If you’ve heard anything about the newest HBO drama Euphoria, you’ve probably heard about the trigger warnings. The show, starring former Disney starlet-turned “It” girl Zendaya, boasts graphic sexual scenes, drug use, violence, and because it’s HBO, heavy nudity. While the plot centers around its unreliable narrator Rue (Zendaya), its ensemble cast stands out in its ability to explore many different facets of the Gen Z psyche. The last week honed in on resident jock Nathan, played by Jacob Elordi of Netflix’s The Kissing Booth, and his fixation with so-called chivalry. Nate is the type of guy to yell obscenities at a scrawny girl on her bike while turning around and beating someone up for doing the same to his girlfriend. Most of his actions are fueled by testosterone and shame.
This shame primarily comes from the fact that Nathan has been aware of his father’s fetishes since he was eleven years old. His dad, a.k.a. DominantDaddy on Grindr, frequently rendezvouses with younger men and women in shady hotel rooms, filming the sordid interactions and keeping the evidence locked in his desk for later viewing. Nate has never addressed this practice with his dad, and instead harbors a latent disgust for all forms of male sexuality. He avoids glimpses of genitalia in the locker room, looks down on gender-nonconforming women, and shields his girlfriend obsessively from any potential threats—besides him, of course. Like any good villain, Nate believes that what he’s doing is right. He frames his violence and possessiveness as dutiful, even doting, and his girlfriend Maddy loves him all the more for it.
His behavior when he’s not around his girlfriend, of course, follows a different pattern. In a familiar twist to anyone who knows teenage boys like Nathan well enough, Nate brags to his friends about all the rough sex he has and the women who have sent him nudes, feeling free to share them even to those who don’t ask. He calls women whores, sluts, bitches. The misogyny is so overt it almost feels played out. In both situations, however, Nate calls the shots, whether he’s a benevolent dictator or just, well, a dick.
Nate’s father’s double-life instilled a need for control in him, as well as a fundamental distrust in just about anyone other than himself. Unlike other TV jocks, Nate’s power trips come with layers of unresolved trauma. His calculating nature also sets him apart from the average 'roidy football player. He’s not just aggressive; he’s psychopathic. The first episode showed Nate flipping out in a fit of anger after seeing his ex-girlfriend with another man. The second episode showed the painstaking, elaborate lengths Nate went to exact his revenge—not a crime of passion, but a professional hit job.
In this way, Euphoria complicates tired bully tropes. Even the overbearing father figure has been done before, but a father with a history of sexual abuse and perversion lies well enough outside the teen soap norm. Elordi has spoken out about his character and how he plans on subverting the typical jock archetype.
“For me, it was really important because I would never play another jock onscreen if it wasn't more,” Elordi told The Hollywood Reporter. “I've read a lot of stuff that's like "the jock, the jock," so I'm excited for people to see it. It's important to me because in the term "stereotypical jock" and "toxic masculinity," that kind of character can get written off straight away, the same way as that kid can get written off in real life. If you are that person, all of a sudden you're always that guy, and no one has ever really taken a beat to think about where that person comes from.”
This approach characterizes much of the show, taking the standard teen woes and magnifying them to an analytical degree. The result has all of the melodrama of Degrassi or Riverdale with the gritty surrealism of Skins. Euphoria, however, grounds itself with empathy for its characters. Nate is highly dislikable, toxically masculine, and unquestionably fear-inducing. Knowing his father allows you to see the making of the monster. The one-note bully crystallizes into more than just a homophobe crushing his own sexuality or a rebel without a cause. Nate is scary not just because of who he is, but because of what made him that way. Only two episodes into the first season, we’re excited to see what’s in the future for Nate and whether the bully will get redemption.
“Euphoria” airs 10 PM Sundays on HBO.