Developed by: Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble
Cast: Penn Badgley, Victoria Pedretti, Saffron Burrows, Travis Van Winkle, Shalita Grant, Tati Gabrielle and Dylan Arnold.
Streaming On: Netflix
I have to say it’s a miracle that I can write about the third season of a series based on a sociopathic serial killer – who loves books, loves love, nurses a glass cage in his basement, murders the people who’re obstacles for him, murders people who’re obstacles for the women he loves, murders the women he loves, and mentally craps on everyone from Instagram influencers to anti-vaxxers and California yoga moms to polyamorous couples – like it’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s 2021 after all. The makers of You deserve some sort of Nobel Peace Prize for pulling a fast one over the ultra-woke multiverse. The series isn’t just existing but thriving – three years in a row. It’s thrilling, trashy, brave and bracingly wry. Season 3 comes close to replicating the dizzying highs of Season 1, but we’ll get to that later.
When You first dropped in 2019, I remember the conflicted reception being just as entertaining as the series itself. One section of viewers enjoyed the twisted psychology but worried that they might be judged for admitting so. Another section called out the protagonist, Joe (Penn Badgley), for being the epitome of toxic masculinity before realizing the joke was on them. I could imagine Joe’s snarky voiceover making a self-aware but unsettlingly frank feminist pun on the new-age audience dissing him. That’s the thing about You. It’s a collective safe space – where some of us are allowed to project our basest desires onto a romantic lead, who thinks he’s too smart for the corpses he disposes of. In Joe’s head – and by extension, a generation that is afraid to be “cancelled” every day – being politically correct and socially disingenuous is worse than being dead. Using a hashtag is worse than using a pickaxe. This, in itself, is the morbid allure of You. And no matter how repetitive it gets, the essence of Joe’s existence will never get old as long as humanity is still on the internet. That he kills people instead of getting into an argument with them is only incidental.
I hope I don’t get arrested before finishing this review. Coming back to the latest season, You takes off from the end of an underwhelming Season 2. Joe has found his match – in more ways than one. He has moved from Los Angeles to a “North Cal purgatory” of white privilege with fellow psychopath and mother of his child, Love (Victoria Pedretti), and already has his roving eye fixated on an attractive next-door neighbor. The season plays out as one giant marital crisis in a Desperate Housewives setting – where residents disappear, the sex is dual and desperate, and secrets are preserved at any cost. (And then the critic wrote: “This is a marriage story supplied by blood, gore and happily never afters”). Joe is wary and tired of Love, a young mother grieving the death of her brother but also a wife obsessed with the idea of landing a similarly deranged soulmate. He is looking for his next love(sick) story. His scornful voiceover often turns rueful: “I wish I could bottle the tension and possibility when you’re with someone for the first time. I think it inevitably goes away.” Unfortunately for him, the sheer vapidness of his suburban California environment keeps restoring his bond with his equally sardonic wife – they complete each other’s sentences, stalk social media profiles together, and revel in their shared condescension for the Momfluencers and manicured mayhem of Madre Linda. The only difference is that their reckless impulses are now informed by the travails of parenthood. A measles outbreak, for instance, derails Joe’s covering up of their first crime. Jealousy kills, but sudden surges of protectiveness – for their newborn son, Henry – trigger some worthy detours.
At a broader level, it’s fun to appreciate that the one-liner of You remains: Psychopaths are people, too. Watching Joe and Love suppress their serial-killing selves in pursuit of the picket-fenced dream is like watching two addicts trying – but not really trying – to stay clean. The relapses are almost soothing. Seeing the two slowly realize that the adage “Opposites attract” implies that they might be resigned to a future of preying on ordinary hearts – and not one another – is oddly touching. They’re too identical to be intrigued by each other anymore. The alienation that brought them together now threatens to tear them apart. The couple therapy sessions are wickedly phrased: it’s amusing to see them express their problems to the therapist in vanilla language.
