“You,” Lifetime’s bats**t Penn Badgley-led show about a Very Charming Stalker, has finally hit Netflix. Not only did it quickly become the most-streamed show of the week, but the streaming service has permanently picked up “You” and will be producing its second season.
The series, based on a novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, follows Joe Goldberg (Badgley), a handsome white bookstore manager who fancies himself a true romantic, and Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a writer who becomes the object of Joe’s obsession. “You” takes viewers inside Joe’s head ― and what a twisted mind it is.
“You” is a deliciously bizarre and darkly funny melodrama that serves sharp commentary on how creepy, controlling male behavior has often been coded as “romantic” in rom-com canon and how fans are complicit in propping up tropes that let men get away with doing awful things.
But the real question is: Should you watch it? Below, HuffPost’s Emma Gray, Hillary Frey and Zeba Blay discuss the beauty and horror of “You.”
Emma Gray: Hillary. Zeba. Words cannot express how excited I am to talk about “You” with both of you. I watched the show months ago when it premiered on “Lifetime” ― and even got to have a very illuminating chat with Penn Badgley, who plays Joe, the show’s narrator and resident “nice white guy”/psychotic stalker murderer! But now that the show has made the jump to Netflix, people are actually watching it! So now that we’re all together and we’ve all watched the 10 episodes, I guess the obvious question is… should other people watch this completely wild show?
Hillary Frey: Hi Emma and Zeba! I am so excited to be here for my inaugural “Should you watch it?” chat. I mean, given that I binged this show in like two days over Christmas while my kid was with her grandparents, I would say, yes? But that’s not to say it’s… good exactly.
Zeba Blay: I think people should most definitely watch this show ― I actually can’t believe that it fell through the cracks after its initial broadcasting. I mean, first of all, it’s such a fun melodrama, such a not-so-guilty pleasure. But I also think it’s incredibly thought-provoking in the way that it plays with the viewers’ emotion. Who are we rooting for? And why? And what does that say about us? Be honest: Did any of you find yourself rooting for Joe during his seriously twisted pursuit of Beck?
Frey: I’m glad you brought up Beck because she was actually my big issue with the show (and I saw people on Twitter noting the same): Was she a character worthy of Joe’s obsession? I never really connected with her. I couldn’t understand her place in the world, her friendships, her apartment.
Gray: There was an unfortunate shallowness to Beck ― in part, I think, because the show (like the book it is based on) is intentionally taking us into Joe’s head. We are meant to understand his perspective, which both illuminates the terrifying way that he takes actual human women and constructs who they are and what they need to fulfill his own desire to be a savior, and forces viewers to have a twisted sense of empathy for him. I think the most important question you raise, Zeba, is what does this empathy then say about us, if we experience it?
I found myself thinking a lot about Hannah Gadsby’s recent monologue on “good men” while watching this show. “You know why we need to talk about this line between good men and bad men?” she asked. “Because it’s only good men who get to draw that line. And guess what? All men believe they are good. We need to talk about this because guess what happens when only good men get to draw that line? This world — a world full of good men who do very bad things and still believe in their heart of hearts that they are good men because they have not crossed the line, because they move the line for their own good.”
There are really, truly no good men in this show, with the possible exception of Ethan, the kind but somewhat dim-witted bookshop colleague of Joe’s, and yet most of the men see themselves as good, even necessary, to the women around them. Joe certainly fancies himself a “good man.”
Blay: Exactly, and because we’re viewing the show from his perspective, we’re at moments convinced, against our better interests, to consider him a “good man” too. What I find so compelling about the show is that it’s constantly moving that line that Hannah Gadsby speaks of. Joe looks Beck up on Google and we’re like, “OK, a bit much, but fine.” Then he looks up her address, stands outside her apartment, stares at her. It’s jarring and creepy but as the series goes on, Joe standing outside of Beck’s window started to feel totally commonplace and normal and even necessary at times. It’s so messed up. And I agree, Emma, that Beck’s shallowness, the shallowness of her world, is largely down to Joe’s perception of her. She’s basic AF because he needs her to be basic AF. As we saw with Karen Minty, he desires a woman on which he can project this narrative of “needing” him.
Frey: I think that “needing” is the thing. It was less to me that Joe sees himself as a “good” man but someone who is “needed.” And in his view, Beck was in “need” of saving. And because he is “needed,” he is right and superior. And he’s set up well for us to buy into that, with the overwhelmingly horrid, universally triggering Benji as his initial foil. What is more pure and good and “needed” than an independent bookstore clerk who lives in a walkup? You’re right: Beck had to be basic, almost a blank slate, for Joe’s completely bananas worldview to suck us in and woo us.
I do also want to talk about Peach. The relationship between Peach and Beck, the mutual codependency of these two women even as their lives were going in different directions, got at something about college and post-college relationships that resonated with me, even amid the heightened absurdity of the show generally and Peach specifically.
Gray: Peach is a fantastic character! Shay Mitchell’s performance was so damn delightful. She really nailed the privileged snobbery that a filthy rich Ivy League graduate with the last name Salinger would likely project. And yet, Peach also managed to be more than a one-note caricature.
Everything about “You” is over-the-top ― which is what makes it so fun despite being so dark ― but it also feels refreshingly grounded at times. I think that’s what you’re speaking to, Hillary. Peach and Beck are best friends because they’ve been best friends. And they both get a shallow version of things they yearn for from each other: Beck gets access and proximity to traditional power structures. Peach gets access and proximity to an object of her (repressed) desires.
