Created by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble
Starring Penn Badgley, Elizabeth Lail, Shay Mitchell
If you tilt your head at a certain angle, you can view the 10-episode Netflix series You as a satire and cautionary tale about social media. After all, it’s through social media that lovelorn New York bookstore clerk Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) stalks aspiring poet Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) after she flirts with him over some postfeminist literature. He uses social media to insinuate himself into her life, to transform himself into her ideal boyfriend, and, as his obsession escalates, to cover his tracks after every horrifying act he commits.
But that would be a very millennial way of looking at You (which assiduously satirizes—among a myriad other social media affectations—influencers and Throwback Thursdays). At its core, You is an astute examination of toxic masculinity. It tells the story almost entirely from Joe’s viewpoint, to the point where he drowns out the perspective of anyone else—even the object of his obsession. Ironically, this is most apparent in the one episode that isn’t told via our warped anti-hero’s voiceovers, the fourth episode “The Captain.” In the episode, Joe follows Beck to a mysterious rendezvous after their first, laughably awkward sexual encounter, and is startled to have a long-held assumption about her smashed. In other words, he is forced to see her for the first time as a human being in all her messy contradictions, and not merely as an object he has to “save”, not just from the toxic people in her life but also from her own self-defeating impulses.
After that one-off episode, You immediately returns to Joe’s point-of-view and stays there for the rest of its first season—which might be a daunting prospect for those of us who aren’t latent sociopaths. To minimize the ick factor of long-term immersion, the creators cast Penn Badgley. Indeed, you can almost say that Joe Goldberg is a years-later extension of Dan Humphreys, the character Badgley played in Gossip Girl. Dan started as an outsider to that show’s Manhattan glitterati milieu—too poor, too sensitive, too observant to truly belong—and was exposed during the series finale as the snarky, whistle-blowing title character. Joe is Dan Humphreys curdled and cast out into a life working in retail. Elizabeth Lail is an even wiser casting choice. Beck, as written by Caroline Kepnes in the book, can be a bit unsavory herself—selfish, clueless, a bit of an attention hound. (In Kepnes’ novel, Beck purposely selects an apartment with big windows on the first floor of a Manhattan walkup to indulge in her exhibitionist streak, a counterintuitive choice that isn’t explained in the series.) Lail walks her character back from the extreme, portraying Beck as a bit of a lost soul, which makes it all the more thrilling when she is forced to marshal her submerged talent for insight in a battle of wits during the season finale.
You also examines toxic masculinity and how it has long shaped women’s experience of relationships by upending the conventions of romantic comedies…and taking them to their logical, horrifying conclusion. There is the obligatory meet-cute, the obligatory save-and-fall-on-top-of-each-other sequence, the obligatory wearing down of defenses—all are present and accounted for. What is particularly brilliant about You is that it hopscotches into other genres, as well. Apart from the romantic comedy and the stalker thriller, there are glimmers of the coming-of-age-in-the-big-city story, social satire, and true crime. You employs the pulpiest bits of these genres to make us question how easily we accept these romantic devices as sweet and harmless, despite their potential to curdle from confection to poison.
You’s finale might be divisive, but it is true to what happens in the book. More than that, it is the final blow hammering home the point that it is destructive of Joe to refuse to see Beck as more than a prop in the romantic comedy playing in his head, “mansplaining” taken to a devastating extreme. There is a cliffhanger hinting at a Dexter-like threat of imminent exposure. Just like Dexter, You might eventually fall into a pattern of exhausting cat-and-mouse games narrated by increasingly tiresome voiceover. But we’re not at that point yet—this first season is still fresh kill.