At the end of season one, Rue backed out of running away with Jules, but the special episode opens with a fantasy imagining what if she had taken that leap. The two are in a cute apartment, waking up happy together. Kisses, encouragement, cuddles … and then Jules leaves. Rue takes drugs from under the bed and snorts them all, the camera panning up to the mirror and then revealing the fantasy. Rue is in a diner, and she’s not with Jules, she’s with Ali (Domingo), her sponsor. For the next 55 minutes, the two simply talk, Ali pulling at why Rue relapsed and what happens next without pat resolutions or false praise.
The conversation between Ali and Rue circles her addiction from multiple angles without feeling overly scripted. It’s like a great stage play, and it allows the two performers to really shine. Domingo is an incredible character actor who imbues Ali with just the right amount of earned wisdom and realistic skepticism. He’s seen it all. As he tells Rue, she’s playing pool with Minnesota Fats. She may think she’s done horrible things, but he’s got her beat. And yet what’s so essential about the success of this episode is how much Domingo understands not to talk down to Rue. He’s fallible too. We all are. His addiction has given him insight and experience, but he’s keenly aware of the imperfections of us all. This is just a conversation—not a conclusion or a morality lesson. Things may change after it. They may not. And the ending of the hour is wonderfully open.
The conversation, expertly written by Sam Levinson, goes unexpected and incredibly moving places, especially for anyone who has ever dealt with depression and addiction. It touches on how hard it can be, especially for a teenager, to see the future. Teens have a habit of thinking they’ve ruined their lives before they even turn 20. What “Part 1: Rue” really gets right is how much this kind of focus on mistakes and general self-hatred can lead to stasis. If we think we’re irredeemable or that we won’t make it to 20 then there’s no reason to change. Why make an effort if you’re not planning on sticking around? The future that we think we don’t deserve is impossible to fight into existence. It’s such a smart script.