‘Euphoria’ Review: Eric Dane as Cal Is the Show at Its Best

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can,” the Jan. 30 episode of “Euphoria.”

At the risk of writing too personally about a show that’s all about personal upheaval, I had wondered whether parenthood might turn me off “Euphoria.”

I was an admirer of the show’s first season, which aired in 2019, but after becoming a parent in 2020 I suspected that the show’s depiction of American teenagerhood as a broken-down garden of temptation might not intrigue me as it had once before. Certainly, I’ve felt an almost visceral sense of rejection of various works of art in which children are placed in peril over the past two years or so. And two special episodes that aired between the show’s seasons failed to compel me, leaning as they did almost entirely on style and flash. (Yes, “Euphoria’s” always stylish and flashy, but these seemed to be using flair for its sake, not to bolster what the show’s narrative is doing.) I wondered, after the second of these, whether the show had run out of things to say, or if I’d been the one who’d changed.

I shouldn’t have worried. In its new season, “Euphoria” has asserted itself as a work of startling emotional power, a wellspring of visual and narrative ingenuity that is among the very best things on television. And its most recent episode — a showcase for actor Eric Dane — suggests the unboundedness of the show’s ambition, sprawling beyond the doors of high school to make a statement about the impossibility of human connection.

On this week’s episode, called “You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can,” we were shown a flashback to the personal history of Cal, whom we’ve only known as played by Dane, as an adult. Dane’s character is the father of Nate (Jacob Elordi), the feckless and violent lothario of Euphoria High; Cal has passed on to his son all of his worst qualities. We’ve seen Cal through his impact on others — his iciness at home, the bleakness and alienation from his own desires that makes a sexual encounter with him so unsettling for Jules (Hunter Schafer).

It was not always this way: In high school, Cal was sunny and pleasant, optimistic in a way basically no character on “Euphoria” ever allows themself to be. As played by Elias Kacavas, Cal was in the early process of figuring out who he was and what he wanted. A scene in which he and his best friend and wrestling buddy Derek (Henry Eikenberry) celebrate just how well their lives are going with a night of drinking and dancing breaks into a moment of affection that feels euphoric, in the good way. The pair’s path across the dance floor and toward a kiss is filled both with the pleasure of discovering oneself and the accompanying, deeper joy of wondering just how much good news might lie ahead.

It was not to be. Cal learns his girlfriend is pregnant and his burgeoning, just-decoded understanding of himself as a gay man is effectively deleted. We’re left to fill in the blanks on the rest of his life to the point we first met him; he seems, lost in a fatherhood he never wanted and an identity that doesn’t fit, to have committed to the sense of “euphoria” that’s meant by the show’s title, an annihilating pursuit of hollow pleasure to paper over what’s been lost, or what never was.

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Among the most potent cases made by “Euphoria” is that one can ultimately never escape oneself. The show’s characters set out to change their lives — shifting romantic partners, ways of being, approaches to sobriety — but end up, again and again, where they started. (The fact that Zendaya, the series lead, plays an addict who keeps deciding not to bother getting sober epitomizes this.) Cal, a generation older, is wiser than his son’s cohort in precisely one way: He knows he’s stuck. And his aggressive break with reality, and with his family, feels less like an attempt to meaningfully change his life than to burn it down. Dane is simply spectacular as he, vision clouded by drink, explores the contours of a memory, then burns through it, playacting violence with the other bar patrons out of an inability to allow himself to contemplate what might have been for any longer.

What follows — an abrasive scene in which a drunk Cal confronts his entire family, urinating on the floor before walking out — is a part of “Euphoria’s” characteristic grandeur, an element of the show that alienates as many viewers as it attracts. The show “Euphoria” most calls to mind is the 2015-19 drama “Mr. Robot.” Both of these series are eager to try out purposefully heady visual and narrative ideas in order to convey the mental state of characters who were not just depressed but addled by their inability to follow the script that had been laid out for them. In the late 2010s, for “Mr. Robot’s” protagonist, that meant an anhedonic rejection of life under corporate America. Today, for “Euphoria’s” characters, it’s a frustration that every feeling cannot be felt at once. The show’s big swings — its season-opening depiction, for instance, of a character’s history with the drug trade — strike this viewer as an attempt to be wildly open to possibility, to smear every color of paint onto the palette as a way to, eventually, discover within the chaos something small and true.

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As such, I found Cal’s telling-off of his family to be not merely a sorrowful culmination of where the character has been but an astonishing piece of writing and direction (both of those by creator Sam Levinson) as well as acting. Out of ideas for himself, Cal attempts to bring low his wife and sons, but he walks out the door of his house no closer to fulfillment than he was when he stumbled in. This, the show tells us, is the future for at least some of the students at Euphoria High — a remove from themselves and what they want so complete that humiliating their families seems like a reasonable response, or at least worth a try. It’s expansive, and for all the show’s indulgence of teenage subjectivity and roiling emotions, it feels adult.

As a parent — and as a person in the world — “Euphoria” often horrifies me. I wouldn’t want what these characters live through to be suffered by myself, my child, or by anyone! But the show isn’t using its tragedies simply to give us something to leer at. It’s telling a story of the process of trying, in moments of desperate clarity, to see oneself fully, through the haze of all the distractions we create. And Dane’s indication of just how far beyond high school that process lasts has made for a high-water mark for an exceptional series.

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