'Euphoria' Creator Breaks Down the HBO Drama's "Emotional" Finale, Teases Season 2

Euphoria-Publicity Still-H 2019
Eddy Chen/HBO

[This story contains spoilers from the Euphoria season one finale, "And Salt the Earth Behind You."]

Sunday night marked the end of season one for HBO's boundary-pushing drama Euphoria, wrapping up eight episodes with breakups, hookups, a drug relapse and — bet you didn't see this coming — an emotional musical number.

Set under the lights of winter formal, Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) continue their uncertain romantic relationship, with Rue suggesting that they run away together, only to back out once on the train and have Jules leave without her. Back at school, Nate (Jacob Elordi) and Maddy (Alexa Demie) try to make each other jealous by bringing separate dates to the dance, and end the episode with a discussion about their toxic relationship — which they may or may not continue. Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) has an abortion and breaks up with McKay (Algee Smith), Kat (Barbie Ferreira) and Ethan (Austin Abrams) finally admit their feelings for each other and Fezco (Angus Cloud), desperate to pay off the drug dealers blackmailing him, takes a dark turn with a high-risk robbery. The season ends with Rue relapsing after three months sober and a vocal performance by Zendaya in the new song "All for Us," which she performs among a crowd of dancers clad in her signature hoodie.

Following the dramatic finale, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Euphoria creator Sam Levinson — who has said he mined his own past for much of the show — about that final scene, Rue's fate and what to expect in season two.

How did that final scene come together?

I was writing as we were shooting, and I knew where Rue was headed and I knew what was going to happen, but it felt like in some ways seeing her relapse felt dark to me in a way that doesn't fully encapsulate the cycle and the madness of addiction — how you're thrown back into it and thrown out of it and it's dizzying and at times beautiful but also really fucking terrifying. It just felt like that was the right decision emotionally for the piece, so I had written it in there and it came down to the planning and coordination of it. A lot of credit is due to Ryan Heffington for his choreography, which is just absolutely magnificent and beautiful. I think the idea is in the back and forth of Rue getting shoved towards this mountain of bodies and the metaphor of that, and what it means to be an addict and also the people that we've lost to addiction and being pulled up that mountain. It came together in a way that was more emotional than I ever anticipated.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted Zendaya to do a musical performance at the end? What were those conversations like?

I had had a musical number written into one of the episodes earlier on just because I really love musicals and I thought we could do an interesting take on it given the nature of our show. Also Z is just so unbelievably fucking gifted that it felt like something that we had to tap into because it's an expression of the character and it is so much of this show and it becomes another way to enter her emotional experience. I remember after we shot the pilot I told her that I wanted to do a musical number and she was like, "Are you for real? Are you fucking with me?" And I was like, "No, no, I'm serious." And she was like, "With dancing and singing?" And I was like, "Kind of. I don't know if you're fully dancing but you're definitely singing." She was like, "Let me see it first. I'm curious how you're going to pull this off, but I trust if anyone is going to do it, you could do it in some way that feels right. I can't totally imagine it right now." And then just in terms of working with Labrinth and "All for Us" becoming this thematic thread of the temptation and also the guilt and the shame of addiction and the emotional turmoil that existed within the character of Rue, it just felt right for it to be that song. I talked to Lab about it and Lab had revised certain lyrics toward the end, and then we went into the studio and Z recorded it and just watching her was one of those moments where you're so taken aback and you realize there's absolutely no ceiling for her as an artist. She is so brilliantly talented and such a perfectionist. We had this funny moment where I said to her after watching her work on a certain line for a couple of hours, "By the way, never give me shit for lighting a scene for two hours ever again." She was like, "I don't give you shit!" But it was really remarkable to watch her do it and it was nice because I had one of those moments as a writer and director where you've got no responsibility, so you can just watch her creative process unfold. It's really exciting and beautiful.

What did you want to convey or want people to take away from that final scene?

I love what people's interpretations are of it. Rue's not dead, if that's the question. I thought it was interesting when I read a piece [about that theory] and loved the piece but I think Rue has a big journey ahead of her, and a tough one. It's not something I want to cut short because of who Rue means to me as someone who has battled with addiction and come out the other side, and because I think that there's a lot more to delve into and unpack in terms of the effects of addiction on Rue and on her family and those around her. The possibilities are endless in many ways.

So we can put those "Rue is dead" rumors to rest then?

Yes, Rue is not dead. That I can say for certain.

We also have the realization that Rue's hoodie was her dad's and that's why she wears it everywhere. What was the importance of that reveal?

