Last night’s episode of the HBO TV series Euphoria featured a smattering of the usual—teens behaving badly, acting in self-destructive ways, and making each other cry, for reasons that don’t entirely make sense. Alongside it all, in a surprising turn, art history also played a starring role in the episode, which, in its first few minutes, featured reenactments of scenes borrowed from some of the most famous paintings ever made.
Titled “You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can,” the episode’s opening shows Rue (Zendaya), the show’s protagonist, musing on how hard she has fallen for Jules (Hunter Schafer), her girlfriend. “I don’t think you understand how much I love Jules,” Rue says in voiceover before a series of images intended to recall masterpieces that hang in the world’s top museums scrolls by.
There’s a shot where Schafer is posed as Venus from Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (ca. 1485), often regarded as among the most important works of the Italian Renaissance, and then there’s an image meant to recall René Magritte’s The Lovers (1928), a Surrealist painting in which two people whose faces are covered by a cloth appear to lock lips. The sequence culminates in a shot of Schafer posed à la Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (1943), wherein the painter appears wearing a traditional Tehuana costume whose flowery headdress sprouts tendrils. In that painting, Kahlo is shown with a picture of her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, on her forehead. (Kahlo began the painting in 1940, the year the couple remarried after a short divorce, in one attempt to win Rivera back.) In Euphoria, Jules is shown with an image of Rue on her forehead.
Sam Levinson, the show’s creator and the writer and director of last night’s episode, seemingly wants this montage to serve as a means to subvert standards of female beauty. The Botticelli painting has been traditionally viewed as a paragon of femininity in Europe and beyond. Kahlo, on the other hand, looked nothing like that Venus—she often proudly wore a unibrow in flagrant disregard for the era’s beauty standards for women. In drawing on these two paintings, and then in situating Jules, a trans woman, in imagery traditionally held by cisgender women, Levinson is attempting to complicate images that have become codified in mainstream culture, opening them to new and more complicated re-readings that would seem to suit the characters of Euphoria, many of whom are queer and non-white.
But this is Euphoria, after all, and visual flourishes are often put before sense and meaning. Among a litany of other questions, one could ask how it is kosher for Schafer to cosplay as a woman of color, or why these three paintings were suited to this sequence and not other works that might have made more sense (a photograph by the gender-bending Surrealist artist Claude Cahun, perhaps). As is often the case with this series, it’s best not to think too hard about any of it.