What is the most dangerous kind of person out there? One who forces their way into your door? One who charms themselves over the threshold, before the mask drops and they lunge? YOU posits a different, more terrifying threat: someone who is utterly convinced that they are best for you.
YOU is a psychological thriller series on Netflix that originally premiered on Lifetime in 2018.
The show, starring Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, has rapidly gained a cult following for its unsettling yet compelling take on modern relationships and the dark underbelly of obsession.
Adapted from the novels by Caroline Kepnes, and developed by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, YOU takes audiences on a twisted journey through love, obsession, and murder, all while provocatively asking, “What would you do for love?”
What Is YOU About?
At the heart of the series is Joe Goldberg, a seemingly likeable bookstore manager with a penchant for literature and classic novels. However, Joe is far from ordinary; he is a serial stalker and murderer.
An intensely obsessive young man, when he becomes infatuated with a woman, he will stop at nothing to make her fall for him, employing all means at his disposal, including social media stalking, eavesdropping, and even murder.
We the audience can hear his constant thought process in voiceover which gives rise to the classic ‘unreliable narrator’ syndrome. Sure, everything he says and does makes perfect sense in his head.
But after a short conversation with a pretty young woman in his shop he is quickly scouring her social media and placing himself in places he knows she will be.
In the first season, aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail, Countdown) is the object of his focus. She’s dating a shallow and pretentious chump who cheats on her but she’s too weak to turn him down.
Her friends are rich, cackling, and patronising with careers like social media influencer or just plain trust fund living. And her writing is going nowhere.
She’s a hot mess and Joe is determined to take their one pleasant conversation and construct a ‘meet cute’ – just like the movies.
He says to himself that he’s the best thing for her, as he feigns a gas leak to get into her house, crack into her laptop, and steal her underwear…
On the face of it, Joe is your classic ‘antihero’. Comparison can be drawn with Showtime’s hit serial killer show, Dexter.
Yes, Dexter is a psychopathic murderer but his code means that he only kills killers so (at least to start with) he has the audience’s empathy.
Joe fits a similar but more insidious bill. He doesn’t see himself as a killer, not even when he smashes Beck’s sleazeball boyfriend’s face in with a book binding mallet. He doesn’t see anything he does as wrong at all.
And as we are listening to his thoughts we are led by a narrative that essentially, and convincingly, justifies his actions.
Yes, he’s watching Beck through her windows, reading all her phone messages, and searching through her computer files, but he’s making her better. Isn’t he?
YOU Netflix Trailer
Is YOU Worth Watching?
YOU makes full use of the extent that people over-expose themselves in modern life through social media and smartphone reliance. The show makes a point of showing pop up notifications on screen and letting us read scrolling group chats complete with gifs and emojis.
But even with the extent that Joe gains access to Beck’s online life (and later her bedroom), the amount of Beck’s stupidity that YOU wants us to believe borders on show-breaking at times.
She doesn’t password-lock her phone. There's no password lock her computer. And she has massive windows that make it incredibly easy for Joe to spy on her, which is super convenient.
If the show is trying to make a point about how much we open ourselves up to danger with our reliance on modernity then it’s a ham-fisted one (and done much better in shows like American Vandal).
The swipe at online saturation may not be particularly biting but YOU succeeds very well at digging into the mentality of something not often touched on in such shows: the ‘woke’ man who believes he is doing good.
It’s a smart bit of casting to get Penn Badgley as he is genuinely charming and funny. Badgley expertly navigates the problematic narrative by making Joe so gosh darn likeable.
Indeed, the character of Joe Goldberg is not too dissimilar from Dan Humphrey, Badgley’s character in Gossip Girl. Both see themselves as outsiders and have a level of disgust towards false or bullying behaviour.
But when Dan found a girl’s phone he returned it, whereas Joe dials it up a notch by stealing Beck’s phone after rescuing her when she falls, drunk, onto train tracks.
