Self-acceptance has many forms, not all of them laudable. In the fourth season of You, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) becomes self-aware, withstands a short period of self-loathing, and achieves self-acceptance. It’s horrifying.
While the first half of the London-set season was overly indulgent of overbearing social critiques that detracted from Badgley’s compelling anti-hero, it also laid the groundwork for a thrilling ride through its second half.
When last we spoke I told you confidently—arrogantly, even—that aspiring politician and rags-to-riches poster boy Rhys Montrose (Ed Speleers) had been systematically picking off his irredeemable and fabulously wealthy friends one by one, with Joe working feverishly to thwart him. My apologies to Mr. Montrose, who is not the murderous Robin Hood I had styled him as.
How naive I was to believe that Joe could so easily turn over a new leaf and make the transition from overbearing, sometimes admirable sociopathic murderer into the hero he has at times seemed capable of becoming. It was always far more likely that he would descend into still greater depths of self-delusion and narcissism. And descend he has.
In a fugue state, Joe not only took care of each of “Rhys’s” victims, but extracted himself from the various crime scenes and set his conscious self up to understand himself as the self-denying hero of the story. Rhys is a real person, but not one that Joe has ever bonded with, much less discovered to be a serial killer. In fact, all of his previous conversations with Rhys were a figment of his own imagination meant to satisfy his hero complex.
The hard truths keep coming. Joe has not only laid waste to a cartoonishly unrelatable social circle, but also kidnapped his ex-lover, Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), and left her to rot in an abandoned basement. Naturally, he’s convinced himself that he not only let her go of his own volition, but saved her.
Rhys carries on in the series not as himself, but as Joe’s darker, more selfish side. It’s one that he has long been aware of in a “I really should limit myself to two rather than three glasses of wine” kind of way. But now he is forced to grapple with this in its totality for the very first time.
Speleers is delightful and disturbing in his real role, delivering his lines with equal parts glee and barely repressed anger. “You are full fat, extra sugar, deep fried, f—ing insane, Joe Goldberg,” he tells his other half, before going on to demonstrate as much.
“Can you at least admit they deserved it?” he asks. “Pity me, all the time I had to spend trying to get you to admit that I was doing exactly what you wanted.” When Joe takes up arms in defense of his honor, insisting that he’s not a “cold-blooded psycho,” Rhys assures him he’s right. “No, no, no, of course not. It’s obviously much more complex than that.”
“But,” he adds, “I had to overcompensate for your redemption fetish that went into overdrive.”
It doesn’t take long for Joe to get over learning the true identity of the “Eat the Rich Killer.” A few sighs and pained looks more than suffice for the “inbred meat-suits” he’s put in the ground. But Marienne’s plight is a much more difficult pill to swallow. Not only has Joe relapsed into hurting those he loves the most, but she faces the imminent danger of a painful death by starvation if he can’t recall where he put her.
As Joe learns about himself, so too does his favorite student Nadia (Amy-Leigh Hickman). On a hunch, the whodunit-loving wunderkind begins to investigate her enigmatic professor. The source of her suspicion is not altogether convincing, and the extremes she goes to mollify her concerns sometimes strain credulity. Yet Nadia proves a worthy, quick-witted adversary for the talented Mr. Goldberg, and is even able to right what would have been one his greatest wrongs. Moreover, their charming friendship and frequent favor-trading at the start of the season make for an emotional payoff at its end.
After doing what he can to make amends by trying to save Marienne as well as rid his new muse Kate (Charlotte Ritchie) of her hauntingly corrupt, devil-on-her-shoulder father, Joe resolves to commit suicide. “You won’t,” Rhys tells him.
But for all of Joe’s many faults, he doesn’t lack the courage of his convictions. By this point, he earnestly believes that for as long as he lives, others will needlessly die. He takes the plunge.
Of course, he comes back up, and he comes back up baptized. Kate shows up at the hospital to chastise him—and make him an offer.
“You’ve gone and made me believe in myself. You’ve been quite insistent that I’m not a bad person and everything. In my soul, I know you are good,” she tells him. “I have a proposition for you … we keep each other good.”
“I think you just said the things that I needed to hear someone say to me for a really long time,” he replies, seemingly in earnest.
It’s just a few minutes of screentime later that he’s murdered Nadia’s boyfriend—and his own student—Eddie (Brad Alexander) in cold blood and framed her as the murderer. “I got a second choice,” he says, “And this time I’m utilizing all of me.”
It’s a truly horrifying moment of self-acceptance. It’s utterly fantastic television. And it sets up a new phase of the series.
For the first time, Joe isn’t fighting demons. He’s not telling himself that he serves a higher cause, or that he’s sorry for what he’s done, or that he is, on balance, one of the good ones. He’s pretending to do all of the above in order to hold on to Kate.
The sacrifices he’s made for others in the past were just a less pronounced version of the trick his mind played on him in season 4, a way of compartmentalizing all of the deceit and violence.
From now on, though, there will be no compartmentalizing. In that last, fateful scene with Nadia, it’s his soothing voice that’s most telling, as well as unsettling. “Figures, that you’d be the one,” he says after surveying the incriminating evidence against him on her phone. “Honestly, my greatest pride as a teacher is that I could help you grow,” he adds amusedly before leaving her for a lengthy prison sentence.
The newly reborn Joe Goldberg will likely herald both new heights and disappointments for fans of the series. Badgley as a psychopath unmoored from any delusions of selfless principle is arguably Badgley at his best. To some extent, his portrayal makes the beholder wonder how they ever felt any sympathy for the character at all. Yet that sympathy has to date been crucial to the show. How the writers navigate the absence of this element will be what to watch for moving forward, and the answer might very well be by keeping it via Kate, who’s everything that he’s always believed himself to be: A good person condemned to do bad things by virtue of talent and misfortune. Ritchie is up to the task.
While the season suffered from the featuring of cartoonish characters and a needless attempt to say something about society in early on, the minds behindYou ultimately succeeded in setting up, and then pulling off a twist that was at once shocking and inevitable, while pulling the show in a new, compelling direction.