This review contains no spoilers.
It feels crass to say it, but toxic masculinity, abuse of power, and sexual violence are “in” and everybody wants a piece. But after a few years of nearly every television show shoehorning their own #MeToo-style plotline, only a handful of properties actual handle it well and have up with something worthwhile to say on the topic remains elusive.
Enter You, a10-episode scripted drama narrated by Penn Badgley’s Joe. Joe is a New York bookseller who will go to any length to get the girl he wants, all while convincing himself that his dangerous and disturbing acts are for her sake. You is horror filtered through romantic comedy, with Joe literally quoting When Harry Met Sally (apparently the only way he’d consume a woman’s words) in his ever-present voiceover. He thinks he’s the leading man, the Nice Guy™ there to rescue a woman from the vain banality of millennial heartache and her own bad choices. But to the viewer it becomes ever more clear that, Dan Humphrey-wholesome good looks aside, Joe is the real danger.
You is back on a new network (rescued by Netflix) for season 2, in a new city, with a new love interest (saccharinely named Love), and a new moppet to protect. Although this time, instead of a malleable young Joe analogue, it’s Ellie, a 15 year old girl capable of going toe to toe with Joe and maybe even figuring out what he’s up to or at least taking him down a peg. Yes, there’s another Joe skeptic, but instead of a friend of the object of his affections (word choice intentional), it’s the property manager at his apartment complex.
To update the show rather than simply having this being You the Sequel: Now With a Different Stalkee, Joe is in LA, hiding from Candace, the ex-girlfriend he (and we) thought he killed prior to the events of the first season. In last season’s finale, she showed up in the flesh after a number of hallucinations. Throughout the season, You season 2 goes into more detail about how their relationship ended, what Candace is after, and Joe’s troubled childhood. Guinevere Beck now occupies the role of spectral ex-girlfriend, haunting Joe – who goes by Will – as he tries to be a better man with a woman who is, of course, called Love.
If you’re completely new to the show, it’s worth it to binge season one for Shay Mitchell’s Peach Salinger alone. If you insist on depriving yourself of that joy, there’s enough background info in the flashbacks and “previously on” to give you an idea, but again: you’re only robbing yourself. Sera Gamble, of the insightful, pop culture riddled The Magicians, and Greg Berlanti, of the emotional coming of age stories in Dawson’s Creek and Everwood to Love, Simon and, to an extent, the Arrowverse, are a perfect pair to remix tropes that are meant to get our dopamine flying, like a 360-degree slo-mo kiss, with a truly unsettling use of a meat grinder.
After a successful (but somewhat divisive) first season on Lifetime that picked up popularity once it was bingeable on Netflix, You is back for season 2 and admirably up to the challenge of keeping its format fresh without straining all believability that a guy who killed at least three people is still out there doing his book-store-clerk-from-a-Wes-Anderson-movie thing. Precariously, Joe attempts friendship this time around. He’s trying not to repeat the mistakes of his past, and in one of its most inspired subplots, Joe confronts another male predator – though of course, to Joe’s mind, the word “another” has no place in that sentence.
The show continues to provide biting commentary on things like designer grocery stores, which makes the show fun and keeps Joe and his alias Will just on the side of “is this guy psycho or does he have a point?” That said, the show’s best zeitgeist-y commentary is the fact that this misogynist murderer is the one blathering on in voiceover about the same surface-level critique of the way women use social media that we’re all sick of hearing everywhere from the nightly news to our boomer relatives over the holidays.
This season acknowledges that it can no longer play the “maybe he’s a psychopath, maybe he’s just a romantic” card the way it did last year. Instead, You toys with us, like when it offers a vision of Love calling Will out and jerking him off at their work, making it seem like she might be nuts too, before revealing the truth that it’s all in his head.
Once again, You relies heavily on Badgley’s leading man looks and his ability to turn on earnest, good guy charm in the blink of an eye. Joe buys what he’s selling, which makes him even more dangerous than someone who sets out to do evil. He projects entire narratives onto these women and twists any situation to justify his actions, always believing he is justified. Badgley plays Joe as the straight man in a messed up world, and his grounded performance keeps the sometimes freewheeling plot from going off the rails. He finds small ways to wordlessly broadcast everything Joe’s unwilling to reveal, even to himself.
We’re more in on Joe’s creepiness from the get-go this time around, even if it’s at a slant, with end-of-episode switchbacks that make it impossible to pretend he’s simply a good guy who happens to fall into circumstances that require murder or that draw out the stalker in him, as Joe would like to do. The introduction of a new male character who acts as a surprisingly effective therapist (Robin Lord Taylor) for Joe opens him up a bit, allowing more psychoanalysis to take place outside of his voiceover. That character also complicates Joe’s vision of himself as a good person, in new and surprising ways throughout the season.
The show’s piquant sense of humor feels both more prominent and precise, rather than just giving us the one speed of Joe’s wry hot takes in voiceover. A moment when a character uses what first appears to be blood to write a message on the wall, only to turn out to be ketchup to pass the time playing hangman, feels like a show where the writers are more comfortable playing with the tropes of the horror/thriller genre, not just the romcom side of things.
Much like the titular Fleabag in Fleabag, Joe performs for the audience, dropping one-liners like “this room is a self-fellating ouroboros of desperation” (his description of improv) to impress. But unlike Fleabag, You never acknowledges that anyone else is watching, meaning that Joe’s performance isn’t for us, but for himself, and the version of each new “you” he constructs in his head.
Packed full of references of everything from Ali Wong and Yorgos Lanthimos to Francisca Lia Block and The Power (a book he’s deluding himself about, if he’s read it at all), You is sharper in its storytelling and as an instrument of societal critique in its second season. Those who struggled with whether season 1 was knowing enough about its protagonist’s flaws will be pleased to see the thesis clarified and distilled, and the resulting show funnier, frothier, and more suspenseful because of it.
These days it feels like there’s little new left to say about gender and violence, but through the voice of a self-proclaimed privilege white man, You season 2 brings us something decidedly worthwhile.