MAJOR SPOILERS FOR “YOU”
I am utterly enthralled by the Netflix series “You.”
“You” has been taken over Twitter. More and more people are tuning in to live-tweet the foolishness that ensues in the show. The show originally aired on Lifetime, but its move to Netflix seems to have catapulted it into stratospheric success.
At first, I wasn’t interested in the show. I had heard that it was some sort of twisted love story between New York-based millennials. With rare exceptions, love stories aren’t really my thing. But I saw so many tweets about it that I decided to give it a try and see what was up.
And holy shit.
“You” is about Joe Goldberg, a 20-something bookstore manager. He is what I would describe as an “incel:” Joe is misanthropic, holds sexist views about millennial women, and fancies himself as superior to other members of his age group. We see this in the first few minutes of the pilot, in which Joe disparages customers’ book selections and makes condescending generalized statements about the way millennials use social media. Joe only cares about books. Thanks to his upbringing, Joe is frighteningly meticulous when it comes to his precious books.
Joe meets a beautiful blonde woman named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), who prefers to be called by her last name. Beck is different: she actually reads books that aren’t popular. She’s in a MFA program because she wants to be a writer. Beck lives in an apartment that she absolutely cannot afford and is experiencing major writers’ block.
One day, Beck walks into Joe’s bookstore. Before she ever speaks to him, Joe has already decided that he is obsessed with her. By the time they are done “flirting” (which is mostly just them judging some poor man for willingly buying a Dan Brown novel,) Joe has decided to stalk Beck at every turn.
And oh, does Joe stalk her. He stalks her social media, which leads him to stalking her actual home. He spends the entire day following Beck, making note of every move she makes. Joe does shit like convince the maintenance men to let him into her apartment, and during his unauthorized tour of her home, Joe steals a pair of her underwear.
Joe’s exceedingly fucked up behavior escalates throughout the season, leading to extreme invasions of Beck’s privacy, kidnappings and several murders (!!!)
The show is wild af. I’m not sure if it is an objectively good show, but I will say that I didn’t get bored watching it.
But as wild as the show is, I found some of the reactions to the show even wilder.
So, it seems that some viewers have decided to romanticize Joe and his horrifying behavior. I’ve been seeing a lot of “I need a Joe in my life to make things easier,” “Joe is sexy,” and “Joe can stalk/kidnap me any day” tweets. Even Penn Badgley, who plays Joe, made several tweets that reveal his horror at the way some viewers are responding to Joe.
At first blush, the romanticization of Joe makes absolutely no sense. How could anyone unironically think Joe is attractive when he is literally a stalker and murderer. What’s sexy about a pretentious guy with an extreme superiority complex? One who causes massive amounts of harm and then rationalizes his horrid behavior?
I didn’t get it. I was confused. At least, I was confused until I took a closer look at the show. And I think I’ve figured out how this show not only allows audiences to romanticize Joe, but actually attempts to manipulate the audience into feeling for Joe.
The show uses several techniques to trick viewers into accidentally rooting for the batshit murderer, but the ones that stick out to me the most are who they’ve cast as Joe, technical aspects since as lighting and cinematography, and the characterizations of the supporting characters.
I want to start with the casting, because Penn Badgley as Joe was a very smart move. Penn is actually kind of perfect for this role, even though he originally didn’t want the role. He had already some experience in the “creepy boyfriend” field because of his role as Dan Humphrey on “Gossip Girl.” (Dan is basically a less murder-y version of Joe.)
Penn’s portrayal of Joe makes Joe seem simultaneously harmless and rational and dangerous and delusional. He imbues Joe with strange combination of wit and the occasional awkwardness. This results in several of Joe’s ghoulish actions and lines being humorous.
The way Penn plays Joe is a perfect example of the show’s tone in general: it’s lighthearted and at times funny, even though it’s subject matter is terrifying.
There are a lot of examples this tone, but my favorite is in episode 3, “Maybe.” By this point, Joe has murdered Beck’s fuckface of a boyfriend Benji and is currently storing his body in the basement of the bookstore.
Joe is still keeping Benji’s body there because, as it turns out, Joe’s too squeamish to properly dispose of it. Benji’s rotting corpse starts to stink, so Joe turns the temperature as low as it can go and aims a bunch of humidifiers towards the body.
Well, all those extra electronic devices cause a power outage in the bookstore. Ethan, Joe’s coworker, calls Joe to let him know that the electricians are there, and they’re trying to get into fuse box. But they can’t, because —
“It’s in the basement. With a dead body.” Joe’s narration is panicked, and his eyes are wide as two dinner plates.
