Humans Being is a column about finding meaning in popular movies, books, TV shows, and more. This is a free edition of the newsletter, but Atlantic subscribers get access to all of them. If you enjoy this essay, you should definitely subscribe to follow the adventure. You can also find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I knew a woman named Rue. Her real name isn’t Rue, but her name will be Rue here. We grew up together, and I remember feeling pride in being next to her as she walked me to the bus stop in the morning when I was in kindergarten. I remember pulling her ponytail in a fight when I was mad at her. I remember staring out the living-room window when she was upset and pretended to run away from home. I remember my fear when I saw her turn the corner and hide beyond a distant apartment building, and relief when I saw her walk back.
Years later, on my high-school graduation day, Rue was traveling from Pennsylvania to Michigan to watch me walk across the stage. The rest of our family had counted her out, but I knew my Rue would be there to prove them wrong. She was better than they gave her credit for, and loved me enough to drive across three states to see me after not having seen me in years. When guests were told to begin finding their seats, I grew angry at our family for their looks of sympathy. They believed that Rue wasn’t coming, and that she had lied when she told me her plans to attend.
“You know I wouldn’t miss your graduation,” Rue had told me on the phone.
I relayed the message to those who doubted her. “I just talked to her,” I told them after I hung up with Rue. “She’s literally in the car right now, on her way.”
Our family thought that was a lie too, even though they wouldn’t say it, and their kindness only made me angrier with them. They didn’t understand: She might not show up for them, but she would show up for me. I would shoot our family an I-told-you-so glance before hugging my Rue and walking across the stage.
I walked across the stage, but Rue never arrived. When I called her after, she didn’t answer the phone no matter how many times I called. Yet I wanted to scream at our family when they whispered to each other that they knew Rue wasn’t coming, and said things to me like, “You know how Rue is.” I wasn’t mad at Rue. I was mad at them. They hadn’t even believed in her.
I didn’t speak with Rue for a few years, until my junior year of college. She had pretended not to remember missing my high-school graduation—or maybe she actually didn’t remember—but I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind the lying, leeching, or stealing either. I had already planned her redemption arc: I would graduate from college, our family would doubt her, the whole scene would replay, but this time Rue would arrive. And most of my plan worked: I graduated from college, our family doubted her, and the whole scene replayed. But Rue never arrived.
That’s when I gave up on my Rue.
I think of her whenever I watch Euphoria, HBO’s drama about a drug-dependent girl and her struggle to get sober. She’s the actual Rue, and the series follows her relationship with a girl named Jules and the type of high-school drama that makes even the worldliest adults wonder if our struggles were ever that bad—if teens nowadays really have that much sex, do that many drugs, or are that violent. Euphoria is an anxiety-inducing nightmare for anyone who wants to believe in the future or that their children will be okay.
And yet, Euphoria is counterintuitively hopeful. Beneath its veneer of darkness and cynicism is an earnestness that gives you someone to root for: You want to believe in Rue and are desperate for her to succeed, no matter how many times she breaks your heart. And she will break your heart. Euphoria is sad. Bingeing the series in the winter probably comes with an 80 percent chance of depression. It’s like watching BoJack Horseman, but with less comedy to soften the sadness you can feel from its characters. For fans of The Wire, Euphoria is as if Bubbles were given his own TV show, and you follow his lows wherever they take you. It leaves you feeling full of love, desperate for triumph, and grateful that TV this good can exist. Euphoria is simply one of the best dramas on television.
And its best episode is “Euphoria Special Episode Part 1: Rue,” which you should watch, at minimum. You can come into the episode without knowing a single plot detail about the series, so it’s the perfect entry, especially for those wary of the sex, drug abuse, and violence of the main seasons. Rather than the show’s typical drama, the stand-alone episode is one of a two-part series—one featuring Rue, the other featuring her partner, Jules—that slows things down to a simple conversation between two people in a diner.
Sitting across the table from Rue is her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Ali, and the push and pull of their conversation is a title fight—in my left corner, a hardened, 54-year-old self-proclaimed crackhead who is desperate to do good to atone for his past, and in my right corner, a 17-year-old self-proclaimed piece of shit who feels life is so bleak that being high is the only way to find the will to be alive. It’s thoughtful, painfully beautiful, and the best hour of television I’ve watched in years.
“You didn’t come out of the womb an evil person,” Ali tells Rue at the start of their conversation.
You, Rue, came out of the womb a beautiful baby girl, who unbeknownst to her had a couple of wires crossed. So when you tried drugs for the first time, it set something off in your brain that’s beyond your control. And it isn’t a question of willpower. It’s not about how strong you are. You’ve been fighting a losing game since the first day you got high … But the hardest part of having the disease of addiction, aside from having the disease, is that no one sees it as a disease. They see you as selfish. They see you as weak. They see you as cruel. They see you as destructive. They think, ‘Why should I give a fuck about her if she doesn’t give a fuck about herself or anybody else? Why does this girl deserve my time, my patience, my sympathy? If she wants to kill herself, let her.’ All reasonable questions and responses. But luckily, you aren’t the only person on planet Earth who has this disease. There happens to be people like me, who understand that you aren’t all that bad.
Hearing Ali talk about our perception of drug addicts, I thought back on my relationship with my own Rue with discomfort. The decision to cut a drug-dependent person from your life is a personal one, with as many different circumstances as there are addicts; in my case, though, the discomfort comes from the distance between which character I would hope to be on a show like Euphoria and who I’m choosing to be in real life.
It’s like watching characters in a zombie movie and saying that I would make better decisions, with an unearned arrogance from the comfort of my couch: I would be the brave character, or the resourceful one, or the determined one. I would be the supportive one. And if I were on Euphoria, I would be the adult who loves Rue enough to believe in her.
But I wouldn’t be. I cut my Rue from my life. I made a decision years ago and never looked back. She’s selfish, weak, cruel, and destructive. Why should I give a fuck about her if she doesn’t give a fuck about herself or anybody else? Why does she deserve my time, my patience, my sympathy? As Ali put it, if she wants to kill herself, let her.
I became the family members that I was so angry with the day she missed my high-school graduation. They didn’t believe in Rue, and I don’t believe in her either. But when I watch Euphoria, I can’t help but reconsider. And Rue is worth that much.
God, this was a sad one. And on my birthday, no less! If you read this far and want to celebrate my being born, you’re more than welcome to preorder my memoir (you can find it on Amazon, IndieBound, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble), add it to your Goodreads bookshelf, or send me an email at email@example.com just to wish me a happy birthday.
My favorite email this week came from Chuck, who simply wrote, “Euphoria was depressing. I can’t wait to catch up with season two.” My thoughts exactly, Chuck. That’s the TL;DR of Humans Being this week.
This week’s book giveaway is The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage. It was adapted into a Netflix movie that’s currently 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and will win a ton of awards this year. If you’re interested, send me an email just telling me what you’re currently watching, and I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun.