Media portraying complicated relationships and a myriad of darker emotions, such as jealousy and obsession, have grown to rank #1 in our watch lists. While some shows take seasons to build an ordinary but sinister character that viewers are torn between loving and hating, “You” pulls it off with twisted confidence.
Netflix’s psychological thriller follows Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgley, a serial obsessor in his mid-30s who hides behind the guise of an awkwardly charming and thoughtful boyfriend. The story chronicles his obsessions with a series of women, which blossom after just one encounter. Even his expressions of love – “everythingship” and “I wolf you” – foreshadow and fetishize the all-consuming transition of his lovers into victims. But, there are twists and a twist to end all twists, and every season Joe meets a woman who mirrors his violent nature. Ironically, Joe rationalizes the obsessive women into repulsive antagonists, portraying himself as “the better man” to justify eventually murdering them.
After its second season, I remember my friends describing how nauseating the show is and myself responding with, “it’s hard to keep watching.” Yet, when the third season premiered in January of 2020, we watched it until the end, within two days. It seems that feeling infuriated with every twist and dark humor is central to the “You” experience.
While Penn Badgley’s unsettling, dark-eyed gaze and obsessive character drives the series, the internal monologue keeps us gripped. He uses the second person, addressing his victims as “you” to project his own fantasies and preconceived notions onto other characters. This intimate view of the world through Joe’s eyes and the closeness that extends beyond the characters to the audience being addressed as “you” reframes relatable romantic tropes into nightmarish intrusions. The title and the show speak about us and to us, causing us to compare our own toxic behaviors to those exaggerated in the series, such as stalking on social media and feeling compelled to check our partners’ phones to satiate our trust issues.
Despite Joe’s lack of remorse for his sociopathic actions and delusions of love, his quick-witted persona and conventional good looks make him likable, coaxing us into empathizing with him – and falling into his manipulative trap. Furthermore, the flaws of his victims make his actions justifiable to himself and coerce us into giving him another chance at redemption (more than once). We also see moments of kindness and support from Joe when he helps his young neighbors escape their turbulent childhoods.
“You” highlights the grey areas between good and bad, leaving us conflicted about who we want to root for versus who it is ethical to be rooting for. Our love-hate dilemma for this problematic protagonist seduces us into being Joe’s victims, unable to condemn him to rightful punishment, but also Joe himself, obsessed and unable to stop watching. Lucky (or unlucky) for us, the fourth installment of this messy show is returning, still every bit as sinister, stinging, and willing to screw with its eagerly waiting audience.
Art by Tanvi Kumar