Penn’s delivery is perfect as he squeaks out, “No, no, no, no, no!” Joe awkwardly tells Beck to not to worry about the frantic-sounding phone call he just took. It’s just bookstore stuff. Nothing to see here, let’s move along.
It’s an absolutely bonkers situation — you’re hiding a body in the basement of a damn bookstore — but because of Penn’s delivery and the way this entire situation is framed, it made me laugh. And then I muttered, “This shit shouldn’t be funny.”
Penn’s talent for playing Joe is aided by his physical appearance. Beyond being considered conventionally “attractive” — white, thin, full hair and a symmetrical face — Joe’s appearance is also very unassuming. He’s not towering tall or overly muscular. His facial features aren’t too sharp. He’s got these brown eyes that don’t look like they belong to a murderer. Joe looks non-threatening: he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Joe has to look this way, otherwise the show wouldn’t work.
Of course, his looks are even further aided by several technical aspects of the show, particularly it’s lighting.
In a thesis titled “Lights, Camera, Emotion!: an Examination on Film Lighting and Its Impact on Audiences’ Emotional Response,” writer Jennifer Lee Poland discusses the relationship between the style and color of lighting and the emotions that lighting arises in viewers.
In the conclusion, Poland writes, “Film lighting has a significant impact on viewers’ emotional response to the narrative, which has been supported by film literature for the last 100 years. It is not a single powerful tool [ . . . ] that can independently impact viewer’s emotional response to a movie and drastically away from the plot itself, but instead can intensify or mellow the emotional responses that come naturally from the narrative.”
In the case of “You,” I think the lighting helps the audience feels more comfortable with Joe, even though we are aware of his actions, creating a dissonance that the show then uses to its advantage.
The lighting is very warm. The atmosphere looks very soft. There are literal halos of golden-orange light framing characters’ faces at times. It’s the type of lighting used in romantic dramas (like this show sometimes pretends to be) and not dramatic thrillers (like this show actually is.)
The show’s camera does a lot of work on its behalf, as well. There are so many close-ups and medium close-ups of characters’ faces, and these shots can make the audience feel as though they were suddenly in much closer physical proximity to the character.
There are a couple of times where characters look directly into the camera, forcing the audience to look them directly into the eye.
The show also makes great use of its sets; they look very “lived-in.”
Beck’s apartment looks like the messy apartment of a scatter-brained college student, with clothes and books and all manner of items thrown about. There’s a lot of natural light flowing into her place, mostly because she has no curtains or blinds (which, WHAT?! Girl, you live in New York City, New York. Why do you not have curtains or blinds??)
Joe’s apartment is similarly outfitted to look more natural, with a worn, brown leather couch, yellow-colored lighting, books stacked up on the table. The set designers made sure that his place looks kind of old, adding wear-and-tear on the walls and floor.
The only exception is the scenes that take place in the bookstore’s basement. There, the lighting is extremely cool, with pale blue and white lights casting a gray tone onto characters’ skin.
In addition to holding a giant glass cage people get locked into (WHAT), the bookstore’s basement is also home to extremely rare books that are all perfectly placed on bookshelves.
It is most definitely a horror movie setting, and it exists to remind the audience that fucked up shit tends to happen in this show. It’s so scary looking that we really don’t need to see someone die there to assume that people have died there.
For the most part, the show relies on the warm, close-up side of things. The shots are often very intimate, and that intimacy tends to make the audience care about the characters more. . . to varying degree.
I say “varying degree” because . . . well, that’s the last aspect of the show that I wanted to mention. It is arguably the aspect that helps us “root” for Joe the most: the characterization of the supporting characters. And by “characterization,” I mean the fact that almost everyone in Beck’s life is irritating as fuck.
All her friends are irksome. They all ain’t shit. And it’s easy to see why Joe wants to dispose of them.
Making all of Beck’s friends terrible people puts Joe in an unusual position for the audience. Joe is simultaneously the worst person on the show — because of the homicidal tendencies and whatnot — and the least worst person on the show.
The parade of awfulness begins in the very first episode, when we meet Beck and the people around her.
You may have noticed that I referred to a character called Benji as a “fuckface.” That sounds crass, but I am reluctant to take it back or soften it. At the beginning of the season, Benji is Beck’s current boyfriend. He is a caricature of a New York trust fund baby. Benji’s dad is some super rich CEO or something. Benji has decided that he wants to start an artisanal soda company.