I know Heidi [Bivens, costume designer] approaches costume design like a method actor in some way, so she likes backstory to clothing and she thinks about them as well, and I think Z early on had an idea that the hoodie that she wears had belonged to her father, so it was something that they had woven into Rue's story. We see her father wearing it in the hospital and in a few other moments, and as the show went on and I had written the final episode, I was very loose with how I wrote that memory sequence and that montage of her home life because I wanted to allow for as much life to seep into it. As we were shooting it, the slug line is, "Rue's father is wheeled out of the bedroom on a stretcher," and there was this moment where I realized that she should walk in and find that sweatshirt. We placed it there and it just unfolded in a natural way, the way that Z holds it to her face and smells it just killed me. For as rigid as our show is at times aesthetically and narratively, those are the moments where you just allow a certain freedom and how the actors exist in that space. It just felt like the right emotional bookend to that moment in her life, that she's wrapping herself in his hoodie and that being the color and representing the mourning and loss and connection to him. And Heidi had the idea to take that and push it further with the robes and the hoodies in the streets and create this unifying color palette that represents the loss that Rue has felt and the cost of addiction.

This episode featured an intense scene between Eric Dane and Jacob Elordi as father and son, and Jacob revealed he got a concussion from filming that scene. What was that like to shoot?

Reading that was the first time I had ever heard that. As I was reading that I was going, "Wait, what?" We take the safety of our actors very seriously and we had padded the entire floor with soft foam — that's not to say the fight wasn't physical, which it was — but we've got medics on set, we've got stunt coordinators, we have stunt doubles, we have a whole team of people that are looking out for our actors' safety in any number of these scenes that are physical. So when I read that I was a little bit stunned, I have to say, and something that I don't think he communicated to anybody on set because I would've heard about it. So I don't know, maybe he's still in character. (Laughs.) But that scene was a really frightening scene to shoot because Jacob has a way of being so inside of the character that it's really remarkable and there's so much mystery and pain and anger, and just seeing at the end of this journey, after seeing everything we know about the character, to see it all distilled in that one moment says everything it needed to say. But it was a physical and gut-wrenching scene to shoot.

Now that you're through the season, what reaction to it surprised you the most?

At the end of the day, just the simple fact that people are connecting to this show and the characters in it and are responding to it with such a level of empathy and love and excitement is something that is deeply moving to me. I've done other things, some of which have not been successful, so to make something that people seem to really connect to and really enjoy is beyond anything I could ever dream or wish of, and it makes me want to put my head right down and get back to work.

Have you thought about where you're going to take season two?

Yeah, I don't outline when I write because I get bored if I know too much, but I have a pretty clear sense of where it's headed. I'm excited to let the characters lead me in terms of once I start writing. I just follow the characters and allow it to take on its own world. But I've got a fairly clear sense of where it's going and I've already started writing a good portion of it.

Do you have a set number of seasons you'd like to do?

No, I think ultimately this show can exist in many forms and ultimately is about how it evolves. We need to continue to push it in terms of its ideas and characters and themes and also cinematically, and I think as long as we're growing as actors and filmmakers then the possibilities of it are endless. There are new characters who can be woven in, there's new trajectories, there's people who leave and come back, so there's not a set number of seasons that I have in mind but there's definitely stories that I want to tell, particularly about Rue and Rue's family, before we move onto other things.

Some characters like Lexi and Fezco didn't get as much screen time or episodes devoted to their backstory. How did you choose who to explore? And will you explore those characters more next season?

I wrote the role of Lexi for Maude [Apatow] because she is a genius, so I've always had a very specific plan for her character. And in terms of Fezco, the same holds true. I have the same wishes that I think the audience has because I'm just so enamored by Fezco. His story didn't belong in season one, it belongs in season two — and that's something that I knew pretty early on. I think what's interesting about the prologues and the design of the show, and knowing that we're making something for television that's released week to week, is I want the audience to make certain assumptions about certain characters and I want them to judge them in ways that ultimately get upended once we fully understand the complexity of their lives and what they've been through and how they got to where they are. I think the nature of growing up is the understanding that people are far more complicated than we initially assume and everybody is trying to overcome the little traumas or big traumas in their lives, and that journey of whether or not we overcome them is ultimately what shapes us as human beings. It's been interesting watching it unfold and I'm excited by people who are going to go back and watch it again knowing what they know now. And also going into season two, we know who all of these characters are, so the possibilities of it become pretty exciting from a writing and filmmaking standpoint.

Interview edited for length and clarity.