***This post contains spoilers for Netflix‘s new series ‘YOU’. You have been warned!***
Joe (Penn Badgley) is a seemingly straight-edged ‘nice guy’ who manages a bookstore in New York city. His interest is piqued when a girl called Guinevere, or ‘Beck’ in real life (Elizabeth Lail), enters his shop, and they have an almost entirely traditional meet-cute involving exchanging literary interests and making fun of another customer for his love of Dan Brown. But this is all a little different to the Notting Hill-type storyline you might be expecting.
Joe is instantly obsessed with Beck, and takes to the internet to find out more about her. In an ominous ode to the dangers of sharing too much on your public social media profiles, he finds out what he thinks is the entire story of her life, proceeds to stalk her and then weedles his way into striking up a relationship with her – doing some unsavoury things in the process, all to show that he’s ‘not a maybe, he’s the one’.
Right off the bat, this show is soapy nonsense. It’s in the same vein as star Penn Badgley’s previous role in Gossip Girl, but YOU is far more self-aware, layered and intelligent, without compromising on being wildly entertaining.
“Time and time again, YOU sets up these movie cliche moments and then pulls the rug from under you”
Meeting in a bookshop, her writing him poetry, talking movies, landing on top of each other after an incident in the subway; you’d be forgiven for thinking these are the perfect ingredients for a run of the mill rom-com you’ve seen a thousand times before – but that’s not quite what YOU is going for.
Time and time again, YOU sets up these movie cliche moments and then pulls the rug from under you – after Joe saves Beck’s life and she lands on top of him, he gets puke on his face rather than the kiss you expect; and when Joe finally manages to get an invite to Beck’s bed, it ends with him climaxing in a mere eight seconds, rather than a steamy night of passion.
It’s a strange feeling to be so involved in this twisted love story – fearing for Beck and feeling incredulous at Joe’s actions – and then laughing out loud at these completely unexpected moments.
The series is based on a book of the same name by author Caroline Kepnes, and it’s the female perspective on a male character that makes this story so interesting.
Too often, we see stories where, when looked at rationally, the actions of a ‘man in love’ can so easily also be viewed as possessive and controlling. Female character stereotypes like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who are vastly unexplored, are used as a tool for the male characters to grow and develop around.
Less often, however, we get to hear the man’s inner monologue as this as happening. They may rarely be quite as damaged or psychotic as Joe, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a version of his thoughts running through the head of many other romantic heroes.
As soon as he sets eyes on Beck, he stakes a claim to her. He assumes she wants to be noticed because of her loud jangly jewellery choice, that she purposefully chooses to reach a book down from a high shelf to reveal to him that she’s not wearing a bra, and that she has the cash to pay for her purchase, but instead hands over a credit card because she ‘wants him to know her name’. Beck is going about her business; we have no idea what her intention is, but Joe assumes he does.
You have to wonder, how often does this happen in real life? How many times do women think they’ve had a friendly encounter with a man, when he thinks it’s something more? How many sexual assaults, rapes, deaths even, started with a man thinking he automatically had claim over a woman’s life and her body? It’s a morbid thought, but one that seems more and more likely in a post-#MeToo world, where more women are sharing their stories than ever.
Joe thinks he has Beck all figured out within minutes of meeting her and stalking her social media profiles. He projects his feelings, the story he’s made up in his head, onto her. He stalks her, watches her through her vast (and, for some reason, curtainless) windows.
Consistently, Joe looks somewhere other than Beck herself to find out more about her; he searches online, reads her messages to other people – even gets into a scrape by taking her current booty call hostage and asking him what her motivations are. But when he has the chance to get to know Beck himself on their first date, you see him zone out. She’s talking away at him, but her words fade to background noise as Joe continues to takes away her voice and replace it with her own.
A pleasant revelation is when we get to episode four, right after their disappointing first attempt at sex, and we find we’re in Beck’s head instead of Joe’s. We get a glimpse into what she really thinks of him, her friends, and her relationship with her father. We see the world through her eyes. It doesn’t last too long, but is a great interjection midway through the series to remind us that Beck is an actual person, with her own thoughts and feelings, and not just a caricature in Joe’s mind.
“He compares Beck to mere words on a page, instead of respecting her for the living, breathing, imperfect but capable human that she is.”
Joe sees Beck as something to save, to rescue, to protect – or at least his version of those things. She’s struggling, generally. She hasn’t got much money, is living beyond her means, has a sort-of boyfriend that treats her like shit and is having major trouble finding the time and courage to write, the thing she says that she truly wants to do.
Beck has painted a picture of herself through her online presence, as so many of us do, but Joe can see that the reality doesn’t match up, as it so often doesn’t, and he thinks he’s the one that can make all that stuff go away.
He conveys this in a slightly on-the-nose fashion when showing his young friend Paco around the basement in his bookstore. Down there is a soundproof, temperature controlled, sunlight free chamber for the oldest and rarest books at the store.