This is the trick that YOU pulls. Beck is not a virtuous sitcom gal and genuinely is ‘made better’ by Joe’s covert stalking and interfering. As he dispatches negative influences on her life she improves.
But she also lies. And cheats. And tries to make everything better with sex. Indeed, Beck later starts to display some of the same online stalking qualities when jealousy hits her.
Showing how commonplace such behaviour can be. Beck is just as fascinating a character as Joe. Because the show never ties her in to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but instead revels in the complex.
And this is the problem with YOU. It toes that line between ‘psycho’ and ‘anti-hero’ a little too finely. Whilst it is laudable to highlight the dangerousness of such behaviour in men that historically sit-coms and rom-coms have led us to believe is cute (just chase her endlessly and she’ll love you!) the overall plot comes over as narcissistic wish fulfilment.
There is one telling scene in the dying moments of the last episode where Beck screams at Joe, “I never needed you to save me!” But the show makes it clear that she did.
YOU may have made itself an intriguing psychological premise, but by gifting Joe continual ‘outs’ the aftertaste left behind could be the scariest thing of all. Women: men really do know what is best for you.
Words by Michael Record
How Many Seasons Of YOU?
In total, there are FIVE seasons of YOU, of which four have aired on Netflix. The fifth is due out in 2024.
Season 2 of YOU relocates Joe to Los Angeles under a new identity, “Will,” where he becomes enamoured with Love Quinn, a chef and heiress of a grocery store chain.
Despite his attempts to lead a “normal” life, his compulsive tendencies spiral out of control once again, leading to a fresh spree of stalking and murder. The show continues to question the integrity of its characters, adding layers of complexity to its narrative.
By Season 3, Joe and Love have settled into suburban life, but the ideal picture is shattered as both grapple with the reality of who they truly are.
The lines between predator and prey blur further, bringing new characters into Joe's intricate web of manipulation and deceit.
Each season peels back more layers, exposing the twisted psychological realms of not just Joe, but the people he involves in his life.
The fourth season of YOU saw Joe head across the pond to London to track down Marianne. There he finds himself on the back foot when he develops an interest in Kate Galvin.
She is the girlfriend of his obnoxious professor Malcolm Harding, who lives in the flat across from him. When Kate invites Joe to a party he befriends author Rhys Montrose.
However, when wakes up in his flat to find Malcolm stabbed to death, he assumes he killed him before blacking out and simply disposes of his body.
It is only then that he starts to receive a series of anonymous texts from Malcolm's real killer, thanking him for getting rid of the evidence.
YOU TV Series Main Cast
Penn Badgley as nice guy Joe Goldberg. A bookstore manager turned serial stalker and murderer.
Elizabeth Lail as Guinevere Beck. A writer and Joe's obsession in Season 1.
Shay Mitchell as Peach Salinger: Beck’s wealthy best friend in Season 1.
Victoria Pedretti as Love Quinn, a chef and heiress. She is Joe's love interest in Season 2 and 3.
Jenna Ortega as Ellie Alves, the teenager living in Joe and Love's apartment complex in Season 2.
Ambyr Childers as Candace Stone, Joe's ex-girlfriend who follows him to Los Angeles seeking revenge.
Tati Gabrielle as Marienne Bellamy (season 3), a librarian who moves to Paris.
James Scully as Forty Quinn: Love's troubled brother in Season 2.
Charlotte Ritchie as Kate Galvin-Lockwood (season 4), an art gallery director.
Tilly Keeper as Lady Phoebe Borehall-Blaxworth (season 4), a wealthy social media influencer who is part of the royal family.
Amy-Leigh Hickman as Nadia Farran (season 4), one of Joe’s students.
Ed Speleers as Rhys Montrose (season 4), an author and mayoral hopeful whose memoir about his experiences in prison lifted him out of poverty.
Lukas Gage as Adam Pratt (season 4), an American playboy who hails from a wealthy family and owns Sundry House, an elite London social club.
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