Penn Badgley’s sociopathic character is a perfect villain precisely because, at times, he feels so familiar
In her column THE BINGE WATCH, TV writer and critic Bolu Babalola takes a deep dive into what’s streaming, and tells you what should be on your watch list. (Spoilers lie ahead for You on Netflix.)
Nice guys are the worst. And by this I mean nice guys who posit themselves as nice; nice guys who make ‘nice’ their defining trait; nice guys who, when you get mad at them, say, “You’re just not used to someone treating you like I treat you”. Nice guys are the worst because ultimately, ‘nice’ is meaningless. Have you ever gone on a date with someone and said, “They’re nice…” without the ellipses? No. If you answered yes, stop lying. There is always a but; a suggestion that ‘nice’ is not enough. It’s a blank canvas, upon which can people can draw a fake personality. It can be projected onto, moulded, carefully cultivated into whatever a person wants to be to you, so that they can get whatever they want from you. ‘Nice’ can be used as a transactional tool, and when blended with toxic masculinity or entitlement, it can be weaponised. This is precisely what the dramedy-thriller (arguably, satirical thriller) You explores.
The Netflix-via-Lifetime series stars ex-Gossip Girl actor Penn Bagdley as Joe, a nice New York bookstore manager. He is handsome, well versed in feminist texts, thoughtful, encouraging and supportive of his partner – wannabe writer, socialite and grad student Guinevere Beck (an excellent manic pixie white girl name, in that it is more interesting than her actual character). He makes her a birthday cake based on one of their in-jokes. He gives her a pep talk after a career low. He is, on the surface, a nice guy; attentive, inoffensive, earnest. Aside, of course, from the tiny fact that he is also a sociopathic stalker who will murder anybody who gets in the way of him and the object of his affection. But hey, what’s a little intense staring at you from the bushes while masturbating if he makes you pancakes in the morning?
Just in case the sarcasm wasn’t clear: I am kidding. It is very bad. As in, please alert the authorities.
Joe becomes instantly enamoured with Beck when she wanders into his store looking for a book. Objectively, it’s a traditional meet-cute. They share an exchange filled with lit-nerd quips and saccharine flirtation, before she leaves. No numbers are exchanged. In a rom-com, it would follow that their paths would cross again by an accident of fate, and a relationship would ensue with a few safe, fixable hiccups – and to Beck, that is exactly what happens. The next time she meets Joe is when he just happens to be there when she falls onto the subway tracks a few weeks later. To Beck, the unassuming, nerdy-but-cute bookstore manager is also her hero, saving her physically and emotionally.
The actual truth, of course, is more sinister. Joe has begun to orchestrate a systematic infiltration into Beck’s life, aided by social media. He sits at the bars she’s at, and walks behind her in the corridors of college. Joe befriends her friends, studies the intricacies of her life, invades her home, and begins to build up a mental profile of her, projecting his desires and fantasies onto her. He builds up a character in his mind that is at odds with who the audience eventually know her to be.
Despite the show’s title, the show is effectively about Joe, and his ardent belief that his dark infatuation is true love. Throughout the series, Joe maintains to us that everything he does is for Beck – his “you” – when in actuality, everything he does is for his own satisfaction, to assuage his own insecurities, and to own her. Joe truly believes he is being nice when he kidnaps and poisons Beck’s (admittedly douchebag) boyfriend. After all, he is saving her from a shallow misogynist who objectifies her! When he imprisons her, Joe rationalises that he is simply giving Beck the low-tech writer’s retreat she’s always wanted. To Joe, this is a rom-com, and slowly, unsettlingly, we find ourselves being entwined in his fabricated idea of romance; and this is where the show’s soapy excellence lies.
“Yes, Joe is a serial killer which (I would hope) isn’t a regular occurrence, but how many guys do we meet that are similar to his every day, Male Feminist™️, ‘I read a Roxane Gay book once’ persona?”
It would be easy for You to present itself as a cut and dry thriller-drama – because the subject matter is black and white. It is serious. Murdering and stalking people is bad; Joe is a violent sociopath. Duh. But by positioning Joe – and not the woman he is stalking – as the protagonist, the insidiousness of his actions is highlighted by hamming it up with his sardonic commentary. If the series followed the point of view of Beck, the show would be completely different – the fear and terror would give us little space for analysis. But the dry humour and irreverence provides us room to breathe and reflect. When Beck and her girls are giggling over The Bachelor, Joe’s inner monologue laments to the audience, “Sometimes, I swear I’m the only real feminist you know.” We snort, but also, we pause. We know that guy – and by we, I mean any millennial woman who dates men. Men who mould themselves into what they think women want, and then judge us for our actual interests; for being living, breathing, animated multi-dimensional people and not caricatures.
You makes its point by staying just on the border of reality. Joe makes harsh, but not altogether incorrect critiques and observations on Beck’s shallow socialite clique, and his protectiveness of his abused young neighbour, Paco, saves the boy from certain harm. Joe is humanised but not softened, sliding easily from a charming, intelligent, caring man into violent stalker. Badgley is perfect at holding the two modes on his face, his expression curdling from sweet and affable into something blood-cooling and breath-hitching in a split second. This is pivotal in creating a believable villain. It would be easy to hate someone who was audaciously evil, who clearly had no grasp of morality. The truth is much more disturbing; monsters can be nice. Joe’s glimpses of light only work to emphasise his darkness, his niceness only bolstering his nefariousness.
The nuance is perhaps the most terrifying part of You. Yes, Joe is a serial killer which (I would hope) isn’t a regular occurrence, but how many guys do we meet that are similar to his every day, Male Feminist™️, “I read a Roxane Gay book once” persona? How many times have you seen a self-proclaimed ‘nice guy’ acting as though he’s entitled to female attention? You uses melodrama to teach us valuable lessons: never date a guy who calls himself a better feminist than a woman. Always be wary of a guy you can only describe as ‘nice’ – because nice is an invisibility cloak, evading interrogation because it is difficult to define, operating in harmony with toxic masculinity. And most of all: always have blinds on your bedroom windows.