Frey: Exactly. There were truths in there. And her performance was so terrific. She was captivating and repellant. Wait, that might be how I felt about the show?
Blay: Captivating and repellant. The perfect description of this show and everything on it, to be quite honest! I especially felt that way about Penn Badgley’s performance. He’s obviously a very good-looking young man but I think he toed the line of appealing and batshit crazy so well. And I loved the tension between him and Peach. That’s something I’ve been thinking about too, actually ― Peach was really the only character who was suspicious/wary of him. She obviously had her own motives, but I think it speaks to another big commentary of the show: Joe gets away with a lot of his creepery, like loitering for hours in neighborhoods he doesn’t even live in, because he’s young and able-bodied and handsome and white and male. I think it says a lot about the privilege that goes into men getting away with doing terrible things. The show would have been over at episode one if Joe wasn’t all those things. What do you guys think?
Gray: Yes! That’s exactly it, Zeba. Joe checks all of the boxes that are coded for “safe” and “desirable” in our (patriarchal, racist) society: He’s young. He’s conventionally attractive. He’s thin. He’s middle-class. He’s white. And the fact that he’s in fact an extremely dangerous stalker and murderer makes you, as a viewer, question all of those markers. This show, similar to “The Fall,” plays with our own ingrained biases and exposes the fallacy behind them.
This is actually something that Penn Badgley spoke to directly when I interviewed him. He referenced the scene toward the beginning of the show when Joe is masturbating across the street from Beck’s apartment. “Would anyone else be considered unassuming on the side of the street standing there too long?” he said. “It’s pretty evident that no one but a young handsome white man could do that.” And he’s correct. A man of color standing around outside a nice building would have the cops called on him ― even if he lived in the building.
Frey: Emma, I’m glad you brought up “The Fall.” That show spent a lot of time in later seasons getting into the “why” of Jamie Dornan’s character’s sadistic and murderous impulses. This season of “You” went there a little bit — but there’s much more backstory to Joe’s relationship to the original bookstore owner. My question: Are you guys hungry for this? Were you asking, “Why?” Does it matter to you? Does Joe need a “reason” to be this way when, as your thoughts in this conversation show, the really fascinating things about this show are what Joe’s actions provoke in us?
Blay: No, I didn’t really care about the “why.” I actually found the flashbacks to be boring/unnecessary. I think, because we’re already in Joe’s head, we’re really getting all the information we need. He’s just a sociopath. What was far more compelling was watching how he rationalized his actions in the moment. I was especially interested in the way he romanticized his actions, because a lot of those actions ARE coded as romantic in pop culture. Joe references romantic movies and rom-coms several times throughout the show, which really struck me, because with a couple of edits and a tweaked dialogue, this show could easily be presented as a romance. It says a lot about, I think, what we view as acceptable behavior in relationships.
Frey: All I can say is YES, Zeba.
Gray: I agree! I really didn’t care about his backstory. I was also most chilled ― and compelled ― by the way that he, and in a larger sense, the whole show, took romantic comedy and romantic drama tropes and twisted them. Research has actually shown that romantic movies contain so many stalking myths that they can actually make it harder to prosecute stalking.
At one point during the pilot, Joe says, “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that guys like me are always getting into jams like this.” His inner dialogue felt light, which made the moment land even more. It was truly terrifying and suggested that Joe was almost playing out the darkest logical conclusion of these romantic tropes. The show asks us: Why do we think that “persistence” is such a valorized male romantic quality? Why do we have movies like “Love Actually” in which filming a woman secretly is framed as romantic revelation? Why is standing outside someone’s window and throwing rocks at it until they’re forced to acknowledge you somehow desirable?
Blay: And we don’t just see it with Joe, right? Benji hounds Beck even though he doesn’t even want her, Claudia constantly takes Ron back even though he abuses her, and even Dr. Nicky can’t seem to take no. There’s a theme of how toxic this behavior is that I find really interesting.
Gray: I repeat: This show is full of bad men acting out their worst tendencies.
Blay: Ethan was adorable.
Frey: I feel like we probably need to wrap this up… but we didn’t even talk about the situation with Beck and her dad, and how this maps against her romantic relationships. She’s feels she’s been abandoned by her dad — she’s so wounded, she tells people that her dad is dead. And she’s attracted to men who hound her, to use Zeba’s word — who relentlessly harass her even if they are going to reject her. I feel like this is another trope in pop culture — daddy issues — that this show takes to the next level. The scene where she reveals that bit of her new dress when she’s packing to meet “The Captain” was one of the most intriguing moments about Beck in the show, for me. That it was part of a twist was an interesting deflation. I couldn’t figure out if I wanted Beck to be a sugar baby or not.
Gray: I had mixed feelings about that backstory. It worked to an extent, but then it was never referenced again. The show couldn’t seem to decide whether to commit to fleshing out Beck and Candace, Joe’s other “great love.” So they settled for a middle ground that didn’t always work. Perhaps that’s something to hope for (or not?) in Season 2? Joe’s young acolyte Paco and his mother Claudia are off to California, and if the show follows the second book, Joe will ship out west as well.
Any last thoughts/hopes/dreams/confusions? My personal wish is that people would stop lusting after Joe on social media.
Blay: I agree, I’d like to see less Beck bashing, less Joe and Beck shipping. And I’d like more a conversation surrounding the very scary realities of actual stalking. The show makes it fun but some women are dealing with the real thing and it’s not cute.
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.