Lifetime premiered the scripted original series You in September 2018 without much fanfare, only to find a devoted audience after it started streaming on Netflix.
Based on the eponymous novel by Caroline Kepnes, You is not a typical Lifetime production but rather a subversive take on the romance genre. In the span of ten episodes, the first season of You offers a clever deconstruction of one of the most insidious and familiar forms of toxic masculinity: the nice guy complex. We all know the type. Those who think of themselves as feminist, who claim to know what women really want, and who use their niceness as currency to coax women into dating, relationships, and/or sex.
You stars Joe Goldberg (a pitch-perfect Penn Badgley) as the nice guy par excellence. He is a manager of an independent bookstore in New York City who falls madly in love with a beautiful aspiring writer named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail).
You takes place entirely from Joe’s perspective. His inner monologue guides the narration. Beck at first comes across as a one-dimensional character because she is meant to be a reflection of Joe’s desires, fantasies, and (unrealistic) expectations of romance and women. When Beck’s complex real self threatens to come out and to disrupt Joe’s idealized image of her, he judges and punishes her.
While Joe tells us in voiceover narration that he is devoted to Beck and that he just wants to be the perfect boyfriend, his actions reveal his true character: Joe is a compulsive stalker and sociopathic murderer who is willing to destroy anyone who gets in the way of his relationship with Beck, including Beck.
Now a Netflix original series, You‘s second season, which premiered in December 2019 and is loosely based on Kepnes’ Hidden Bodies thriller, sees Joe running away to Los Angeles after his ex-girlfriend Candace Stone (Ambyr Childers) resurfaces and threatens to expose him.
The ten new episodes double down on satirizing white male privilege and romantic and gender expectations. The season delves deeper into Joe’s psyche and is overall lighter and funnier (much of the humor is derived from Joe’s utter disdain for L.A. as a city of posers and fame whores).
On the first episode, “A Fresh Start”, Joe assures us that he wants to be a better man and that he will no longer “fantasize to some impossible version of a woman I barely know. It’s not good.” That is, of course, until he meets a sexy hipster chef named Love Quinn (the excellent Victoria Pedretti) and he starts fantasizing about falling in love with an impossible version of a woman all over again.
Unlike Beck, however, Love comes across as assertive and self-assured. She reveals to Joe early on her underlying darkness and sense of brokenness (she’s still reeling from the premature death of her husband when the two first meet), which both surprises and arouses Joe. He thinks to himself: “You’re a different kind of woman, Love. This time will be different. I will never hurt you… We can heal each other.” Joe sees Love as a vessel for salvation.
There wouldn’t be much of a show if Joe and Love were to run off together into the sunset and live happily ever after. The second half of the season turns into a wild ride, throwing one surprising twist after another.
One of the main surprises is that Candace manages to track down Joe in L.A. and discloses his murderous tendencies to Love and her codependent twin brother, Forty (James Scully). Except that she is dismissed as the crazy and obsessive ex. She shouts in an exasperated tone: “What is it about Joe fucking Goldberg? Why is it that no one can see him for what he is?” Indeed, You underscores how prone we are to believe men over women and to excuse their questionable behavior.
The most twisted twist of all comes in the standout final episode, “Love, Actually”, when we learn that Love is also a sociopath. After locking him in his own glass cage, Love tells Joe that she understands why he murdered Beck and the others, and that she has also committed murder in order to protect their relationship. Joe looks horrified. (Double standards much?)
She rightly rebukes him: “While I was seeing you, really seeing you, you were busy gazing at a goddam fantasy. A perfectly imperfect girl. You saw what you wanted to see. But I was always right here, the whole time.” With the character of Love, You falls prey to reproducing the problematic and now ubiquitous figure of the female sociopath, which has been popularized and glamorized by the likes of Gillian Flynn and the BBC’s TV show Killing Eve. By having Love match Joe’s level of insanity, You runs the risk of undermining its own critique of male violence, toxicity, and entitlement.
The final scene features Joe and a pregnant Love moving into a perfectly manicured suburban home. Joe feels trapped and sees this as his punishment. Standing in his backyard, he fixes his gaze on his next-door female neighbor. With a devilish smile on his face, he thinks: “See you soon, neighbor.” A perfect setup for the inevitable third season. Will it bring anything new to the discussion?