Empathy is a strong emotion, and Sam Levinson has found a way to weaponize it through Euphoria's key story elements.
Euphoria is an extremely polarizing show. The cinematography captures its raw treatment of contemporary teen life but often glorifies sex and drug use to put the audience through the emotional ringer.
Whether you believe Euphoria is prestige television at its best or trauma porn at its most shameless, chances are you will agree that watching the show is a stress-inducing experience—and that’s kind of the point. While the themes of the show are explored in other teen dramas, Euphoria forces the audience into a thought exercise that is almost addicting rather than allowing the viewer to escape into a fantasy.
Wisecrack breaks down how Euphoria uses visuals, voiceover, and character narratives to evoke empathy from the audience, forcing us to reconcile with how we interact with people in our day-to-day lives. Check out the full video below.
What does empathy look like in Euphoria?
Euphoria has plenty of stand-out scenes that fill us to the brim with anxiety, and that is the point of the show. Empathy allows us to tap into the emotional subjectivity of another person’s psyche, understanding their experience by viewing their problems from their perspective.
But empathy is messy. At the same time the concept of empathy took off, modern society was encouraging self-contained individuality. As a result, empathy became more difficult. Just because we understand what it means to step into another’s shoes, that doesn’t mean we were good at practicing it. We still tend to see others as simple abstractions rather than fully complex human beings.
Rue (Zendaya) is commonly dismissed as being just a junkie and Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) is viewed through her sexuality. They are judged on one aspect of their being. Empathy allows us to see that there is more beyond the abstraction and motivates us to connect to their subjectivity.
Empathy is necessary for a show’s success as it allows the audience to connect with the characters and invest in their stories for the season’s runtime, but Euphoria does not use empathy to keep the audience invested. Instead, empathy is why the show exists. It’s a show designed to be a character study of the complexities of the human condition, forcing the viewer to reflect on the judgments they make about people they don’t know.
Rue and empathy
As I’ve mentioned before, our relationship with empathy is complicated, causing us to look at people as abstractions rather than fully complicated people. We don’t have clear insight into the human soul and the key moments that have affected a person and their moral choices.
Euphoria gives us an unnatural insight into its characters’ lives by using Rue’s narration. The pilot starts somewhat conventionally as Rue narrates her own life story, but the narration skews towards fantastic realism as she recalls memories of her birth that she couldn’t possibly have. As the show progresses, that omniscience becomes more uncanny as even the most minor characters are given a few minutes of Rue’s interpersonal narration, which allow the audience to understand the complexity of the characters.
Telling these characters’ stories through a close third-person perspective allows the audience to see these backstories without judgment. Instead, it relies heavily on the transformative moments of a character’s lived experience rather than remaining entirely objective like a news reporter would. Even though Rue doesn’t have access to these core memories, the narration is working separately from Rue’s character to create a surreal sense of uber-empathy, complicating how the viewer perceives each character’s place and interactions in the world around them.
The emotional realism of Euphoria
We can’t help but talk about the gorgeous cinematography of Euphoria and how it works for the story's narrative. Taking heavy influences from German Expressionism, Euphoria uses rich colors to translate a character’s emotional state of mind. Moments of blossoming love take on a dreamy yellow palette that evokes that sense of being in a fairytale the first time you fall in love, while a dark blue palette emphasizes the utter depths of depression.
Euphoria’s highly stylized choices evoke the character’s outsized feelings about their experiences. Sam Levinson favored interpretation of reality over realism to represent the overwhelming emotional reality of these teenagers’ lives. When you’re a teenager, all of your emotions are heightened, and specific feelings like love can make you feel like you are being bathed in pink light. Yes, these Euphoria teens have experienced a lot of moments that the everyday teen might not have faced, but it does not lessen that emotional, empathic reaction that the audience has.
But Euphoria doesn’t stop at its visual language. The show comments on how we are constantly reconstructing and understanding ourselves. These dispersed identities are more complex and nuanced than the fixed understanding people used to have of who they were. Euphoria is almost hyper-aware of this, exploring how each character presents a different mask for each interaction and exposes their desire to negotiate their own identity behind their bathroom doors. As a viewer, this can be painful or uncomfortable, but it forces us into a position where we can’t dismiss a character as a specific television archetype.
The show can be messy with its execution sometimes by treating the audience unfairly by repeating the same core detail of a character’s story too often or dismissing the character’s journeys completely in favor of other storylines, but the show is still evoking empathy and introspection.
Creating three-dimensional characters and using the visual and narrative language to highlight the complexities and overwhelming emotions of their lives creates a reaction that will captivate audiences. Whether that captivation is good or bad, you are still creating a project that encourages people to think about their unexamined habits and treatment of others in their own lives.
How can you evoke empathy in your own writing? Looking at Euphoria might be a good place to get inspired.