In season four, the show about a charismatic murderer has lost what made it compelling, writes Catherine McGregor.
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There’s a secret to watching You, the terribly addictive / addictively terrible Netflix show that takes the viewer inside the mind of a charming serial killer. Go in expecting a quality thriller and you’ll be disappointed – the plot holes are ocean-sized, the characters are wafer-thin, and little things like motivation and consequences are regularly hand-waved off in favour of yet another strangulation or stabbing.
But watch You as a comedy and it makes a lot more sense. Based on a novel by US author Caroline Kepnes, the TV series – originally a little-seen dud until saved by Netflix, where it became a ratings juggernaut – treats killing with such flippancy that it’s hard to take seriously at all. This silliness comes to a head in series three, when (huge spoiler alert) our anti-hero Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) finds himself going toe-to-toe with his secretly psychotic wife Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). Double the murders, double the fun.
You boasts a few other pleasures. The clash between Joe’s genial demeanour and his smug, sardonic inner monologue – cut together by an editor with apparently excellent comic timing – is the source of many of the show’s best laughs. Now he’s made the move from California to London, hiding his real identity behind the guise of a tweedy university professor, his fish-out-of-water diffidence makes him all the more charming to his new friends. If only they knew what he was really thinking while making polite small talk at Sundry House, the private members club owned by fellow American exile Adam (Lukas Gage, of White Lotus season one fame).
Joe, you see, has a new set of friends to go with his new persona. Don’t worry, they’re just as rich and obnoxious as everyone he’s met since socialite Peach Salinger (yes, a relation – why do you ask?) back in season one. There’s a big problem with this season’s crowd, though: they’re only rich and obnoxious, and the show is all the poorer for it.
When Joe was a young bookseller in New York at the start of this story, he fell in with a bunch of trust fund babies straight out of Gossip Girl, the series that shot Badgley to fame as ‘lonely boy’ Dan Humphreys. In season two Joe escaped to LA, where his circle was green-juice drinking hipsters; when he moved to the suburbs in season three, they were bored mothers and philandering dads.
In London in season four, they’re just dumb, obscenely rich, cartoonishly evil jerks. These people make jokes about “shooting peasants” and complain about criminal “scum” and how the wealthy are “the real victims” in society. When the so-called Eat the Rich Killer starts knocking them off one by one, they’re so self-involved they barely seem to care that their friends are regularly turning up dead. The problem may be that You’s American writers don’t know enough about British high society to construct semi-rounded characters, or perhaps they’ve simply given up on the social satire that made earlier seasons so sharply funny. Either way, it’s a loss.
And then there’s Joe himself. The big twist this season is that the stalker has become the stalkee, with Joe’s ever-changing “you” now an anonymous murderer taunting him by text. It’s an interesting change-up to a story line that was becoming well worn, but it fundamentally alters the character of Joe – and makes him far less interesting in the process. The genius of You, such as it was, lay in its dissection of male romantic entitlement, taking the viewer inside the mind of an obsessive, sociopathic killer who believes himself to be a “nice guy”. He really had to murder all those people – he was doing it for You.
But this season Joe’s recast as the hero of the piece, and something vital in the character has disappeared. He’s lucid, relatively normal; his obsession is finding a crazed killer who’s threatening him, rather than killing in the service of his own romantic obsessions. He’s growing closer to Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), but hasn’t once been tempted to murder on her behalf. What a crying shame. Is there any point to You, the show about a serial killer, if he never garottes anyone, not even once?
There’s still some fun to be had in You. The London locations are a nice change of scene, Joe’s new South Kensington flat is envy-inducing, and Badgley’s narration remains a darkly comic joy. But an actual nice-guy protagonist isn’t what we want from this reliably bonkers show. Hey, You: let Joe be Joe.