Benji wears a dumb beanie. He has a lazy sounding voice. He is lazy in general, and puts no effort towards anything, especially not his relationship with Beck.
Benji genuinely seems disinterested in Beck, even when she tells him about Joe literally saving her life after she fell onto train tracks. At one point, Joe calls Benji a “waste of hair,” and it’s nearly impossible to disagree with Joe.
Benji doesn’t make Beck happy, either, and she’s clearly dissatisfied with their relationship. Beck has very little trouble moving on from Benji to Joe when she thinks Benji has ghosted her.
Benji isn’t the only person in Beck’s life that she’s dissatisfied with. She’s dissatisfied with everyone to some degree, mainly because they don’t have anything in common.
Besides from Benji and his Benji-ness, there are Beck’s friends Lynn (Nicole Kang) and Annika (Kathryn Gallagher.) Lynn’s got her nose in the air, and she mostly just talks about sex, a trait that Beck seems to be annoyed by at times.
Annika is even worse. Similar to how Benji is the caricature of a trust-fund kid, Annika is a caricature of an Instagram Influencer, complete with ridiculous captions, a preoccupation with likes and followers, and an obsession with her body image. She’s loud, mouthy, and unironically says things like “I thought you guys were endgame.” We also learn that Annika is low-key racist and not good at holding her liquor.
It’s really difficult to see understand how or why Beck would like either of these women, let alone become friends with them. This is a fact that even Beck bitterly acknowledges in the season’s finale.
But as grating Lynn and Annika can be, they are nothing compared to Beck’s best friend and Joe’s arch nemesis, Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell, doing an excellent Alison DiLaurentis impression.)
Peach Salinger is a descendant of J.D. Salinger, meaning that she is rich as hell. She’s also gorgeous (because duh, Shay Mitchell,) and well-connected.
Peach and Beck have been friends for years. Peach never hesitates to give Beck whatever she wants or needs: she’s always prepared to write a check for Beck, no matter the amount.
Beck’s not comfortable with taking Peach’s money, but she also realizes that she doesn’t have that many other options. Their friendship is a codependent one, and Peach uses that dependency to her advantage.
Here’s the thing about Peach: Peach is also obsessed with Beck. And while she might not be a murderer like Joe, she’s not exactly sane, either. At one point in the show, Joe discovers that Peach has been secretly taking photos of Beck for years.
“Beck,” Joe says solemnly as he looks at Peach’s clandestine photo collection, “you’ve got yourself a stalker.”
(Oh, the amazing, baffling irony)
Peach is petulant and jealous whenever Beck isn’t immediately available to her. Peach is condescending towards Beck and is secretly resentful of Beck’s career goals. She even actively sabotages them.
Peach is classist and elitist, constantly making fun of the fact that Joe isn’t rich and works at a bookstore. And Peach consistently crosses Beck’s physical and emotional boundaries.
In episode 5, Beck and Peach have an argument after Peach puts Beck in an uncomfortable — and potentially dangerous — situation with a creepy literary agent. At one point during their argument, Beck breaks down and yells at Peach about how taxing their friendship really is.
“It is exhausting being your friend!” Beck shouts with tears in her eyes. You can see that frustration in Beck’s eyes. You can hear it in her voice.
At the end of the day, Peach and Joe share similarities. They’re both obsessive stalkers who pose a danger to Beck. But the audience is much more likely to dislike Peach because the show only ever shows her negative attributes. Every interaction with Peach is laced with rudeness, entitlement and a coldness.
We are instructed to believe that Peach is a bad person. Just like we were instructed to believe that Benji was a dick, Lynn is just there to make sex jokes, and Annika is an airhead hopped up on white privilege.
And none of them make Beck happy. At least, not like Joe makes Beck happy. So, it’s really no wonder how Joe comes to the “rational” conclusion that he has to get rid of them somehow.
I’ve seen people describe “You” as a “mindfuck.” At first, I didn’t understand that description because the show seemed kind of straightforward to me: delusional misogynist stalks random girl and causes chaos in her life.
But when I consider the lengths this show goes to get us on-board with the delusional misogynist, I can see why some people leave it feeling a little screwed with in the head.
The show centers this person — he’s the “anti-hero” as Penn describes him in his Twitter bio — so of course they wanted us to get at least a little comfortable with him. So they picked an actor, established a setting and tone, and created side characters that would help.
And now the team behind “You” gets to get on Twitter and makes jokes about their weird show and all the awfulness in it. And the rest of us have to sit and wonder if there’s something actually wrong with us, too.