viewers – it was a huge critical hit and gave HBO the one thing it had never achieved with The Sopranos or Game of Thrones: street-level cool. But it’s five years since it debuted, and with its stars both ageing and becoming hugely famous, Levinson surely has his work cut out persuading them to return. A shadow of tragedy also hangs over the show following the passing in July 2023 of actor Angus Cloud aged just 25, who portrayed sensitive drug dealer Fezco and, in an upsetting case of life imitating art, died of an overdose.

Loosely adapted from an Israeli drama of the same name, Euphoria kicked off with a mic-drop of controversy in 2019. Set in the fictional California town of East Highland, it portrayed the lives of everyday teenagers as a woozy blur of sex, drugs, and existential despair – all soundtracked by edgy pop stars such as Lorde, Rosalía and Billie Eilish. Squint and it could have been America’s answer to Skins – the Channel 4 drama about kids growing up in Bristol which touched on fraught issues including drug abuse, attempted suicide, homophobia and teenage pregnancy – and which minted stars such as Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult and Daniel Kaluuya.

Defending the rampant drug-taking, Levinson said Euphoria was an honest portrayal of his own addiction issues. “Somewhere around the age of 16, I resigned myself to the idea that drugs could kill me, and there was no reason to fight it,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “I would just let it take me over, and I’d made peace with that. By the time I was 19, I was in rehab.”

Star power: Drake, Sam Levinson and Zendaya in 2019
Star power: Drake, Sam Levinson and Zendaya in 2019 - Jeff Kravitz

Others accused him of romanticising substance abuse. It was pointed out that, while Zendaya’s Rue was forever overdosing and falling off the wagon, the actress never lost her movie star glow. “The show glamorises… poor lifestyle choices,” wrote a viewer on Reddit. “This is a bunch of highly attractive people doing drugs, drinking, drinking and driving, f–king their friends’ boyfriends – and looking beautiful while doing it.”

Euphoria’s hyper-explicit sex scenes were equally controversial: some wondered about its obsession with teenage sexuality (as explored by actors in their 20s). That Euphoria was too sexualised was a point made even by the cast. Sydney Sweeney, who plays 18-year-old Cassie, told the Independent she had objected to what she regarded as gratuitous nudity. “There are moments where Cassie was supposed to be shirtless and I would tell Sam, ‘I don’t really think that’s necessary here.’”

Levinson said he was merely reflecting reality. “There are going to be parents who are going to be totally freaked out,” he opined to the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a good insight into how hard it is to grow up in this time.” But he earned a rebuke from America’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education education programme. Euphoria, the organisation said, “chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence and other destructive behaviours as common and widespread in today’s world.”

Whether authentic or not, Euphoria was a TV supernova that spat out stars. While Zendaya had already appeared in Spider-Man, Homecoming, and The Greatest Showman, it was as wayward Rue that she established her screen persona as the smart, sarcastic girl next door. It also turned Brisbane-born Elordi into Hollywood’s go-to for hunky inscrutability – a role he reprised (with bonus posh accent) in Saltburn. And it made stars of Hunter Schafer, since seen in Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and of Sweeney, who has helped revive the rom-com with Anyone but You.

Euphoria made Hollywood stars of its cast, including Jacob Elordi
Euphoria made Hollywood stars of its cast, including Jacob Elordi - HBO

The only one who doesn’t seem to have gone on to better things is Levinson. Instead, he went on to something far worse, last year’s car-crash drama The Idol – a vehicle for the ego of pop star Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, that was so tawdry that it made Euphoria look like a Ken Loach movie.

The Idol, in which Tesfaye played a guru who inserts himself into the inner circle of Britney Spear-esque pop star Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), was a rare flunk for HBO. Critics hated it, and a damning Rolling Stone story claimed original showrunner Amy Seimetz had been sidelined because she wanted to give the script a feminist perspective. With producer Levinson taking over from Seimetz, what reached the screen was the precise opposite of feminist – a morally vacuous celebration of the music industry at its most sexist and debauched.

The Idol, as Rolling Stone put it, was “nasty, brutish… and way, way worse than you’d have anticipated”. Ten minutes into the first episode, the script was mocking intimacy coordinators (Jocelyn wanted to demonstrate her feminist credentials by getting her kit off – only for the prudish, nagging intimacy coordinator to cramp her style). Later, The Weeknd’s Tedros beats Jocelyn with a hair-brush – in order to raise her spirits after she reveals that her mother would punish her with a brush growing up (“All that trauma. You’ve got to turn it into inspiration.”). In between, were some of the grimmest, grisliest sex scenes ever caught on camera.

The Idol appears to have dealt a death knell to The Weeknd’s acting ambitions. But what about Levinson’s future? HBO moved quickly to cancel The Idol, and Levinson has surely burned through a lot of good-will by delivering a flop to a network for which critical kudos is the most precious currency of all.

HBO will also be aware of allegations that the Euphoria set had become a toxic work environment, where cast and crew allegedly put in 18-hour-days for weeks on end.

“I understand that I’m doing background work,” one extra told The Daily Beast. “I’m not the most important person there. I know where I am on the totem pole. But it got to a point where I was like, I’m still a person, I’m still human. Please let me go to the restroom, don’t tell me I can’t go for 30 minutes or tell me I can’t get a snack when you’re not going to feed me and it’s 4am. It just very much felt like we didn’t exist as people.”

Levinson also clashed with Barbie Ferreira, who played troubled teen Kat Hernandez and is said to have stormed out of the production. She later confirmed she would not be returning for a third season. Ferreira explained she and Levinson had differences of opinion about her character. “Sam writes for things that he relates to. I don’t think he relates to Kat. I relate to Kat.”

To be continued? Nika King and Zendaya
To be continued? Nika King and Zendaya - HBO

Officially, round three of Euphoria is still on the way, and, as pointed out above, Levinson is reportedly busy moving the story on from its high school setting. Describing Levinson as someone who “writes and rewrites and writes,” his friend Colman Domingo (who appears in Euphoria as Rue’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Ali) said the showrunner was interested in “the existential question of who we are right now. Our souls. That’s what he wants to figure out with season three.”

Zendaya and her co-stars are free to pursue other projects – but they are technically still under contract to Euphoria in a deal known as “first position”. That means that, should the cameras start rolling again, Zendaya, Elordi, and the gang would have to pause whatever projects they were involved with.

All of this assumes there is still an audience for the series – or that we’re desperate to know what happens to Rue. But is that the case? Season two finished on a relatively upbeat and decisive note, with Rue vowing to stay clean and then striding into the sunset, quoting Mohammad Ali: “The thought of maybe being a good person, is what keeps me trying to be a good person.”

One of the defining tragedies of Ali’s life was not knowing when to walk away from the boxing ring. As they reflect on the importance of Euphoria to their careers, Zendaya, Elordi, and the rest of the cast may have already resolved not to make a similar mistake. Could it be that Levinson is pouring his heart and soul into a show that everyone else – stars, network, audience – has already quietly abandoned?