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You, Season One, an Analysis and Review: Sometimes Murder is Hot

Abbie is a freelance writer and English literature and language tutor, studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham

Lately, I’ve been watching you - the show, I mean.

Anyone who’s watched Gossip Girl is familiar with the sight of Penn Badgley in New York. Maybe it’s his wit or his curly brown hair, but Netflix’s new series ‘YOU’, adapted from Lifetime, has brought in swarms of fans almost as obsessive as Joe Goldberg himself - ironically proving the key message at the heart of the web series, that the internet, with a sprinkle of infatuation, can be a very dangerous thing. In this time of ‘information overload’ and rapid internet access, it is important to remember that everyone else has access to us also.

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Photo by Toa Heftiba

This season was supposed to showcase an unhealthy, obsessive relationship between Joe and Beck - but ultimately ended with half of the fan base wanting their own Joe Goldberg, and the other half wondering why the police are so gosh darn impotent throughout the series (seriously though, get it together guys). It’s not strange that everyone took to Penn Badgley’s character so quickly, but it is worrying. This virtual Stockholm Syndrome is actually made to seem normal throughout the show - even intended. In the end, Joe is uncovered to be a serial killer, stalker - and very much a threat to everyone around him (you know, an overall, unacceptable human being), and still, the fans continue to flock. Is this an accidental side-effect of their handsome choice of casting or a purposeful effort by the creators? I’d like to think it’s the latter.

In many ways, I think that YOU perfectly captures the true charisma of these criminals. After all, we see the world purely from Joe’s perspective for the majority of the series. We are taught to trust his input with clever voice-overs and manipulated camera cuts. His internal monologue is, often, our only source of information. Having to accept his opinion as fact really builds up a level of trust between Joe and the audience. It’s no wonder, then, that when he tells us that Benji deserves everything coming to him; that Beck wants, needs this attention, that we believe him. When Joe says, “of course I had to kill him”, we say “fair play”. We have no other opinion. We’re not allowed one. This undoubtedly demonstrates the level of persuasion of his character throughout the show. He persuades himself that he’s doing what’s right, and, somehow, he persuades us as well.

This is why the writers and directors seem to purposefully distance him from us at certain moments. At key scenes, where he lashes out, we no longer have his witty comments, this inner monologue telling us ‘Everything is okay; Joe is a good person’. As he continually flicks between psychotic episodes and moments of wit and charisma, we feel jarred as an audience. And yet as soon as we convince ourselves that maybe he’s not the nicest person (which is the understatement of a lifetime) we are shown a clip of him helping young Paco; we hear about his rough childhood and we pity him. We think ‘okay, well he’s nice and he’s handsome and maybe they really do have it coming to them’ (they don’t). We’re not supposed to root for his dark and twisted side – on the contrary. We fall in love, the same way Beck does, with the funny, off-beat character that he presents himself to be (even if we fall out of love intermittently). In a way, because we like him, we search for justification for his crimes, we reason with ourselves. Maybe, in some world, if this had happened to me, then I’d do this too (though, I hope, most of us wouldn’t). This is what is so clever about the series, in many ways. In the end, he’s just (pardon the pun) an average Joe. We fear him, not because he is a psychopathic mastermind, but because he is normal.

As the season comes to a close, however, it’s important to really come to terms with the situation and its consequences. You have to understand that the charming, smart boy from the vintage book shop is actually the victim-blaming misogynist down to a T. How many times have we heard the ‘straight-A-student', ‘angelic son, loved by all’ trope on the news, with a long list of the deviant crimes he’s committed? YOU perfectly highlights the hypocrisy of the patriotic news of today. In the end, we are pushed, as an audience, to like him; we’re distracted by stereotypes, tricked into thinking this is some fluffy rom-com with cringey lines and superficial drama, and we are diverted away from the murderous monster that Joe becomes.

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In the end, as much as it pains me to say it, he isn’t ‘cute’, he isn’t ‘edgy’. He’s a psychopath. Ultimately, YOU treads a fine line between brilliant audience manipulation and normalisation of unhealthy infatuation (woah, that’s a lot of ‘tions’). With the promise of season two on the horizon, I think we need to be careful with this one. We can all take a minute to appreciate Penn Badgley, that's acceptable (even a common habit for some of us), but maybe YOU isn’t really the place to do it, even if the writers want you to. Oh – and neither is Gossip Girl either, to be honest. Dan Humphrey is kinda creepy too.

Written and edited by Abbie Leeson. Co-written by Maia Gibbs.

© 2022 Abbie Leeson

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