NETFLIX’S SERIES “YOU” REDEEMS IT SELF WITH A POWERFUL SEASON 2 & SILENCES HATERS
This show is actually good. Who would have figured?
Have you ever considered how our current social media climate is troubling? Not just because of what reporters have explained about privacy concerns because of potential abuse of information by government bodies and companies but because of privacy concerns in our interpersonal relationships? Our social media obsessed culture, that almost shames people into creating an Instagram or Facebook account is also normalizing stalking and turning obsessive and troubling behavior (like searching into someone’s past to find out every details of their life before they share that information with you) into a justifiable action since information is so accessible. Now imagine what it means to have this climate conflated with the reality of crime and violence in our society. What does it look like for a person to have easy access to a person’s history or better, their current status: their location, address or job title when the keeper of that information is say, an abusive or violent person? “You” from Netflix explores this reality and more through the point of view of a serial killer masquerading as “the good guy” from basically every romance movie ever created.
The TV series borrows it’s name and story from Caroline Kepnes’ 2014 debut book “You”, in which she explores the sadistic nature and mind of Joe Goldberg, a 20-something year-old man who she’s identified as a narcissist with borderline personality disorder. In this Netflix adaption Penn Badgley stars as Joe and his ability to sincerely adopt the role as his identity is remarkable, chilling and confusing to observe. Why? Because like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it dives directly into the perspective of what a killer might be, look, act and even think like. It humanizes and forces a familiarity with darkness and makes you understand the motives behind those we’ve classified as cold-heartless killers. Everything we know is shown through his understanding of how events are unfolding, he narrates almost the entire series with small moments of breaks in between and basically talks us through his process. So, we get the chance to like Joe, laugh with him, hate him and it’s uncomfortable.
Joe is first introduced as an average straight white guy; a book snob in New York who weirdly watches beautiful patrons to decide on if they are worthy of his attention. That’s how we learn of Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a “mediocre” white girl who loves books and who happens to be a hopeful author and recent graduate of Brown University. The first time he talks to her, he is condescending. He tells her that she made a good choice in picking an author and continues to be elitist while observing and mocking other patrons, all the while masking his behavior as innocent flirting. Beck though, doesn’t see this as a red flag, she’s thinks that he’s being friendly so to be polite, she returns that friendliness by leaning in with jokes but Joe thinks she’s flirting and it takes this as his permission to begin stalking her. Slowly, through his fixation on Beck, we learn that Joe is a huge narcissist with a savior complex, addicted to killing, and a woman hater but none of this is obvious to anyone in the show because he presents as just an ordinary guy.
Joe is an unreliable narrator which at times causes problems within the story structure and its ability to hold attention. In the first season of the show, the story doesn’t shine through as firmly as it’s meant to. Secondary characters apart from Beck’s friend Peach (Shay Mitchell) feel stifled. Since we only see them through Joe, they aren’t given the breadth need to create a connection with them. Almost all female characters are depicted as pretty and dumb. Even Beck is shown as a superficial character. Our introduction to her as Joe’s rebound girlfriend from what he described as a dysfunctional relationship with his former lover Candace (Ambyr Childers), is rife with imperfections. It’s interesting because in his first interaction with her, he makes her out to seem heavily insecure, vapid even but viewers never really get to know who she truly is until much later in the season when she finally realizes that Joe is a serial killer. Until then, her personality is muddled by Joe’s interpretation of her. This means that monotonous moments where he justifies his actions are plentiful, they often seem drawn out because of how long his internal monologues are, and when other characters make mistakes in protecting themselves, it gets so frustrating and tiring when trying to understand their behavior. As a result, the show didn’t seem sustainable because it seemed to draw on a lot of dramatic moments and a shock factor to maintain engagement. Still, near the ending of season one, Peach breaks the mold and really forces her voice and becomes more of an active proponent of the story. This is what saves the first season.