But there’s a problem with the rhythm – the structure – of the narrative. Dysfunctional domestic dramedies are tough to pace over ten episodes, let alone the story of a violent couple spreading silent havoc through a gated community. You is best in its honeymoon phase, its first four episodes. Nothing can go wrong. This new world is judged with literary wit and precision by the couple, a crime is committed and an investigation resolved. The therapist asks them to “be a team,” and of course, Joe and Love interpret this in ways only they can. By now, viewers, too, look past the nostalgia and recognize the playful allegories of a fragile marriage.
The following three episodes, however, occupy the no man’s land between an unconvincing post-credits montage and a long pre-title setup. The reason being: this portion is a flabby link between two similar conflicts. Joe falls for someone in the beginning. But once that’s “taken care of,” he falls for the local librarian Marienne, just as Love goes extramarital with their grieving neighbor’s 19-year-old son, Theo. Just like the central marriage, the writing becomes unclear about whether it wants to stay or leave. Scenes that don’t feature the two at all increase, which sort of beats the purpose of You’s trademark first-person perspective.
The screenplay suddenly creaks under the imminence of the long haul. For one, baby Henry is nearly forgotten; the initial parts promised a fuller arc of toxic humans trying to be good parents. But he barely drives their motivations. Two female detectives disappear quicker than they appear, further fueling the show’s contempt for authority. It doesn’t help that Joe’s affinity towards Marienne feels too designed and abrupt – they share little to no chemistry – as though the series is afraid to explore a Joe that’s determined to stay away from the chase. The moments between them don’t look compelling; they exist because they must. Penn Badgley is a great voice actor, but not even he can rationalize Joe’s pre-written patterns.
Ditto for Love and Theo, except Victoria Pedretti’s performance keeps the character interesting. I can see why the actress is a modern horror favorite. Her distinct face is like a big-screen film, conveying the strongest of feelings with alarmingly subtle twitches. The Haunting of Hill House brought this superpower to the fore, and You simply relocates it to a home. We almost empathize with Joe for being scared of Love – her eyes go blank when she smells blood (read: suspects he’s cheating), as though a sickness morphs into human form. In this season, she’s hero and villain at once: a complicated prospect for an audience conditioned to equate gender with moral agency. She eases the season’s transition towards a typically implausible – but emotionally loaded – climactic stretch. The last few episodes are deceptively profound with their campy swipes at companionship. I like that, finally, a line is drawn. The victims in the first two seasons of You – including Joe’s exes – were (presented as) flawed, flimsy or disingenuous people. They were innocent, yes, but only in comparison to him. The characters who survive this season are spared for being virtuous, naive or, at the very least, compatible. Their innocence is unsparing. The ones that live don’t deserve to die; they connect the concrete walls of mortality to the murky windows of morality.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of You is Joe’s analog heart, perpetually at odds with an ocean of digital bodies. I can imagine him scoffing at popular titles like Gone Girl and Killing Eve instead of relating to them. (It’s worth mentioning that these are probably cozy Christmas watches in the Goldberg household). He may stalk the objects of his affection on Instagram, but it’s the real thing that gets his juices flowing. He resists liking their status messages or flirting online. Instead, he stakes out libraries and cafes, “sherlocks” their personalities from the books they read, and relies on physical gestures to read their social temperatures. Even the voice in his head sounds like a live-tweeting session of his life for an audience of one. In short, he’s an old soul in a disturbingly young world.
As a result, his smugness is inbuilt. He thinks like he knows it all, but the conceit is that he speaks like he’s un-knowing it all – the intellectual equivalent of tailoring your accent depending on the person you talk to. We think he’s conspiring with us, grinning with us, but he’s actually dismissive of us. He’s tolerating us. And that’s what I find so irresistible about You. It dares us to judge it back. It shakes the bridge between actions and thoughts. It nudges us to privately entertain the worst versions of ourselves and then smirks at us for doing so. But You isn’t provocative for the heck of it. The gleefully oblivious tone is no statement. It’s more of a coping mechanism. It’s a casual reminder that civilization is more overrated than ever before. And it proves that those who are restricted by discourse can still be freed by art. I may be writing about You. But I’m talking to you.