‘You’: Netflix criminal stirs up sympathy, moral mysteries

[CW: This article mentions stalking and violence.]

I am no stranger to teen drama shows. Every afternoon, shrugging off my backpack and curling up in bed after another dreary day of high school, I would turn on an episode of “Pretty Little Liars” or “The Vampire Diaries” to help get me through my homework (or maybe even avoid it for a time). So, when I first saw the trailer for Netflix’s “You” back in 2018, I was excited when I immediately recognized the familiar faces of Penn Badgley from “Gossip Girl” and Shay Mitchell from “Pretty Little Liars” staring back at me from the glow of my screen. When the first season finally landed on Netflix on Sept. 9, 2018, the series had me in its clutches right from the first episode, especially with its avocation of the modern dangers of social media. Every episode left me springing to the next, and after I finished the first season (in two days of binging), I started scouring the internet for details on the next.

Originally premiering on Lifetime before switching over to Netflix, “You” stars Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager in New York City. The first season focuses on Joe’s obsession with college student and writer Guinevere Beck, played by Elizabeth Lail. What starts as a meet-cute in Joe’s bookstore—the two engage in some light banter while Joe helps Beck find a book—spirals into Joe picking apart her Instagram and Twitter accounts, stalking her every move and even breaking into her apartment, all within the first episode. As the story progresses, breaking-and-entering morphs into murder. Joe does what he thinks he has to do to guarantee a relationship with Beck, killing off her friends when they stood in his way. He even resorts to locking her in a glass box and killing her when she attempts to escape. In spite of his transformation into a serial killer, Joe managed to draw in millions of viewers, including myself. Somehow, I found that I never once wanted Joe to get caught; I related to him, followed him. I didn’t distance myself from him until his behavior escalated into the final murder. Beck’s death jolted me; it was the moment when, as a viewer, I was confronted with the immoral and deluded man he was. I didn’t want him to get away with killing Beck.

Upon the release of the second season on Dec. 26, fans were swept back into the cruel cycle of rooting for a character with murderous impulses. The season opened with the hope that Joe had finally dropped his old habits and was starting a new life for himself in Los Angeles. Of course, Joe crushed this hope by the end of the episode, when it was revealed that not only had he started fixating on another girl, Love Quinn (played by Victoria Pedretti), but he had stolen someone else’s identity—Will Bettelheim—and locked the real Will in a glass box identical to the one from the first season.

Despite Joe disappointing me by returning to his chilling ways, my enjoyment of “You” didn’t falter with the second season. After finishing it, I even recommended the show to my mother. But as a college professor who teaches criminal justice and ethics, she had a different experience. Right after finishing the first episode, she told me that while the premise was interesting and the actors were great, she couldn’t bring herself to continue the show. She simply couldn’t relate to Joe at all, and found herself rooting against him.

Talking with my mother prompted many questions about Joe: Why didn’t I—and numerous other fans of the show—abandon him the minute he started invading Beck’s privacy and inserting himself into her life? Why did we continue to stand by him and watch the show when he began murdering people? Does my mother, who immerses herself in ethics every day, embody the only righteousness in this world?

Badgley himself has openly discussed the questions that the show, and his convoluted character in particular, evoke. “I think what [Joe’s] meant to be is an embodiment and portrait of the parts of us that can’t escape rooting for Joe,” Badgely commented. “In a more just society, we would all see Joe as problematic and not be interested in the show, but that’s not the society we live in” (The New York Times, “What Penn Badgley Wants Us to Learn From ‘You,’’’ 01.24.2019).

Although Badgley has admitted in various interviews that playing a character as warped as Joe was difficult for him, he excels at bringing the nightmare of Joe Goldberg to life. Even taking away the horror movie music and creepy voice-overs, Badgley can easily flip the switch from being a good-hearted bookstore manager to a deranged, murderous stalker. Actual shivers would creep down my spine every time that vein in Badgley’s forehead would pop out, a telltale sign that Joe’s rage or desperation has spiked. While the plot fleshes out Joe’s moral capacities and complicates his position as both protagonist and antagonist, Badgley’s exceptional performance only enhances that conflict, manipulating his body to change personas.

Maybe fans don’t sway in their loyalty to Joe because his perspective dominates the show. We not only get to see Joe’s good deeds—like helping his neighbor’s young son Paco stand up to an abusive stepfather— along with the evil ones, but we also get to hear the thought process and rationale behind Joe’s actions; these factors trap viewers right in Joe’s grasp. If “You” had focused entirely on Beck’s perspective, it’s likely that we wouldn’t care as much about Joe as a character; he would fulfill his role as an antagonist as soon as the audience we see him as a murderous, obsessive stalker.

Joe Goldberg and the second season of “You” once again made me question my judgement of character over the break. How would I know that I’m not talking to a criminal, or that I’m not deluding myself into morally questionable behavior at any given moment? My renewed self-doubt aside, I know one thing for sure: I won’t be able to watch “Gossip Girl” the same way ever again.

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