In defence of Cassie from Euphoria

A case for allowing characters of the unforgiving, relentless 'Euphoria' universe some grace – even the ones we don’t like.

by Roisin Lanigan
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07 February 2022, 3:32pm

I am a Cassie Howard apologist. Yes, even after last night’s episode of Euphoria. I sympathise with her, even if I don’t condone her choices, or even enjoy watching them most of the time. The problem with being a Cassie stan – as is the case with any of the characters in the Euphoria universe – is that every week the show tests that stance, pushing our problematic faves to new depths of debauchery and dubious morality. Cassie’s character in particular has practically become a meme in itself, with TikTok asking itself, week-on-week, how she can possibly fall any lower in our estimations. Of course, she does it anyway.

Some have speculated online that Cassie is a character foil for Rue, both of them addicts, with the show telling the story of their desperate needs. For Rue, the object of her addiction is opiates, for Cassie, it’s love. Rue’s backstory illustrated to the audience how her life up until now – her family trauma, a healthcare system that over-medicates its children – had primed her for addiction to drugs. In the same way, Cassie’s – growing up with an alcoholic mother and absent addict dad, being sexualised at a young age by older men – primed her for a dependency on male validation. But it’s undoubtedly harder to root for Cassie in spite of her flaws the way we rally for our flawed protagonist Rue to finally get her shit together.

Maybe that’s because Cassie embodies so many of the things we hate, or at least the things we ridicule; the things we collectively recognise are objectively incredibly annoying. Her problems pale in seriousness compared to the others – she’s not self-harming or addicted to opiates or dealing drugs or framing innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit – and so her struggles seem so cheesy, so silly. Cassie’s main dilemma is that she’s sleeping with her best friend’s ex-boyfriend. And she makes such a big deal about it. She falls into a depression spiral and treats her friends badly and drinks too much. She throws herself at a man who clearly doesn’t want her. She gets messy and throws up at a birthday party. When she’s exposed by Rue, she deflects the blame with panicked vindictiveness. Cassie is completely wrapped up in herself and her struggles, to the point where she doesn’t seem cognisant of the power and privileges she still possesses.

sydney sweeney as cassie euphoria

It’s easy to dislike her, I would argue, in moments like this, because it’s relatively easy to see ourselves (or at least our teenage selves) in her messiness. While the problems faced by characters like Cal Jacobs or Ashtray might be so far away from our own lives that we can safely say we’d do it all better and never let ourselves get in those dangerous situations, Cassie’s cheugy, messy emotionality and teenage angst are uncomfortably close. It’s no surprise then, that Cassie has become an emblem of equally painful-to-follow toxic female characters, like Fleabag or the unnamed, but similarly self-indulgent protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s book My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Cassie is in her Fleabag era, but unfortunately for her, there is no Hot Priest-shaped respite for viewers, only Nate Jacobs. And while we do get moments of being able to say “finally, go girl give us something”, like when Cassie walked out of an argument with Nate after saying she was crazier than Maddie, the show almost always instantly subverts them with having Cassie crawl back for more abuse. Annoying to watch? Perhaps. Realistic? From a lonely 17-year-old, sadly yes!

Even when she’s dealing with more serious problems, Euphoria is never far from reminding us of Cassie’s ridiculousness. When she asks Lexi whether she looks different, shortly after finding out she’s pregnant with McKay, Lexi becomes a stand-in for the audience, lashing out at her sister and pointing out how absurd she sounds.  For the audience, the dramatic irony is even more potent: we know that while Cassie is experiencing her own personal trauma, she was also totally unequipped to deal with McKay’s (who had just experienced a violent hazing at the hands of his fraternity brothers, and was coming to the crushing realisation that he would never be a professional athlete), which many viewers interpreted as an unwillingness to engage with it too.

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Euphoria_’s total disregard of character development for McKay – he appeared in the first episode of season two, and has been missing in action ever since – compared to its almost lecherous lingering over Cassie’s every move, has been singled out as one of the show’s many problematic recent decisions. And while online rumours have speculated over whether that was down to actor Algee Smith’s views on vaccinations, the fact remains that _Euphoria_’s choice to ignore McKay’s struggles in favour of Cassie’s make her OTT breakdowns even more painful to watch. That much is fair: but the fact audience complaints are directed at the fictional character herself, not the polarising showrunner behind those decisions (Sam Levinson), a little more unfair imo!

One constant criticism of Levinson’s writing and of Euphoria as a show, even amongst its hardcore fans, is how over the top and ridiculous it is. How its storylines would never happen in real life (at least not all at once, to one friendship group, in the middle of the school year), and how none of the characters would pass dress code, and how it doesn’t make sense that there are no uggos, only hotties. It’s true that much of the show’s audience has never picked up a suitcase of narcotics and carted it around town on a bicycle, or secretly recorded all of the times we’ve cheated on our suburban wife, or dropped out of school to care for our ex-drug baron grandmother. But you might have drunk too much at a party and thrown up. You probably debased and embarrassed yourself trying too hard for someone who didn’t want you, or ugly cried down the phone to people who think you’re being, honestly, a bit self-indulgent and annoying. Every week, Cassie acts out the kind of things you remember at two in the morning and cringe so hard at that it’s impossible to sleep. But it’s hard to admit you were more embarrassing than you currently are, and mortifying to watch someone else do the same, and so we’re like: No, Cassie fucking sucks.

And she does, of course, but I would argue no more so (and in some cases, a lot less so) than any other character in season two of Euphoria. In last night’s episode [spoilers here!] Cassie tries to get out of being exposed for sleeping with Nate by calling Rue a drug addict, after Rue loses her temper with Cassie’s naive attempt to reassure her she can take rehab “one day at a time”. Was that advice cringey? Yes! Is Cassie’s response cruel? Yes! Is it worse than Rue calling Leslie a bad mom? Or Laurie injecting a dopesick 17-year-old with morphine? In the case of the former, I would say sleeping with your best pal’s ex is dubiously worse. But the latter? I mean, probably not! Judging by the episode’s response today on Twitter and Reddit though, that sliding scale of perspective is not a popular excuse for Cassie’s increasingly dumb behaviour. But, I digress!

So yes, I am a Cassie apologist. But, I must caveat, no more so than I am an apologist for any of the other flawed, broken, ugly characters in the relentless, unforgiving universe that Sam Levinson created for them to live in. That’s the beauty of Euphoria. For all the criticism the series has received (some of it deserved, some of it TikTok hysteria) its success lies in its ability to make the audience empathise, even for a second, with a man like Cal Jacobs, who created a life of amorality and toxic masculinity to compensate for internalised homophobia. Or with a character like Jules, so lonely and hurt that she’ll cheat on the emotionally unavailable Rue with Elliott. Or Rue, so desperately addicted to drugs that she’ll attack her mother, sister and best friends. You might recoil at their choices but on some level you understand what drove them to those choices too.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that I will regret this appeal for moderation when it comes to burning Cassie Howard at the stake for crimes against humanity and friendship and fashion. There are still another four episodes of season two of Euphoria left, and with things looking bleaker than ever for the universe’s characters, who knows how much further she can sink. Sam Levinson has created a world with only two certainties: one, that we will complain every week without fail about his characterisation and then tune in to watch anyway. And two, that Nate Jacobs fucking sucks.

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