You arrived on Netflix in December and fast became one of the most talked about shows in a period where everyone’s feeds were dominated with Birdbox memes. Its binge-worthy ten episodes, based on the novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, tell the story of Joe Goldberg – a bookstore manager with a sinister obsession with Beck, a woman he first meets as a customer.
The voice-over narration from Joe’s perspective gives us a rare glimpse into the mind of a man who is obsessed. It’s a perspective that is not often utilised in such a normal, everyday setting – we typically see psychopathic characters living lives outside of our expectations as they are presented to be isolated and unsociable. Netflix’s own experience in portraying psychopathy, such as Mindhunter or in documentaries like Evil Genius, show individuals whose acts are so beyond the normal imagination. Joe defies this; maintaining a steady job, displaying empathy for his neighbours and forming normal friendships with most of the characters in the series. For a moment, being in his head makes you sympathise with him, maybe even identify with him at times. Adding such unreliable narration is an interesting device, making ourselves check and recheck what we think is acceptable and what’s not.
Who hasn’t let a comment from a friend pass, when ordinarily we would have confronted it?
Joe’s façade is convincing, telling a more complex story about abuse and control than could previously have been expected from the small screen. You centres around the theme of obsession and control, and in just how many ways we may all feel it. Almost all of Beck’s relationships hinge around some form of control. In order to keep her job and apartment, she has to keep up the pretence that she might sleep with her tutor. When she rebuffs him in public, she is made vulnerable. Her father sends her money, meaning she has to do activities she doesn’t want to in order to keep afloat. She hides all this in a story about his death that runs so deep even those closest to her have no idea how much she’s keeping from them. Her therapist can’t stop messaging her and won’t respect her boundaries after she broke things off with him.
Peach has a clear grip on the entire friendship group – the popular, rich friend trope that has played out in so many teen dramas seems to have matured in You to become much more sinister. Through Joe’s unhealthy stalking and illegal actions, we find out just how much she holds on Beck, and how far she will go to hold onto her. Her control over her best friends seems to annoy them all, and yet they let it happen. Peach’s storyline shows us just how much we may be willing to let our friends get away with. Who hasn’t let a comment from a friend pass, when ordinarily we would have confronted it? How many times have we let our friends get in our heads about relationships and made decisions which we might regret later on?
It’s easy to look past the faults of an attractive 20-something who has an undying ‘love’ for someone, but You won’t let us
What You doesn’t do is justify what anyone is doing. It highlights that not all abuse is physical or often even tangible, and allows us to see where obsession can lead a person. Though we are given most information through Joe’s distorted lens, we are given plenty of opportunities to stop ourselves and take a step back to see the monster he truly is. Penn Badgley has been responding to Twitter users who have failed to see the toxicity of Joe’s behaviour, instead wanting to see Joe and Beck end up together or even feeling heartbreak for Joe when he is hurt. It’s easy to look past the faults of an attractive 20-something who has an undying ‘love’ for someone, but You won’t let us. His obsession is portrayed not as something to be celebrated or as the natural moves of the romantic hero, but as wrong. It makes a refreshing break from the Rom-Com genre which has let abusive and obsessive traits go unnoticed for too long.
Looking forward to the second season, there will be a departure from the source material with Candace’s reveal at the end of the final episode. Hopefully, the writers will give us lots of flashbacks to her relationship with Joe, and maybe hints to where his psychopathy has led him in the past. The mystery of her disappearance will have to be addressed, and how Joe didn’t even know she was still alive. That won’t be the only mystery left to crack in the upcoming series – we still don’t know how much the PI looking into Peach’s death really knows, or how the details of Beck’s death will play out now that her therapist has been framed by Joe. In his romance with Candace, there are likely to be moments where, once again, Joe is played to be the nice, normal, lovesick guy. You will do well to keep its viewers questioning how easily we should be sucked into it.