The hit HBO series Euphoria is a boundary-pushing show. Depicting the “real” lives of teenagers, it is a contemporary version of Degrassi and Skins. Some, especially parents, worry that Euphoria’s graphic depictions of substance abuse, domestic violence, and a myriad of other complex issues are too heavy and too inappropriate for young audiences. What is undebatable about the show is its popularity: 5.1 million people watched the sixth episode of Euphoria’s most recent season even though it aired during the Super Bowl.
One of the most compelling characters in the series is Jules Vaughn. Jules is a recent transfer to East Highland, the school that the main characters attend. In the first season of the show, Jules is the love interest of the protagonist, Rue who is fresh out of rehab. Rue latches onto Jules almost immediately, placing her on a pedestal and laying an offering of her sobriety at Jules’ feet. The codependent relationship that develops between them provides valuable insight on the role compassion can play in interpersonal relationships.
The episode “F*ck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob” was a standalone episode and gave us a more intimate look at the character of Jules. It focuses solely on her, exploring the character’s past and retelling many events from the first season from her perspective.
The episode begins in a therapist’s office. Jules slouches on the couch opposite her therapist; her ragged blonde hair and thousand-yard stare speak volumes before she even opens her mouth. Here, the audience learns more about Jules’ family life, a topic that has barely been touched on previously. Jules’ father is shown intermittently throughout the first season, a supportive but seemingly distant figure. He never appears outside their house, a sparsely decorated split-level home always filmed in a gray-blue light. We now learn that her mother lost custody of Jules because of her own struggle with alcoholism. This information adds a new dimension to Jules’ relationship with Rue. Jules’ anger towards her mother in this scene is palpable, forcing the audience to grapple with the question: how does being deprived the love of one addict differ from receiving the love of another?
The answer is compassion. Jules explains to her therapist that Rue looks at her in the way that “a mom sees you before you’re anything. And, like, loves you just for that. And all you have to do is just, like, sit there and exist.” What Jules experiences from Rue is the type of unflinching, raw acceptance she never experienced from her mother. Jules responds differently to Rue’s love precisely because the compassion she is shown inspires her to reciprocate this tender-heartedness. She understands that at a very human level, Rue is doing the best she can. Jules sticks around, even as she becomes more and more tangled in the chaos that is Rue’s sobriety, because she is able to see Rue as a person and not as an overdose.
As important as it is to practice compassion for others, it is equally necessary to practice self-compassion. Jules tells her therapist that the compassion she experienced from Rue has helped her to re-conceptualize her identity. She explains that “most girls, when you first talk to them, they, like, automatically analyze and compare themselves to you. And then, you know, they search for where you fit in their hierarchy, and then they treat you accordingly.” Her love for Rue, on the other hand, is completely absent of any rivalry formed in the pursuit of male attention. Rue’s lack of judgment allows Jules, who is transgender, to conceptualize her gender differently. She expresses that what it meant to her to be a woman has always been framed in the context of men, to her detriment: “I feel like my entire life, I’ve been trying to conquer femininity, and somewhere along the way, I feel like femininity conquered me.”
Perhaps even more telling than Jules’ realization is the way in which her therapist responds. She observes that Jules harshly berates herself for not seeing these patterns sooner. This comment is especially important because it encapsulates the relationship between self-criticism and self-compassion. When Jules is finally able to feel more acceptance of her gender and how she relates to it, she immediately turns against her past self. By looking at this new concept through a lens of self-hatred and anger, Jules is unable to fully feel the joy it could potentially inspire. By challenging her reflexive self-criticism, Jules’ therapist encourages her to see herself more compassionately.
For all its faults and criticisms, Euphoria has tackled a multitude of issues in a way that contributes to its immense popularity, particularly among teenagers. Although other plotlines which feature more dramatic action and controversies often take center stage in conversations about the show, Jules’ character can lend a wealth of understanding about what it means to practice compassion for yourself and others.