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 has been adapted from a novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes. The show stars Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg. Outwardly Joe is a charming and considerate bookstore manager in New York. But 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.
Aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) 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 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 makes 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 sit-com 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. Even in front of those big exposed windows of hers (for crying out loud Beck, get some curtains!). Indeed, Beck later starts to display some of the same online stalking qualities when jealousy hits her. Showing how common place 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.
Beck’s essentially uncontrollable nature makes Joe’s treatment of her all the more telling. He’s every man who thinks he is in the right whilst blind to his own destructive behaviour. The opening scene has him projecting his own attraction of Beck onto her. “You aren’t wearing a bra and you want me to notice,” he thinks as she reaches for a book. In an amusing moment, he mentally chews out one of Beck’s friends for spying on her in the bath whilst completely missing the irony of his own simultaneously spying. “I may be the only feminist you know,” he congratulates himself, making him in many ways more scary than the OTT serial killers who chase the screaming damsel with a big knife.
To ensure we are kept on our toes about where our sympathies lie, Joe also has plenty of good qualities. An off and on side plot revolves around the abusive relationship his neighbour Claudia is stuck in, and Joe’s friendship with her son, Paco. Paco is constantly found in the stairwell whilst his mother is being yelled at (and later beaten) and Joe’s concern for him is 100% genuine. Their shared love of reading keeps Paco busy sure, but Joe feeds him, looks after him, and even tries to make Claudia see sense. This is a clever way that YOU plays with you. The other characters populating the show all function to make Joe look good by either being excuses to bring out his humanity, or horrible gargoyles for him to react to.
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. Joe always says the right thing. He always gets out of sticky scrapes by the power of his quick thinking. His many vile actions are not only justified in his mind, but the show itself gives them credence by making us agree with him.
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. In fact, a cursory glance at Twitter will show that people are arguing about that right now. People are shipping their relationship. People want Joe and Beck together. YOU may have made itself an intriguing psychological premise, but by gifting Joe continual ‘outs’ (a second series is in the works) 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