Sam Brooks reviews the second season of You, the surprise 2018 Netflix hit that made toxic masculinity compulsively watchable.
Major spoilers for the first season of You, which is really worth watching.
What if you were watching a Lifetime movie, but from the perspective of the villain? That’s the premise of You, which was a flash-in-the-pan hit for Netflix this time last year. For a few weeks, almost everyone with a Netflix subscription seemed to have taken up residence in the head of Joe Goldberg (Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgely), a devastatingly charming man who falls in love with the wholesomely attractive Guinevere Beck. Oh, also, he’s actually obsessed with her, and will do nearly anything to be with her, including murdering her friends. You started out on the Lifetime network, a longtime home to pulpy “woman in danger” TV movies, but flipped the script on those classic Lifetime tropes. Rather than watching the woman fall in love with a bad guy, we were watching the bad guy relentlessly, and successfully, stalk the woman – then make her fall in love with him.
You succeeded largely because it was very aware of Joe’s awfulness, and how society’s acceptance of toxic masculinity is what allowed him to move through her circles unscathed. Yes, he’s a murderer, but gosh, he’s so charming! Yes, his obsession with this certain woman is criminal and horrible, but he was damaged as a child! It wasn’t quite as tight as it needed to be – ultimately, the show was almost too enjoyable, and Joe was such a watchable character that some poor folk actually ended up rooting for him.
It’s hard for a show to position itself as a critique of toxic masculinity when the thrills largely come from abuse perpetuated against women, and a near-fetishistic commitment to showing it. There’s a bit of fun to be found in Joe’s relentless attention to detail in his schemes, but when the results are so gruesome and horrible, it takes a bit of the shine off. Even as it reminded us that many of Joe’s targets were bad people, Joe was always the worst, and there’s only so much fun you can get out of that. You’s feints at critique ended up being an anchor around the show’s neck, rather than a foundation for it to build on.
Thankfully, the second show is an improvement on pretty much all levels. By exploding its entire premise at the end of the first season, by having Joe murder his target of obsession and having a previous target of obsession come back from the dead, it sets up higher stakes right from the get-go. Also, by moving Joe from New York’s high-ish society to the near-sociopathic, self-care-obsessed milieu of LA, it gives us an entire new cast of people to hate – almost as much as we should hate Joe. A show that is occasionally as heavy as You needs comic relief, and it continues to mine roundly-hated stereotypes for comedy. We can’t always loathe Joe, so it’s nice to loathe somebody else, like Forty (James Scully), who runs the LA branch of his parents’ supermarket chain, Anavrin (nirvana backwards), when he’s not trying to make it as a screenwriter.
Most crucially, the second season supplies more obstacles for Joe, who seems to have a near superheroic ability to get out of trouble. It gives him an actual adversary, in the very much not deceased Candace (a wild Ambyr Childers), while giving the audience a version of Joe who is not just wrangling with a new obsession, Love (Victoria Pedretti, in a star-making performance), but trying to be a good person.
None of this would matter if Joe wasn’t someone the audience could root for, and, as in the first season, You’s best asset is Penn Badgeley. He makes a character who should be repulsive, and quite often is, into someone who we actually want to watch. The audience is charmed just like the people in his life are – he’s beautiful, he’s quick with a joke – even as we’re being constantly reminded that Joe is, yes, a terrible, no good person. He’s abused women, he’s killed women, and is manipulating someone in more or less every scene in the show. But by externalising Joe’s every thought, whether with well-deployed voiceover or just good old fashioned reaction shots, Badgley becomes impossible to look away from. It’s like watching a car careen down the road – a car that you deeply want to see crash.
You also manages to deal with its most problematic elements in a largely satisfying way. There’s an almost unavoidable part of it that will inevitably revolve around the exploitation and abuse of women by men, but in its second season You has a much better understanding of the impact of that abuse, and is a lot more committed to condemning Joe for murder, manipulation and generally being a shitty person. The writing’s a lot more assured this time too, more willing to make savage jokes at people’s expense, more willing to explore why people are the way they are, and on the brief sojourns the show takes outside of Joe’s head, we get a sense of the impact he’s having on the world around him. It’s not necessarily deep stuff, this isn’t Unbelievable, but it’s more than a just a brushed-off acknowledgment, and it makes watching You a fuller, more confrontational experience.
But the most important thing about this second season is not showing how deep You can go – the premise only allows for so much investigation of Joe’s psyche, given how much time we spend inside his head – but showing what You can be. The second season blows itself up in some key ways, arguably as significantly as the first season did at its end, and it never manages to go entirely off the rails. Is it ridiculous? Every moment of it. Is it believable? Not even slightly. But does it make you want to hit ‘next episode’ as the credits run? Absolutely.
Honestly, You makes turning out a good show look as easy as moving through society as a charming white man who does bad things. Because it turns out, all you need to make a show that people want to keep watching is a great premise that can survive more or less any twist you throw at it, a strong lead performance that only gets better as time goes on, and being twice as fun as it is deep.