From the people who brought you The Magicians and the entire CW superhero universe comes You, a stalker drama starring Gossip Girl‘s Gossip Girl as a slightly more scary stalker. Penn Badgley is Joe Goldberg, a Nice Guy (just ask him) living in New York City and working as a manager in a hip bookstore with a convenient book vault/murder basement.
When aspiring writer Beck (Elizabeth Lail) comes into his bookstore one day, he immediately falls in obsession, quickly following all of her social media accounts, finding every online moment of her life, and straight-up stalking her the old-fashioned way. (Joe is a millennial hipster, y’all. He’s gonna go retro on this one, too.)
You, based on a book by Caroline Kepnes, is one of those stories that finds all of its best parts in its execution. We’ve seen a stalker story before—the Lifetime network has made its name on them. What sets You apart is two-fold: First, its self-awareness that You uses all of the same tropes as your classic romantic comedy or romance, save for its context: the show calls out how creepy and controlling so many of them truly are. Second, it puts us inside of Joe’s head and doesn’t let us leave. Like Beck, we are victims of his obsession (via his pretentious, finely-curated, deeply delusional inner monologue). Unlike Beck, we know it. And, unlike Beck, Joe can’t hide from us.
The pilot of You is more or less a horror meet-cute. As far as we know, Beck’s initial meeting of Joe is actually an organic, fateful meeting of two souls, but their later encounter which sees Joe saving Beck off of the MTA train tracks is highly influenced by Joe’s mega stalking. At this point in the episode, he’s already broken into her apartment, stolen her underwear, and masturbated from the sidewalk outside of her residence.
If it wasn’t already apparent, Joe is mentally unwell. We’re not totally sure what happened to make Joe the way he is—at this point, we only get glimpses into his backstory—but he has a highly delusional view of the world and of his place in it. He truly seems to believe that what he is doing is in Beck’s best interest and there’s something kind of fascinating about watching that delusion play out. Because Joe has a lot of issues, but one familiar one is his misogny.
In this summer’s Netflix comedy sensation Nanette, Hannah Gadsby broke it down in this way: “Is misogyny a mental illness? Yeah. Yeah, it is! Especially if you’re a heterosexual man. Because if you hate what you desire, do you know what that is? Fucking tense!” You is fucking tense.
Joe is an extreme version of this man, but You is at its scariest when Joe is engaging in some of his mildest behavior because it is recognizable. When Joe kidnaps Benji, Beck’s douchey boyfriend, and locks him in his bookstore’s murder vault at the end of the first episode, he is a monster in a way the viewer hopefully can’t recognize in their everyday life.
But, in so many of the instances when Joe is laying out his logic about how he is going to fix Beck’s mess of a life (because she can’t be expected to fix it herself), he is recognizable because so many men are socialized to think about women in this way: as objects waiting to be rescued. That is the most horrifying part of You.
Just kidding. The SEO nightmare that is the title You is the true horror of this show.
The inclusion of Paco, Joe’s child next door neighbor is this show at its most complex. Joe gives Paco a friend, a book, and a meal when Paco needs it, but poor Paco is also highly-impressionable. Does Joe see something of himself in Paco? Will Paco follow in Joe’s misogynistic footsteps?
I cannot wait until someone does a fanmade trailer mashing up You and Gossip Girl.
I had a chance to talk to the cast and creators of You at this summer’s ATX TV Festival. Check out that interview here.
I really need to check my social media privacy settings…