Joe says to Paco, ‘the most valuable things in life are usually the most helpless. That’s why people like us need to protect them’. In the moment he’s talking about books, but in the context of this world we can see that this is how he sees the women he loves; as a helpless ‘damsel in distress’ for him to protect. He compares Beck to mere words on a page, instead of respecting her for the living, breathing, imperfect but capable human that she is. He takes her agency, and forces her voice and story to be trapped in the binds of a book forever, rather than being free to roam and act as they please. In this moment, Joe is showing how he sees women as objects to possess and ‘protect’, instead of equal beings with their own free will.
Joe is a wrong’un, there’s no doubt about it. The script here barely waits 60 seconds to let you know that, revealing instantly from his inner monologue that this is a man with issues, to be wary of. He’s the villain of the piece – but he’s also the protagonist, and so in some ways, the hero.
And we see more to him than just the twisted cyber-stalker side. We see him be genuinely kind. He helps a young boy who lives in his building, Paco, over and over, giving him free books, food and companionship when things at home are not so peachy. He does readings to children in the store. He gives Beck some good advice, occasionally. He hurts people, but they’re clearly bad people. Similar to the Dexter effect, Joe is clearly unhinged, but does just enough good to mean that you’re somehow rooting for him anyway.
It just goes to show that the rom-com narrative is so embedded in our psyche that even when the hero is downright dangerous, there’s a teeny tiny part of us that wants him to get the girl. That’s waiting for the first kiss, that gets a thrill at seeing their chemistry. Part of it comes down to Badgley and Lail’s charm, which oozes off screen from both of them – but there’s definitely another part that comes from this kind of deluded, possessive behaviour being made to look normal in other, less self-aware stories on screen. After all, as Joe thinks when hiding in Beck’s bathroom as she turns the shower on, inches away from him – ‘I’ve seen enough rom-coms to know that guys like me are always getting into jams like this’.
There comes a point near the third act of the series where you think Joe might be coming around, that he really might not be all bad. After having therapy, Beck decides she needs space, asks him to let her go, and he does. It’s a strange and surprising example of him giving her true autonomy. It seems that whether Beck actually wants him is key to Joe doing the things he does; he wants it to be reciprocated, not to force himself on her.
So he lets go, and she moves on, and he does too. He strikes up a positive, maybe even healthy relationship with someone new. And Beck flourishes without him, though perhaps also because of him. You get a glimpse of what they could be without each other.
But this is soapy nonsense, remember – and so they find their way back. Beck is finally the one dictating the story here when she takes a walk in Joe’s neighbourhood and bumps into him accidentally on purpose. She texts him that night; she invites him to meet her. She wants it – only this time we’re sure it’s coming from her and not him.
“Isn’t it embedded in our brains, the dream of ‘the one’ to sweep us off our feet and rescue us from, as Beck says, ‘the unfairness of everything’, when if only things weren’t so unfair, we wouldn’t need saving?”
Just when you think they might be destined for a slightly warped but happy ending after all, the can gets opened and the worms spill everywhere. Beck discovers the truth about what Joe has been doing since they met, and things spiral, fast.
The finale is where we get to know Beck the most intimately yet. Imprisoned whilst Joe decides what to do next, she sits at the typewriter he gave her (in some twisted attempt to encourage her to work) and taps out a beautiful monologue.
‘How the hell did you end up here?’, she asks herself. She talks about fairy tales, and that ‘if Prince Charming was real, if he could save you…you needed to be saved from the unfairness of everything’. And doesn’t that just sound like the kind of bullshit that romcoms and ‘the movies’ have been feeding us all our lives?
Beck types that the fairy tales were in her, ‘deep like poison’, and isn’t too this the narrative that women and girls have had drilled into our brains; that we don’t get to flourish, to thrive, to create messes and clear them up by ourselves? Isn’t it so prevalent in our bloodstreams that we too are the ones craving a white knight to save us, when there isn’t one coming? Isn’t it embedded in our brains, the dream of ‘the one’ to sweep us off our feet and rescue us from, as Beck says, ‘the unfairness of everything’, when if only things weren’t so unfair, we wouldn’t need saving?
‘Didn’t you ask for it?’, Beck types, three times over. ‘Didn’t you ask for it?’. Haven’t we all been accused of ‘asking for it’? Isn’t that thrown in our faces whenever we break rank, that we asked for it? And doesn’t the horror of the things we’ve been through drive us to thinking, maybe we did?
Nobody asks for this. Nobody asks for oppression, and misogyny, and Beck certainly didn’t ask for, as she puts it, ‘a sociopath on a white horse to clean house’. Joe thinks that she did, that her mess of a life was itself the question – but no amount of mess requires a woman’s life to be stalked, moulded, controlled and ripped apart, even if some of the outcome is good.
YOU is, at first sight, a thoroughly entertaining, surprising and bingeable delight. Peel back a layer or two, and it’s a fascinating metafest of male entitlement and the desire for control over women. This show struck a chord, spoke to me, churned my stomach. And, most jaw-droppingly of all – it ended on one hell of a cliffhanger. Season 2, anyone?