In the second season things are dramatically improved. After realizing that he hadn’t solved all of his problems by killing, we find Joe with a new name, a new apartment, and Job at a hipster cafe in Los Angeles, running away from Candace. The story line and pace are better, tighter, and more fleshed out. Secondary characters were given an opportunity to talk and develop further than the boundaries of Joe’s mind and the distinction between what is actually happening and what Joe perceives is clearer and easier to differentiate. Delilah (Carmela Zumbado) the building manager for Joe’s new apartment, who also happens to be an entertainment reporters is fiery, strong and a good judge of character. It’s ironic because even though she is on the ball about avoiding him in the beginning, she makes the mistake of trusting him in the end (you can probably guess how that ends). This season even portrays Joe better with many moments of dark humor in between to make him a little more charming so that it makes sense that characters would ignore their instincts and entertain him.
Of course, there are a lot of plot twists and great writing moments especially starting from episode 6 to 8 but still the storytelling is marked by continuity issues. For example, early on Joe’s finger tip gets cut off by a Mob man who believes that he is someone else. Though that moment is shocking, it’s ignored for a while since Joe decided to stalk his a new love interest strangely called Love (Victoria Pedretti), and almost as an afterthought we learn that he does plan on addressing this incident after all. While watching, it felt as if the writers were proposing that Joe, this squirmish and slim guy didn’t feel pain until he finally went for surgery to fix his finger. The resolution of that event was unsatisfying but we don’t really get the chance to ponder it because more haphazard events like it inspired more questions.
Like, the issue of how bigger reveals are set up. For example, we learn later that Love is actually crazy but the events that lead to that revelation don’t sufficiently prepare the audience for this disclosure which makes it seem like another random afterthought even though the show presents it as inevitable and obvious. At times it feels like you are watching a soap opera with the rug constantly being pulled from under you because viewers aren’t given enough lead up to make big revelations natural. True, it is hard to prep a reveal and also maintain a sense of mystery but the dissonance in say Joe suddenly addressing the issue of his missing finger tip a while later after it’s cut off and Love suddenly being revealed as crazy is eerily similar to problems in shows like Pretty Little Liars. Luckily for the writers of “You”, all these plot holes can just be justified with the explanation that since everything is from Joe’s perspective, if he doesn’t take notice, you wouldn’t either. However, viewers shouldn’t have to fill in the gaps of the plot by having to rationalize away issues.
Although “You” almost evades all criticism, it still has a few blatant faults. Namely that the supporting characters in the show aren’t all equals in their acting ability. This doesn’t seems like a big deal at first but in a big production like “You”, even a minor character can throw off the dynamic of the show. For instance Jenna Ortega who plays Ellie, Delilah’s younger sister, who gets tied up in Joe’s chaos, is mediocre in her role. Although her acting is OK, she is very stiff and it feels as though she is just reciting lines up until maybe episode 6 or 7 when she has to really be emotional. Likewise Adwin Brown in his role as Calvin, Joe’s supervisor, is insincere in delivering his lines when talking to Joe which makes some of their interactions awkward since Badgley is very engaged and true to his character in every interaction while Brown seems to be forcing his role.
Despite all this, the show is still worth watching. I really wanted to hate the show because of how disappointing season one was. I had already lowered my expectations heavily and was ready to dissect every mistake or problem in the plot. Like with season one, I expected it to be a chore to watch it but it was actually a great surprise to discover how much it had improved. Still, it doesn’t quite earn the esteem of notably great shows like Sherlock, Marcella, Vagabond, Story of Yanxi Palace or The Wire. Maybe that’s because of the lack of harmony and consistency in how characters are developed. Or perhaps it’s the feeling of inadequacy in the balance of the tone of the show, in outlining the dichotomy between good and evil since horrific scenes are so often glossed over. But I have to admit, that even though season two ended with a calm air, the show has great potential to be something special. I mean with a character like Joe who is arrogant about being better than others whilst in total denial about being destructive, the story almost sells itself.