Though it may have humble beginnings on the Lifetime channel, the show You has become something of a Netflix phenomenon. It’s not difficult to understand the draw, given its somewhat unique take on psychological thrillers. However, despite the show’s apparent success, You does have its share of problems, some of which span beyond writing, direction, or production. Some of its problems are more… personal.
The story of ‘You’
The first season of You is based fairly closely on the novel of the same name by author Caroline Kepnes. Both follow Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a simple New York bookstore manager with a not so simple love life. The second season continues Joe’s story beyond the bounds of the source material, taking Joe to the wildly different environment of Los Angeles. What binds the two seasons, and the novel, is a titillating and twisted tale of obsessive, manipulative, extremely toxic, and occasionally homicidal behavior all told through the sympathetic eyes of Mr. Goldberg.
Why ‘You’ Works
You is by no means alone on the Lifetime network. The network showcases many such thrillers following an obsessive man preying on an unsuspecting young woman. What makes You unique, and ultimately more interesting is the dramatic shift in perspective. Rather than follow the victimized young woman struggling to escape a predator, the show instead blurs the lines of protagonist and antagonist by letting us explore the mind of the obsessive persecutor. We are given a front row seat to Joe’s every sinister instinct, sociopathic thought, and disturbing attempt to gain control over another human being.
The Problem With ‘You’
As previously stated, You has an uncanny ability to give us a window into the thought processes of a sociopath. Through hearing Joe’s inner monologue the viewer is forced to follow Joe as he considers, understands, and rationalizes each horrifying decision. The show is so good at this, in fact, that there are many moments where we may find ourselves rationalizing, and even rooting for Joe in his relentless pursuit. The first season of You ,which was produced by Lifetime, actually does a reasonably good job of occasionally reminding what Joe truly is. He’s a monster who is willing to rationalize truly sinister acts as long as it serves his ends. In an interview with The New York Times, Penn Badgley himself explained the nuance of Joe’s portrayal in the show:
“..to the degree that we are making him romantic and charming and glamorous, we are still being like ‘Yeah, but he kills four people…'”Penn Badgley
The problem with You becomes more apparent in the second season, produced by Netflix, when the show’s opinion of Joe seems to soften. Joe is portrayed as more of a victim, forced into a city that he hates and a life that he didn’t choose. In addition the people who find themselves on the receiving end of his homicidal rage are portrayed as monsters themselves. The issue with this softening is that it makes it easier for you to see Joe as a good, even heroic, figure when his motives and methods remain manipulative, malicious, and monstrous.
Are You the Problem?
Perhaps the most disturbing part of You has nothing to do with the show itself. As the show has gained viral status a vocal segment of the fandom has emerged. This group of fans seems to have glossed over the more toxic parts of Joe’s personality and focused on his dedication, physical attractiveness, and the emotion he calls “love”. Of course Joe’s version of “love” is less about romantic devotion and more about controlling the object of his desires.
This exposes a larger problem in our society. Portrayals of romance in popular media are often of less than healthy relationships, and yet those portrayals are consumed by impressionable people who can confuse these fictional narratives with what actual healthy relationships should be. A prime example of this is the film Love Actually, which has achieved “classic romantic comedy” status, but is filled with infatuation, promiscuity, and infidelity.
Even more frightening is the way some have excused Joe’s monstrous behavior in You simply because they find him attractive. This phenomenon is not limited to fictional characters either. When The Rolling Stone printed a front page photo of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that made him look vaguely rockstar-ish, there was a small but extremely dedicated group of young women who came to his defense, even tweeting things like this:
“They really put jahar on the cover of Rolling Stones, wowowowow lol he looks hot though,”
Make no mistakes. I quite enjoy You. The first season is an intriguing and layered study in toxic relationships from a perspective we don’t often see, and while less interesting, the second season still has enough surprise and suspense to make for an enjoyable watch. My issue begins when the viewer stops questioning what they see. When they take Joe’s perspective as gospel and forget to ask themselves “why,” they may find their sympathies heading to a dangerous place.
Some may read this article and feel tempted to jump to Joe’s defense. If so, just ask yourself one question. What if Joe was after you? If you still don’t see why Joe is a villain, I will leave you with a quote from the personal twitter account of Penn Badgley on the subject:
“Then we got nothing left.
‘Thanks 2019 but we’ll take the check plz’
– Humanity”Penn Badgley
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