As long as there have been shows, there have been shows-within-shows. William Shakespeare popularized the trope with his comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew, and writers have continued to play with contained narratives ever since. See Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, for example, and the movies Rushmore, Shakespeare in Love, and Birdman – to name just a few.
This construction of an alternative reality can serve a variety of purposes. Perhaps its creator is striving to make sense of their life and surroundings, perhaps they are attempting to rewrite history, or maybe they are seeking to glean something about their peers from their reactions. Often, the play within the play does a lot of the legwork on its own: it can act as a foreshadowing of impending events (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or as a self-fulfilling prophecy(see Black Swan).
In the latest installment of Euphoria (Season 2, Episode 7: “The Theater and Its Double”), Lexi Howard (Maude Apatow) finally stages Our Life, a play that she has been working on for the majority of Season 2. The play looks at the lives of her friends and family, and, given the absolute social pandemonium that has ensued this season, this was destined to be a risky endeavor — to say the least.
Lexi doesn’t shy away from revealing her friends’ deepest, ugliest secrets. She shows her best friend, Rue (Zendaya), doing cocaine at her father’s funeral, and outlines Rue’s years-long struggle with opioids. She also shows her sister Cassie’s (Sydney Sweeney) self-destructive fixation on being loved, and her eventual affair with her best friend Maddy’s (Alexa Demie) ex-boyfriend, Nate (Jacob Elordi). Speaking of which, Nate ends up getting the most pernicious treatment in Our Life (so far), when he is depicted in the throes of a homoerotic orgy with his football team. This causes Nate to snap and leave the theater, as a great deal of his character arc has comprised of him grappling with his father’s repressed homosexuality, and Nate’s resulting homophobia.
Okay, so Lexi effectively stirs the pot with her play. But what purpose does Our Life serve within the larger scope of Euphoria? When Lexi first announces that she’s going to write and stage a play, she explains that she is doing so because she has lived the majority of her life in her head, and she wants to finally take an active role in her own life. Indeed, it is not uncommon for artists to use fiction as a method of taking control of their personal narratives, and constructing a world they actually want to exist in. For comparison, look at the star-crossed lovers of Moulin Rouge! who live out their forbidden romance in a musical.
At first, that’s precisely what Our Life is: a romanticized version of Lexi’s life in which she is (finally) the protagonist. In recreating moments of her life that made her feel small — like when guys started to fawn over Cassie instead of her — Lexi affords herself a voiceover and stands directly under the spotlight.
But Our Life does more than simply allow Lexi to live out the life that she is unable to actually lead. It also serves as a Rorschach test for its audience. Similar to when Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts on a play for the king and queen with one purpose: to confirm his suspicion that the new king, his uncle, murdered the old king, his father. The story on stage depicts a man killing a king and marrying the queen, and while it plays out, Hamlet surveys the audience’s reactions. But this idea doesn’t quite go as planned in Hamlet. In “The Theater and Its Double,” however, audience reactions offer invaluable insight into Euphoria’s characters.
Much of Our Life centers around Rue and her struggles with addiction. In the weeks leading up to the play, Lexi worries that the play will upset people, that even though her intentions are good, her friends will be resentful that their dirty laundry is being aired for the entire high school to see. And since Rue is in some ways the centerpiece of Our Life, it stands to reason that she, of all people, would be the one who is upset seeing herself — and her drug addiction — on stage.
But Rue’s reaction is the opposite. She smiles and laughs and cheers Lexi on, which suggests that she has the self-awareness to take ownership of her choices and accept that they are hurting other people. A narrative that often surrounds addicts is that they are unable to come face-to-face with their wrongdoings. But, watching her watch Lexi’s play, we realize this isn’t the case with Rue, and that she cares about others more than she might seem to.
A less desirable reaction comes from Nate. When the orgy number commences, he promptly storms out of the auditorium. Cassie chases after him, only for him to tell her to pack her belongings and move out of his house. Where Rue is comfortable seeing herself on stage as it allows her to own her choices, Nate having a mirror held up to him causes him to lash out. And also to blow up a relationship that clearly only serves to make him feel better about himself — that is until he gets a good look at it. It isn’t necessarily the contents of the play that trouble Nate, then, but the fact that he finally has no choice but to reflect on himself in a way that he cannot control.
More than anything, Lexi’s play affords the characters of Euphoria the opportunity to take a hard look at themselves, for better or for worse. All told, this is something they haven’t been able to do yet. When Cassie is finally forced to look at her betrayal of her best friend in the context of their years-long best friendship, she is so troubled by it that she has to leave the theater. And when you have a mirror held up to your true self, you really only have two true choices: make a serious change, or lean into who you are more than ever before. To be continued.
Related Topics: Euphoria